By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Former congressman William J. Jefferson was "stupid" and exercised "awful judgment" in stashing $90,000 in potential bribe money in his freezer, but his actions did not constitute a crime, defense attorneys said Wednesday during closing arguments in the Louisiana Democrat's corruption trial.
Prosecutors painted the $90,000 -- famously found by the FBI tucked inside frozen food containers -- in a starkly different light. They said the cold cash was intended to bribe the vice president of Nigeria, part of a pattern of illicit acts in which Jefferson shook down business partners for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money while offering bribes of his own.
"This case is about corruption, about a congressman who put himself and his office and his official position up for sale," Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebeca Bellows told jurors in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. "Jefferson broke the law, and he broke his compact with the people of Louisiana and the people of the United States."
Jefferson is charged with 16 counts, including bribery, racketeering and money laundering. Prosecutors said Wednesday that he used his position to direct about $400,000 in bribes, relating to business ventures he helped set up in Africa, to companies he set up in family members' names. Defense attorneys said the business dealings might have been unethical but were not criminal because they were not part of his official congressional duties.
"The government, the prosecutors, tried to push the facts and turn what amounted to ethics violations into a crime," defense attorney Robert P. Trout said. "They're trying to bend the law, stretch the facts to turn what is not a crime into a crime."
With the seven-week trial done, the eight-woman, four-man jury is expected to begin deliberating Thursday. Jefferson, 62, could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted. He lost reelection in December.
The high-profile case capped a long investigation that is best known for the money in the freezer. Wrapped in foil and stashed in Boca Burger and Pillsbury piecrust boxes, it was uncovered during a 2005 raid of Jefferson's Capitol Hill home.
Prosecutors said the money was to bribe then-Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar to secure his help with a telecommunications venture in that country. They played videotapes of Jefferson meeting with a business associate-turned-FBI informant, who gave him the funds in marked bills. The money was never delivered, prosecutors said, only because Jefferson couldn't do so before the FBI found it.
"He was the one who suggested the cash," Bellows said. "His failure to deliver the money . . . in no way absolves him."
Trout acknowledged that Jefferson told the informant, Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody, that he would pay the bribe, but that was only "to give her peace of mind." It wasn't a crime, Trout said, because Jefferson never intended to deliver the funds.
"Make no mistake: Taking cash and agreeing to make a payoff to the vice president of Nigeria was not only stupid, it was an exercise in awful judgment," Trout told jurors. "He has paid a very steep price. His political career has been ruined, and his reputation has been ruined." He added that the publicity has made Jefferson basically "a national joke."