By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 30, 2009
As defense attorney for the congressman who stashed the bribe money in his freezer, Robert Trout had an unenviable task. So in his closing arguments Wednesday, Trout adopted a different client: He acted as if all of Washington were on trial.
"We all occupy the gray area -- it's just part of human nature," Trout explained, as if former congressman William Jefferson's proposal to bribe the vice president of Nigeria were an everyday occurrence.
"We're going to make mistakes . . . we may do reckless things," the lawyer continued, as if having $90,000 of the FBI's money in Pillsbury pie crusts in the Louisiana Democrat's house was tantamount to exceeding the speed limit.
To illustrate this curious analogy, Trout displayed a graphic for jurors. On one side of a yellow line, in bold red letters, was the word "CRIME." On the other side of the yellow line were the words "recklessness," "negligence" and "mistakes" -- and a headless man in jacket and tie raising his hands in a shrug.
"The point here is what members of Congress are expected to do in their jobs," Trout told the jurors. "If seeking political help was a crime, you could lock up half of metropolitan Washington, D.C."
He likened Jefferson's work to promote companies in which his family members had stakes to constituent casework -- "something to be expected of our members of Congress." Trying to persuade foreign governments to do deals with those companies? Part of "a congressman's customary use of his office" to boost U.S. businesses. "It is clearly a matter of settled practice for congressmen to pitch products" of American companies.
It was a bit of a stretch to suggest that Jefferson -- caught on tape demanding financial payouts and caught on film taking $100,000 from an FBI informant -- was just doing what other lawmakers do. But it may test just how cynical Americans are about their government. If jurors assume the whole lot of politicians are bought and paid for, then it may indeed seem unfair that prosecutors are singling out this one.
It's a slim reed on which to base a defense, but it's about all Jefferson has. He was offered a plea deal of six years in prison, according to the law enforcement news Web site Ticklethewire.com, but he rejected that out of hand. Now he's facing up to 235 years for the various counts prosecutors have thrown at him.
In truth, the nation's leaders have given the public ample reason for cynicism. News of Sen. John Ensign's affair with an aide (and subsequent payments to her family by his parents) broke just as Jefferson's trial began last month, followed by the Mark Sanford saga and a lawsuit by former congressman Chip Pickering's wife alleging an affair. The Senate ethics committee, meanwhile, has been taking testimony on sweetheart mortgages given to Sens. Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad.
Trout was perfectly happy to admit many times that his client had done "something stupid." He even acknowledged that Jefferson was guilty of "what amounts to ethics violations and the appearance of impropriety." But he said that doesn't mean the congressman did anything illegal -- and that Jefferson had paid a heavy enough price by losing his seat and becoming "the object of a national joke about money in the freezer."
He then pleaded with the jurors not to discriminate against Dollar Bill just because Jefferson had the misfortune of being a member of Congress. "Put aside your personal attitudes about how members of Congress should behave," he coached. "I'm asking you to swim against the tide." Jefferson, he argued, was not one of those big, bad lawmakers; "he is not someone who threw his weight around." His voice catching with emotion, he took a sip of water and then told the jury to acquit his client because "democracy is you."
In fact, Trout held up Jefferson as a better man than many of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill. Jefferson "never offered or promised any earmark," he said, reminding jurors of former senator Ted Stevens's "Bridge to Nowhere." Neither, he said, did Jefferson propose any legislation to aid his business interests. "That's how Jack Abramoff got himself into trouble -- they're not doing that," he said.
No, the money laundering alleged against Jefferson was "a completely legitimate business transaction," and the payouts to him were "a recognition of his success in raising capital." Papers showing his requests for financial stakes for family members? "These are business agendas -- that's what this was all about. It was business."
Implicit in the argument was a belief that jurors would assume it's perfectly legitimate for a lawmaker to use his office to make business deals for his own benefit. "Yes, he relied on staff" for business matters, Trout said. Yes, he and aides "took liberties" with a congressional letterhead and the like. But "what is ethical is not the issue in this case."
At the end, he returned to the all-Washington-is-a-cesspool theme. "I mentioned to you the gray area that we all occupy," he said. In the case of Jefferson and his associates, "all of these people thought they were on the right side of the law, that they were entitled to do what they were doing."
And, after all, if a member of Congress feels entitled to hide FBI cash in the freezer, who is the Justice Department to say he isn't?