By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Defense attorneys said Jefferson agreed to the bribe in an effort to appease Mody, a wealthy businesswoman. They said Mody was acting like a "damsel in distress" when she suggested that Jefferson bribe the vice president.
"Lori Mody was emotionally fragile," Trout said, "and she played on that. He was trying to respond to her needs . . . and so he does something really stupid. He goes along with it. . . . The evidence will make clear he was not going to bribe the vice president of Nigeria."
Prosecutors said they would play the recorded conversations for the jury. Lytle previously told Judge T.S. Ellis III that he would not call Mody to testify in the case but did not offer an explanation.
Jefferson associates Vernon L. Jackson, owner of Kentucky technology firm iGate, and Brett Pfeffer, a former congressional aide, pleaded guilty in 2006 to bribery and are serving time in prison.
Jackson was called as the government's first witness yesterday, and he is expected to testify again today.
According to prosecutors, Jackson will testify that Jefferson used his resources and stature as a congressman to help iGate set up business ventures and, in exchange, instructed Jackson to send payments to companies owned by Jefferson's wife and children.
Prosecutors said Jefferson's motivation for soliciting illegal payments was that he and his wife were living beyond their means and had racked up $62,000 in credit card debt and more than $40,000 in fees and penalties for overdrafts on their bank accounts.
As part of the investigation, the FBI searched Jefferson's office, the first time federal officers raided a congressional office.
Jefferson, a Harvard Law School graduate, was reelected while under investigation, but he lost his seat in December to Anh "Joseph" Cao (R), the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress.
It is unclear whether Jefferson will testify at his trial, which is expected to last up to six weeks.