- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

“Would you like to look inside the briefcase?” former Rep. William J. Jefferson is asked by an FBI informant on a surveillance tape played for the jury at the Louisiana Democrat’s bribery trial Tuesday.

“No, I would not,” the congressman replies as he takes the briefcase containing $100,000 in cash from the trunk of the informant’s car — providing what the prosecution cites as clear evidence of a criminal act.

Prosecutors say the July 30, 2005, payment was a bribe facilitated by Mr. Jefferson and intended for the vice president of Nigeria. In exchange for the money, American companies hoped to obtain contracts to provide telecommunications service and equipment to that country.

“I hope that’s exactly what the vice president needs to make him work hard for us,” says Lori Mody, a Northern Virginia businesswoman who worked with federal agents to secure the evidence against Mr. Jefferson.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Mr. Jefferson responds as he walks off with the briefcase.

The FBI found most of the cash a few days later during a search of Mr. Jefferson’s D.C. home.

The recording provided the most dramatic moment to date in Mr. Jefferson’s trial, which is in its third week and is likely to last at least three weeks more.

Mr. Jefferson, who served nine terms in Congress before he lost his re-election bid last year, faces bribery, money laundering and other charges listed in a 16-count indictment. Prosecutors in federal court in Alexandria say he received a total of $400,000 in bribes in exchange for promoting telecommunications services and equipment to several West African nations.

Defense attorneys have argued that what prosecutors call bribes were actually legitimate consulting fees paid to companies run by family members of Mr. Jefferson. The defense acknowledges Mr. Jefferson’s involvement may have been unethical, but argues it does not rise to the level of criminality.

Ms. Mody became involved with Mr. Jefferson when she sought to invest in a deal in Nigeria. But she became suspicious of Mr. Jefferson, turned to the FBI and began wearing a wire during meetings with the congressman.

The defense says Ms. Mody is emotionally unstable and that Mr. Jefferson took the money from her so as not to upset her fragile state. They further argue that overzealous FBI agents set up the payment out of a desire to arrest a member of Congress.

Despite her central role in the case, Ms. Mody will not be called to testify, and prosecutors have not said why.

Prosecutors used the testimony of FBI agent Timothy Thibault, who was Ms. Mody’s handler, to enter the recordings into evidence Tuesday. But because of court rules regarding hearsay evidence, Mr. Thibault was able to testify only to the authenticity of the recordings and not their content — something Ms. Mody would have been allowed to do.

Abundantly clear on the recordings is Mr. Jefferson’s reluctance to say anything that clearly acknowledges he is accepting a bribe.

During one recording, he discusses offering “good will” to the Nigerian vice president.

When Ms. Mody presses him on this, Mr. Jefferson demurs.

“You know you shouldn’t talk too much about this ‘good will and that stuff,” Mr. Jefferson says, adding later, “Some things don’t need an explanation.”

After Mr. Jefferson took the briefcase during a subsequent meeting, Ms. Mody told him she hoped he enjoyed it.

“I will,” he responds during one of the recordings. “I like it. I need a briefcase.”

Prosecutors also played a recording of a later phone conversation in which Mr. Jefferson tells Ms. Mody he has given the “African art” to the vice president of Nigeria — though prosecutors say such an exchange never took place.

Mr. Thibault testified that he and another agent interviewed Mr. Jefferson a few days later, before searching his home. Mr. Jefferson denied ever taking a bribe from Ms. Mody, Mr. Thibault said.

Mr. Thibault said the two agents then played the video recording of Mr. Jefferson taking the briefcase from Ms. Mody.

“I better stop talking to you boys,” Mr. Jefferson said next, Mr. Thibault said.

• Ben Conery can be reached at bconery@washingtontimes.com.

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