Portraits of Jefferson Diverge Sharply at Trial

Opposing Lawyers Set Stage for Debate Over Official Acts and Responsibilities of Lawmaker

Posted June 16, 2009 at 6:37pm

On the first day of arguments in ex-Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) criminal trial Tuesday, federal prosecutors and defense attorneys offered disparate portraits of the former lawmaker, as well as his family and his business deals.

In their opening argument, prosecutors detailed allegations that Jefferson worked to arrange millions of dollars worth of bribes for his family via an intricate web of business agreements, and collected thousands of dollars in the process.

“This case is about corruption,— said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle, the lead lawyer for the prosecution. “It is a startling and often disheartening account of public corruption, often at the highest levels of our government.—

Jefferson is charged in 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.

But Jefferson has denied wrongdoing, and defense attorney Robert Trout in his opening statement sought to convince the jury that Jefferson had not violated any laws, characterizing an FBI investigation as deeply flawed and questioning many of the witnesses who helped the Justice Department bring its charges.

“William Jefferson did not take a bribe. He did not solicit a bribe. … He is not guilty of any of these charges,— Trout said. Jefferson, who sat with his attorneys, was accompanied in the courtroom by his wife, Andrea Jefferson, and his daughters.

Both sides offered extensive presentations to the jury, each lasting more than an hour.

Federal prosecutors, who spoke to the jury first, utilized a large signboard, printed with the images and names of key individuals in the case, including Jefferson, and also offered a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate various business relationships.

In his presentation, Lytle asserted that Jefferson required companies seeking his official assistance as a Member of Congress to hire “bogus companies— that were “nominally owned and operated by his family— as a cover for the bribes.

“You will hear the Congressman speaking cryptically and referring to things vaguely. … He didn’t want there to be any paper trail that led back to him,— Lytle said, describing wire-tapped conversations between those companies and the former lawmaker that are expected to be presented as evidence during the trial.

Lytle repeatedly referenced the $90,000 in cash found in Jefferson’s home freezer during an August 2005 raid — including displaying a brown leather briefcase the money was originally transported in, as well as showing photographs of the money, later wrapped in aluminum foil and hidden inside various frozen-food containers.

At one point, Lytle described it as “perhaps the most disturbing evidence— against Jefferson.

Those funds were actually marked bills provided by the FBI in a sting operation to Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody, who had invested in iGate, a telecommunications company promoted by Jefferson. Federal prosecutors allege those funds were intended as a bribe to a Nigerian official to assist the telecommunications company’s goals.

“The Congressman knew exactly what he was doing was illegal,— Lytle said.

In his opening remarks, Trout sought a lighter tone, noting the cash has garnered significantly more attention than other aspects of the case. “It almost seems like I should begin with a joke about cold cash or frozen assets,— Trout said.

But Trout turned serious, seeking to dampen the prosecution’s allegations, in part asserting that FBI officials sought to inappropriately “bag a Congressman,— and that Jefferson had not planned to turn over the funds to the Nigerian official.

“No one bribed William Jefferson, and William Jefferson didn’t bribe anyone else,— said Trout, who also disparaged several key witnesses expected to testify for the prosecution. He asserted that the Justice Department pressured those individuals to accuse Jefferson of wrongdoing, under threat of their own indictments.

In addition, Trout sought to dispel allegations that Jefferson’s family’s business dealings were inappropriate. He told jurors that they might “disapprove— of the ex-lawmaker’s business dealings but that Jefferson, nonetheless, did not break any laws.

“William Jefferson did not believe he was running afoul of any duty— he had as a Congressman, Trout said. He later added: “There’s no dispute William Jefferson used who he was … to help businesses in which his family members had an interest. … We are not asking you to approve that.—

Federal prosecutors and the defense team are expected to spar over whether Jefferson did assist the businesses in the course of his regular duties as a lawmaker, including putting two former Members on the stand to testify as expert witnesses on that topic.

Jefferson’s attorneys have argued that he was not acting in his official capacity as a lawmaker when he sought to promote any of the half-dozen businesses named in the case.

“You will hear no evidence … for any earmark, for a tax break, for any appropriation, for any legislation whatsoever,— Trout said.

Trout also emphasized what he called Jefferson’s passion for his family, business and the continent of Africa. “His political career is ruined but he has his family. Oh, how he loves his family,— Trout said, and later added: “He is someone who has entrepreneurial spirit.—

Federal prosecutors alleged that Jefferson sought bribes in an effort to dig his family out of spiraling debts, including not only college tuition for their children, but more than $60,000 in credit card bills in late 2004 and more than $40,000 in bank fees after the family overdrew their checking account more than 70 times.

Following opening arguments, the prosecution called its first witness, former Kentucky businessman Vernon Jackson, who is currently serving a seven-year sentence after pleading guilty to bribery in May 2006. He is expected to continue his testimony today.