Jefferson Case May Set Precedents

Posted June 15, 2009 at 6:39pm

Although he is no longer a Member of the House, the outcome of ex-Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) corruption trial could resonate on Capitol Hill with its potential to create stricter limits for future federal corruption investigations.

Opening arguments in the trial are set to begin today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The former Louisiana lawmaker faces a 16-count indictment that alleges he violated federal law by offering and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to promote business ventures in West African nations.

Jefferson, defeated in his bid for a 10th term in 2008, has denied wrongdoing.

In his defense, Jefferson’s attorneys are expected to argue that the former lawmaker did not violate bribery statutes because his actions were not “official acts,— but rather the actions of an individual pursuing business interests and not an elected official performing official duties.

“It is a crime for a public official to demand or accept something of value in exchange for his official act. But looking beyond the boilerplate, the indictment does not allege that Mr. Jefferson did that,— lead attorney Robert Trout wrote in documents filed in the case in April.

“What can be gleaned from the government’s own allegations is that certain companies seeking to do business in West Africa entered into written contracts with Mr. Jefferson’s family members. … The indictment also alleges that Mr. Jefferson personally took steps to promote those businesses abroad. That is not a bribe scheme.

“There is nothing illegal about a Congressman or his family making money,— the April filing continued. “It is not a crime for a Congressman to own stock or to have a stake in a business venture. It is not a crime for a company to hire a Congressman’s family member. The government chooses to call the contractual arrangements shams, but it will have to introduce the evidence to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt. It will bear the burden of establishing the corrupt intent and the quid pro quo in addition to the element challenged here: the official act.—

In court documents, Jefferson’s attorneys have relied in part on a 2007 decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Valdes v. United States, which legal observers suggest limited the scope of “official acts.—

In that case, a D.C. police detective was charged with accepting bribes for accessing a police database. But the court found the defendant had not violated the bribery statute because he had not affected any government actions.

“The D.C. Circuit explained in Valdes, the bribery statute does not reach every decision a public official makes,— Trout wrote in the April filing.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, predicted that should the jury return a verdict in Jefferson’s favor, essentially echoing the Valdes ruling, it could restrict future federal corruption investigations.

“We might well be setting up a situation where Members of Congress are not prosecutable for selling their office,— Sloan said.

Both federal prosecutors and Jefferson’s defense team are expected to put former Members on the stand to discuss the regular duties of House lawmakers in an effort to demonstrate their respective arguments to the jury.

Former Rep. Matthew McHugh (D-N.Y.) is listed in court documents as an expert witness for the prosecution, while ex-Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) has agreed to appear on Jefferson’s behalf.