William Jefferson's Cool Defense

William Jefferson, with wife Andrea, does a TV interview outside court.
William Jefferson, with wife Andrea, does a TV interview outside court. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"I almost think I should begin with a joke about cold cash or frozen assets," defense lawyer Robert Trout told the jury at the start of his opening statement yesterday.

Probably a good instinct: Trout has little to lose.

His client is William Jefferson, the then-congressman caught on film by the FBI picking up a briefcase full of $100,000 in bribe money in a Pentagon City parking lot. That's the same congressman who was caught days later with 90,000 of those marked dollars wrapped in foil and put in food boxes in the freezer of his home.

As the trial opened at the Alexandria federal courthouse, prosecutors spent 75 minutes laying out their case, but really all they needed to do was show jurors the photo of the contents of Jefferson's freezer: a box of Pillsbury pie crusts (complete with the grinning doughboy), a box of Boca Burgers and stacks of greenbacks.

This left Trout little to work with. Could he say the pie crusts made his client flaky? Or might the Boca Burgers justify a health-food version of the Twinkie Defense?

It nearly came to that.

The money in the freezer? "He was leaving town for the month of August. He was looking to hide the cash . . . so it would not be found by the housekeeper or an intruder," Trout explained.

Payments made to Jefferson by a businessman who pleaded guilty to bribing the congressman? "Kind of a finder's fee," Trout reasoned.

The $100,000 bribe Jefferson had agreed to give the vice president of Nigeria? "An upfront payment."

Jefferson being caught on tape soliciting bribes? His client, Trout said, had consumed "a lot of wine."

You know you're in trouble when your lawyer describes you as sleazy but not technically a criminal. "He used who he was to help businesses in which his family members had an interest," Trout said. "These facts alone are not themselves crimes."

"A lot of what you hear you will disapprove of and find distasteful coming from a member of Congress," Trout readily confessed. "Did he say and do foolish things? . . . Yes, he did." But, the lawyer argued, "he is not charged with a violation of House ethics rules. He is accused of a crime."

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