- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

Consultant or criminal: It is now up to a federal jury in Alexandria to decide which label applies to former Rep. William J. Jefferson.

The prosecution and the defense delivered closing arguments Wednesday after more than five weeks of presenting evidence in the corruption trial of the Louisiana Democrat.

The jury is expected to begin deliberations Thursday after hearing instructions from U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III.

Mr. Jefferson is charged in a 16-count indictment that accuses the former congressman of bribery, money laundering, racketeering and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The charges carry a total of 235 years in prison.

Prosecutors said Wednesday that Mr. Jefferson, who lost a re-election bid last year, took payoffs from American businesses looking to gain access in western African countries, where the nine-term congressman’s connections ran deep.

They said Mr. Jefferson concealed his actions through sham consulting agreements and shell corporations.

“No auditor, no lawyer and no accountant would know these were bribe schemes just by looking at them,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebecca Bellows, who delivered the first part of the prosecution’s closing argument.

The defense called the prosecution’s accusations “absurd” and argued it relied on the dubious testimony of government witnesses, many of whom testified as part of plea agreements or after receiving immunity from authorities.

Defense attorney Robert Trout said his client was involved in the business ventures at issue as a private person, and did not take any official actions as a member of Congress to help the businesses.

Mr. Trout said Mr. Jefferson’s involvement helped businesses owned by his family provide legitimate consulting work. Mr. Jefferson’s actions may have been in an ethical “gray area,” but they weren’t criminal, Mr. Trout said.

“There is a bright line between the gray area and committing a crime,” Mr. Trout said. Prosecutors “are trying to bend the law, to stretch the facts.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Duross, who delivered the second part of the prosecution’s closing argument, said it was the defense’s position that was “absurd.”

“Gray is not the operative color here,” Mr. Duross said. “Green is. Green is the color of the money in his freezer and in his bank account.”

The cash found in Mr. Jefferson’s freezer in 2005 was the most memorable anecdote of the case.

During the trial the jury saw a video that showed Mr. Jefferson taking a briefcase containing $100,000 in cash from an FBI informant. The informant, Northern Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody, had been working with Mr. Jefferson to win a telecommunications contract in Nigeria, but went to the authorities after becoming suspicious about the venture.

Authorities say Mr. Jefferson was supposed to pass the money to the vice president of Nigeria to help ensure the group involving Ms. Mody won the contract. They say Mr. Jefferson would have done so, but was not able to meet with the vice president.

Most of the money was later found stuffed in pie crust boxes in Mr. Jefferson’s freezer.

But the defense said Mr. Jefferson never had any intention of paying the bribe and took the money only to placate Ms. Mody, whom the defense has described as emotionally unstable.

“Make no mistake,” Mr. Trout said, “taking the cash on July 30, 2005, and agreeing to make a payoff to the vice president of Nigeria was not only stupid, it was an exercise in poor judgment.”

Mr. Trout said his client had already paid a steep price for his poor judgment: He lost his political career, and the cash found in the freezer has made Mr. Jefferson something of a national joke.

But it doesn’t make him a criminal, Mr. Trout said.

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