It has become known as the case of the congressman with cash in the freezer.
And as jury selection begins Tuesday in the corruption case of former Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, the cold cash will continue to loom large. To make sure the publicity hasn’t created prejudice against Mr. Jefferson, Judge T.S. Ellis III agreed with a defense request to ask potential jurors whether they have heard the infamous detail.
But the case against Mr. Jefferson, who lost his election bid for a 10th term last year, likely will come down to a more nuanced legal point: whether the accusations against him amount to bribery.
Jury selection is expected to take several days, and the trial is expected to last up to six weeks.
Prosecutors say Mr. Jefferson took bribes in exchange for promoting telecommunications services and equipment to several West African nations.
Part of the evidence that prosecutors plan to present is a videotape they say shows Mr. Jefferson accepting a $100,000 bribe from a businesswoman as part of an FBI sting operation. The businesswoman, Lori Mody, is likely to be one of the star witnesses against Mr. Jefferson. Authorities say Mr. Jefferson told her that she would need to give him $500,000 to make sure her company received contracts in Nigeria.
The FBI said $90,000 of the money Miss Mody gave Mr. Jefferson was found wrapped in aluminum foil in the freezer of his Washington home.
Mr. Jefferson has maintained his innocence since he was indicted in 2007 and vowed to fight the charges, which could send him to prison for decades.
His attorney, Robert P. Trout, didn’t return a message seeking comment Monday, but his pretrial filings hint at potential defenses.
“The indictment lodged against Congressman Jefferson speaks in terms of a number of criminal offenses, but in essence, it is about one thing: bribery,” Mr. Trout wrote in a motion to dismiss the case that was denied. “And the fundamental problem with the government’s case is that there is no bribery.”
Mr. Trout argued that the Justice Department has failed to show the offer or solicitation of something of value in exchange for an “official act,” an essential element of bribery.
But Michael Weinstein, a former Justice Department trial lawyer, said the defense may have a hard time making the case be about anything other than the money in the freezer.
“It’s difficult to imagine why someone would keep so much money in a freezer,” Mr. Weinstein said. “If the defendant testifies, what will he say is the reason why the money is in the freezer? And it’s a real question.”
While Mr. Jefferson’s attorneys work to distance their client from the cash in the freezer, Mr. Jefferson’s brother is happy to bring it up as part of his separate corruption case.
On Monday, Mose Jefferson’s attorney asked that a judge dismiss charges stemming from accusations that his client and others stole from nonprofit organizations in New Orleans. Defense attorney Arthur A. Lemann III wrote in a motion to dismiss that the charges against Mose Jefferson are politically motivated and “seek to ride on the high tide of the public outrage over the cold cash found in brother William’s freezer.”
William J. Jefferson’s trial comes as Justice Department prosecutors have come under increased scrutiny when bringing cases against public officials.
The Justice Department recently has endured one of its most embarrassing episodes involving the prosecution of an elected official - the botched false-statement prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican.
In that case, the Justice Department ultimately dropped the case because prosecutors withheld evidence and may have allowed its star witness to lie on the stand. Six prosecutors involved in the case are now under criminal investigation.
But Mr. Stevens’ case was handled by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, while Mr. Jefferson’s case is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alexandria with assistance from a lawyer from the Justice Department’s fraud unit.
“If Public Integrity was involved, certainly the [Jefferson] defense could have had a field day with” the Stevens case, Mr. Weinstein said.