- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

In the end, it wasn’t the cash in the freezer.

But a jury of eight women and four men decided after five days of deliberation that former Rep. William J. Jefferson was a criminal anyway.

The approximately $90,000 found four years ago this week stuffed into pie-crust and veggie-burger boxes emerged as the most notorious detail of the Louisiana Democrat’s corruption trial, but Jefferson was acquitted of the charge involving the freezer money and four other counts.

Nevertheless, Jefferson was found guilty on 11 of the 16 public-corruption charges, including bribery, money laundering and racketeering.

The jury agreed with prosecutors that Jefferson, 62, took cash and gifts in exchange for helping American business people involved in oil, sugar and telecommunications ventures gain access to West African countries. Jefferson tried to conceal the bribes through shell companies and sham consulting agreements, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said the freezer money in Jefferson’s Capitol Hill home was part of one such arrangement. They said an FBI informant gave Jefferson the cash with the understanding that the lawmaker would use it to bribe the vice president of Nigeria.

Jefferson never passed on the money to Akita Abubakar, which the defense said proved that no bribe occurred and he therefore did not violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. If the jury hadn’t acquitted him, Jefferson would have been the first U.S. lawmaker convicted under that law.

“I don’t think the case had a defining moment,” U.S. Attorney Dana Boente said, adding that it would be difficult to know exactly why the jury did not convict Jefferson over the notorious freezer money.

The defense had its own explanation.

“We don’t think they proved that part of the case. We don’t think they proved any part of the case,” defense attorney Robert Trout told a group of reporters gathered outside the federal courthouse in Alexandria.

Mr. Trout said the New Orleans Democrat, who lost his re-election bid in November, would appeal his convictions.

Jefferson is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 30. The charges carry up to 150 years in prison, but federal sentencing guidelines make that extremely unlikely in this case. Prosecutors said Wednesday that the guidelines could suggest that Jefferson be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, though the defense team will seek a lighter penalty.

“He sold his office, now he will face the price of that,” said Joseph Persichini, the head of the FBI’s Washington field office. “He sold his office for the least common denominator of what public service is about: personal wealth.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle asked Judge T.S. Ellis III to jail Jefferson immediately, arguing that because the sentence could effectively amount to a life term and Jefferson had political ties to West African governments, he represented a major flight risk.

The judge disagreed.

“The defendant has strong ties here and no criminal record,” Judge Ellis said. “In these circumstances, I don’t see him as a serious risk of flight.”

When word came shortly after 5 p.m. that the jury had reached a verdict, Jefferson walked into the courtroom clenching his jaw and took his seat with his attorneys. As the jurors walked in, none looked at Jefferson, though he intently studied their faces. And when the verdicts were read, the former lawmaker stood stone-faced.

During a post-verdict sidebar among Judge Ellis and the two sides’ attorneys, Jefferson went to the bench where his wife and two of his five adult daughters were sitting wearing grim expressions, draped his arm around the side of the bench, and stared blankly ahead.

Jefferson must return to the courthouse Thursday as prosecutors seek to seize more than $450,000 in assets that the government says are the proceeds of his corruption schemes. The jury will decide the forfeiture issue, and thus was not dismissed and not free to talk to reporters about the verdict.

Judge Ellis strongly suggested that jury members not speak to reporters even after they are dismissed, in the interests of the integrity of future jury deliberations.

Besides the freezer money charge, the Louisiana Democrat was acquitted on three counts of theft of honest services, and one count of obstruction of justice.

Most of the eight weeks the trial took place at federal court in Alexandria involved the government presenting its case; the defense took less than a day to cast doubt on the credibility of a couple of witnesses by rebutting a few key details.

Prosecutors accused Jefferson of hiding bribes by funneling money disguised as consulting fees through sham companies controlled by his wife and brother. Jefferson was heard explaining in one recording, played by his attorneys, that avoiding the appearance of impropriety requires that his name not appear on any deals.

Jefferson’s attorneys argued that the companies and consulting contracts were legitimate and that Jefferson was simply helping his family in arrangements that may have been ethically dubious, but weren’t criminal.

In a statement, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said the verdict “confirms what CREW has known to be true all along, former Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-LA) conduct was not merely shady, as his attorneys argued, but was downright illegal.”

“Accepting Mr. Jefferson’s argument that requiring those who asked him to use his official position to facilitate deals in Africa to cut him in on those deals was not bribery would have left members of Congress free to sell their services to the highest bidder,” the statement said.

But ironically, it’s the cold, hard cash that people likely will remember best. Prosecutors said Jefferson took the freezer cash from an FBI informant and planned to use the money to bribe Mr. Abubakar to help secure a telecommunications contract.

Defense attorneys said their client never intended to bribe the African leader and simply took the money to placate Lori Mody, an overaggressive FBI informant whom they described as emotionally unstable, and who did not testify at the trial.

As for the man at the center of the case, he stood next to his attorney during the early-evening press conference but said little.

“I’m holding up” was all Jefferson said. Then he smiled - the first display of emotion he had shown all day.

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