One of the key corruption charges against former Rep. William J. Jefferson may turn largely on the actual reason that nearly $100,000 ended up in his freezer.
Prosecutors say the cash is evidence of a bribe the Louisiana Democrat planned to pay to the then-vice president of Nigeria to help secure a telecommunications contract. Defense attorneys say the nine-term congressman never intended to bribe Vice President Atiku Abubakar and simply took the money to placate an overaggressive FBI informant.
The purported bribe scheme is part of the 16-count corruption indictment that is now in the hands of a jury after a six-week-long trial in federal court in Alexandria.
The jury retired Thursday night without reaching a verdict.
Mr. Jefferson, who lost a re-election bid last year, faces charges of bribery, money laundering and racketeering. Though the charges he faces carry 235 years in prison, federal sentencing guidelines will call for a much shorter sentence should Mr. Jefferson be convicted.
Prosecutors say Mr. Jefferson took bribes in exchange for helping American businesspeople involved in oil, sugar and telecommunications ventures gain access to western African countries. Mr. Jefferson tried to conceal the bribes through shell companies and sham consulting agreements, prosecutors said.
Defense attorneys say the companies and consulting contracts were legitimate and involved members of Mr. Jefferson’s family. Mr. Jefferson was simply helping his family in arrangements that may have been ethically dubious, but certainly weren’t criminal, his lawyers argued.
The purported scheme to bribe Mr. Abubakar led to prosecutors charging Mr. Jefferson with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He is the first public official to be charged under that act.
On Thursday, Judge T.S. Ellis III gave the jury instructions on how to apply the law to the evidence they heard during the trial.
The judge said the jury could convict Mr. Jefferson of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act even though the Nigerian leader never actually received the bribe.
“It’s not necessary that the payment actually took place,” Judge Ellis said. “It is the offer or authorization that completes the crime.”
That leaves it to the jury to decide whether Mr. Jefferson was a willing participant, or whether he was in fact simply humoring an informant, whom defense attorneys have described as emotionally fragile.
During the trial, prosecutors played audio and video recordings of conversations between Mr. Jefferson and Lori Mody, a Northern Virginia businesswoman who had been involved in the venture to win the telecommunications contract in Nigeria, but went to the FBI after becoming suspicious about the entire arrangement.
In one video from July 30, 2005, Ms. Mody, who was wearing a wire for the FBI, gave Mr. Jefferson a briefcase containing $100,000. The exchange took place outside the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City.
Prosecutors argued Mr. Jefferson initiated the scheme, telling Ms. Mody that Mr. Abubakar is “really corrupt” and that “at the end of the day, the vice president is the one that’s going to make this deal go.”
But defense attorneys countered that it was Ms. Mody, at the behest of FBI agents obsessed with bringing down a member of Congress, who pushed the idea of the bribe. Defense attorney Robert Trout said Mr. Jefferson took the money to make sure the bribe didn’t actually take place.
Mr. Trout said Mr. Jefferson had no plans to pass the money to Mr. Abubakar, while prosecutors say he would have but the vice president left the U.S. before Mr. Jefferson had a chance to bribe him.
Either way, most of the money was later found stuffed in pie boxes inside a freezer in Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol Hill home.