Corruption Trial of Ex-Rep. Jefferson Begins
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Federal prosecutors laid out their bribery case against former U.S. representative William J. Jefferson yesterday, telling jurors that he squeezed hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from people who sought his help, while the defense said that Jefferson might have committed unethical acts but that they were not illegal.
"A lot of what you hear you will disapprove of," said defense attorney Robert P. Trout, who acknowledged that Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, benefited from business deals he helped broker in Africa.
"But he's not charged with a violation of House ethics rules. He is accused of a crime," Trout said in his opening statement in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
Jefferson, 62, has been charged with 16 counts, including bribery, racketeering, obstruction of justice and money laundering. The case involves business ventures in seven West African nations -- telecommunications deals in Nigeria and Ghana, oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea and waste-recycling systems in Nigeria.
The FBI raided Jefferson's Capitol Hill home in 2005 and famously found $90,000 wrapped in foil and stuffed in food containers in a freezer. The money was supposedly going to then-Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar as a bribe to facilitate a business deal.
Prosecutors showed the jury pictures of frozen food containers -- for Boca Burgers and Pillsbury pie crust -- in which the money was stashed.
"It is a startling and often disheartening account of public corruption at the highest level of our government," said prosecutor Mark Lytle, who asked, "How did we get to the point where a sitting U.S. congressman had $90,000 hidden and concealed in his freezer?"
Trout told the jury that the money in the freezer had received so much publicity that he contemplated opening his statement with "a joke about the cold cash."
Instead, he offered this explanation: "He was looking to hide the cash . . . so it would not be found by the housekeeper or an intruder."
He said Jefferson is the victim of an FBI sting. "They set out to bag a congressman," Trout said.
Lori Mody, a Jefferson business associate who became an FBI informant, wore a recording device when she handed Jefferson $100,000, which he said he would give to Abubakar to solidify a business deal. Most of the marked bills ended up in the freezer.
Prosecutors said that the bribe was Jefferson's idea and that he committed a crime even though the money had not been handed over. In a recorded conversation, he lied to Mody and told her that he had delivered the "African Art," using a code term for the money, according to both the prosecution and the defense.