Jefferson Seeks to Dismiss Bribery Charges
Saturday, October 13, 2007
The bribery charges against Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), who was videotaped accepting $100,000 in cash, should be dismissed because such an act is technically closer to influence-peddling, defense argued yesterday in an Alexandria courtroom.
Jefferson's attorneys made no admission that he engaged in improper conduct, but one, Amy Jackson, argued that even if the government's allegations are true, they do not constitute bribery under federal law.
"We think using influence is not a bribe," Jackson told U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III in seeking to have some of the charges dismissed.
Prosecutors scoffed at the argument, and Ellis seemed skeptical. He offered several hypothetical situations that he likened to the conduct alleged in Jefferson's case and questioned whether such situations do not amount to bribery.
Jackson maintained that federal law defines bribery as receiving payment for an official act. Congress spells out influence-peddling as improper in its ethics rules but neglects to do so specifically under the bribery statute, she said.
If Jefferson had taken money in exchange for sponsoring legislation or voting a particular way on a specific bill, it would have constituted a bribe, Jackson said. But she contended that the misdeeds prosecutors allege -- helping to broker business deals in Africa in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments -- fall outside that definition.
"We must apply the law as it is written, not as the Department of Justice wants it to be read or . . . not even as a common-sense interpretation of right or wrong might think it should be read," she said.
Prosecutor Mark Lytle cited several legal precedents that he said differ with the defense's interpretation, and he said Jefferson's efforts to secure business deals qualify as abuse of his official duties because they helped only those constituents who paid him money.
The 16-count indictment alleges 11 separate schemes in which Jefferson is said to have used his influence as co-chairman of the Africa Investment and Trade Caucus to broker deals in Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and other African nations.
Ellis did not rule on the defense motion to dismiss some of the counts in the indictment, which alleges that Jefferson received more than $500,000 in bribes and demanded millions more between 2000 and 2005.
Defense lawyers are challenging much of the evidence against Jefferson, but they have not sought to suppress the most notorious piece: the videotape of Jefferson taking a $100,000 cash payment from a cooperating witness. During a raid on the congressman's Washington home, $90,000 of the money was recovered from his freezer.
The nine-term congressman attended yesterday's hearing but did not speak, and he did not comment afterward.