Jef­fer­son’s de­fense ex­plains ‘cold cash’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY KRISTI JOUR­DAN

The at­tor­ney for William J. Jef­fer­son tack­led the “ele­phant in the room” in open­ing state­ments on June 16, ex­plain­ing the no­to­ri­ous $90,000 “cold cash” dis­cov­ered in the for­mer con­gress­man’s freezer as an FBI setup bid. Pros­e­cu­tors, for their part, painted a por­trait of a debt-rid­den man sell­ing out the pub­lic good.

In his open­ing speech in U.S. District Court in Alexan­dria, Va., Jef­fer­son at­tor­ney Robert Trout ad­dressed the best-known de­tail in the case — the marked bills found by fed­eral agents in Mr. Jef­fer­son’s freezer wrapped in­side Pills­bury Pie Crust boxes. He de­scribed the money as the trial’s “ele­phant in the room.”

He said Mr. Jef­fer­son did not com­mit bribery be­cause he never passed on the money to its in­tended re­cip­i­ent — then-Nige­rian Vice Pres­i­dent Atiku Abubakar — and he ac­cused a Jef­fer­son busi­ness part­ner, who will not be tes­ti­fy­ing dur­ing the trial, of set­ting up the Louisiana Demo­crat.

FBI agents “set out to bag a con­gress­man,” Mr. Trout said, claim­ing the gov­ern­ment “wrote the script and di­rected the action” while find­ing wit­nesses to fill the cast and plac­ing North­ern Vir­ginia busi­ness­woman Lori Mody in a star­ring role.

But As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Mark Ly­tle claimed that at the time Mr. Jef­fer­son and his wife, An­drea, owed more than $100,000 — $62,000 in credit card debts and $40,000 in bounced­check fees and other bank­ing-re­lated penal­ties. This might have mo­ti­vated the nine-term con­gress­man, who lost his re-elec­tion bid last year, to seek bribes, the prose­cu­tion ar­gued.

“This case is about [. . . ] one of our gov­ern­ment’s most power- ful of­fi­cials us­ing his pub­lic of­fice for pri­vate gain re­peat­edly,” Mr. Ly­tle said.

Mr. Jef­fer­son, who rep­re­sented parts of New Orleans, faces 16 counts of so­lic­it­ing bribes, money laun­der­ing, rack­e­teer­ing and other crimes.

The open­ing speeches detailed the first bribery case against a cur­rent or for­mer mem­ber of Congress since the 2002 trial of Rep. James Traf­i­cant, Ohio Demo­crat. Other politi­cians ac­cused of bribery since, in­clud­ing Rep. Randy “Duke” Cun­ning­ham, Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can, have pleaded guilty to avoid tri­als.

Ms. Mody broke open the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and is at the cen­ter of the de­fense case. Ac­cord­ing to court fil­ings, she gave Mr. Jef­fer­son a suit­case stuffed with $100,000 in cash in July 2005, in hopes he would bring it to Nige­rian of­fi­cials as pay­ment for steer­ing busi­ness to Ms. Mody.

She ap­proached fed­eral agents af­ter sus­pect­ing Mr. Jef­fer­son was rip­ping her off in some joint busi­ness deals, a fact that led Mr. Trout to paint her as a dis­grun­tled and un­re­li­able wit­ness.

The de­fense at­tor­ney said Ms. Mody is “emo­tion­ally frag­ile, un­pre­dictable” and a woman with a habit of “fail­ing to show up for work.”

“She won’t show up here ei­ther,” Mr. Trout said in ref­er­ence to the prose­cu­tion’s de­ci­sion not to call her as a wit­ness — a de­ci­sion that has not been ex­plained.

The de­fense ar­gued that the for­mer con­gress­man placed the money in the freezer while he was on va­ca­tion to hide it from house­keep­ers and any in­trud­ers. The fact that the agents found the money in Mr. Jef­fer­son’s home rather than at a Po­tomac, Md., house owned by Mr. Abubakar proves Mr. Jef­fer­son never bribed the Nige­rian, the at­tor- ney said.

But Mr. Ly­tle had his own ex­pla­na­tion — say­ing that Mr. Jef­fer­son sim­ply ran out of time to get the money to Mr. Abubakar, who had been va­ca­tion­ing in Ber­muda and was in the U.S. for less than a day be­fore re­turn­ing home.

The de­fense also in­di­cated that it may ac­cuse fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors of pil­ing on charges — a strat­egy with echoes of the Ted Stevens bribery case. One of the ob­struc­tion of jus­tice counts, the de­fense said, rested on noth­ing more than Mr. Jef­fer­son car­ry­ing on his per­son a fax taken off his ma­chine.

Ev­i­dence in­cludes five months of taped con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Ms. Mody and Mr. Jef­fer­son that will be played dur­ing the month­long trial for the 12 peo­ple and four al­ter­nates on the jury.

In th­ese tapes, Mr. Jef­fer­son makes com­ments that the de­fense calls “stupid” and “un­eth­i­cal” but not in­crim­i­nat­ing in re­gard to ac­cept­ing the $100,000.

Mr. Trout also told the jury that mem­bers of the Jef­fer­son fam­ily had fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests in parts of Africa in which the con­gress­man was ad­vo­cat­ing busi­ness deals.

Also on June 16, the prose­cu­tion called its first wit­ness to the stand. Ver­non Jack­son pleaded guilty in May 2006 to brib­ing Mr. Jef­fer­son with more than $400,000 in money and com­pany stock to pro­mote iGate, his broad­band tech­nol­ogy com­pany, in Nige­ria, Ghana and Cameroon.

Mr. Jack­son’s tes­ti­mony in­cluded his net­work­ing with Mr. Jef­fer­son, whose African con­nec­tions he said could pro­mote mi­nor­ity busi­ness and bridge the “dig­i­tal di­vide,” mak­ing tech­nol­ogy avail­able to poorer African coun­tries.

It has not been de­ter­mined whether Mr. Jef­fer­son will take the stand in his own de­fense.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

He can ex­plain that: For­mer Demo­cratic Louisiana Con­gress­man William Jef­fer­son, cen­ter, re­turns to U.S. District Cour t in Alexan­dria, Va. June 16 with mem­bers of his de­fense team. Mr. Jef­fer­son is fac­ing mul­ti­ple charges in­clud­ing briber y.

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