Jefferson Jury Hears Final Arguments

Posted July 29, 2009 at 6:37pm

In a final attempt to sway jurors in the criminal trial of ex-Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), federal prosecutors and the defense attorney reiterated their starkly different portrayals of the former House Member in closing arguments Wednesday.

While federal prosecutors offered allegations that Jefferson used a complex web of business deals to solicit bribes and skirt public scrutiny, the defense attacked the FBI as overzealous and accused the Justice Department of stretching the law to fit its case.

Jefferson is charged in a 16-count indictment with violating federal law for allegedly offering and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to promote business ventures in West African nations.

“Congressman Jefferson not only sold his office, but he wanted to make sure he got top dollar for it,— Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebeca Bellows said in her two-hour closing statement. “It’s time at long last to bring Congressman Jefferson to justice.—

Federal prosecutors allege Jefferson arranged for bribes from businesses seeking his assistance as a lawmaker and set up consulting firms Bellows called “shells, shams, paper vehicles— to allow his family members to accept the funds.

The firms’ “sole reason for existence is to paper over a corrupt deal,— Bellows alleged.

But defense attorney Robert Trout asserted Jefferson’s business dealings did not violate federal laws, while acknowledging he may have violated House rules.

“There is a difference between a gray area and committing a crime,— Trout said. He illustrated his point with a simple graphic featuring the words “ethics violations, appearance of impropriety, recklessness, negligence, mistakes— floating beneath a bright yellow line denoting criminal activity.

Trout charged FBI agents and federal prosecutors with exaggerating charges against Jefferson to pursue the then-lawmaker.

“They can make something that is not criminal into a crime. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s power,— Trout said. He repeated that theme several times during his two-and-a-half-hour statement. He later added: “They had a mission.—

The defense also sought to diminish the testimony of numerous witnesses offered by the prosecutors over a five-week period, deriding many of the witnesses for accepting plea agreements from prosecutors and accusing them of providing testimony designed to favor the government’s allegations.

Trout characterized one witness, Kentucky businessman Vernon Jackson, who is serving a jail term after pleading guilty to bribing Jefferson, as a “blowhard.—

Trout also sought to address one of the key images from the trial: photos of more than $90,000 in cash FBI agents seized from a freezer during a 2005 raid of Jefferson’s D.C. home.

The defense attorney stated that while Jefferson did accept the cash from an FBI informant, he never intended to use it to bribe a top-ranking Nigerian official, as alleged in the indictment.

Trout argued that Jefferson accepted the funds to assuage a business associate but did not plan to hand over the cash. Trout called the decision to take the money “not only stupid, it was an exercise in awful judgment … and he has paid a very steep price.—

In a half-hour rebuttal late Wednesday afternoon, federal prosecutor Charles Duross defended the government’s investigation: “The Congressman was not set up by the FBI. The Congressman was caught by the FBI.—

The jury is scheduled to reconvene Thursday morning, and federal judge T.S. Ellis will provide the panel of eight women and four men with instructions for their deliberations, which could begin as early as this afternoon.