Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The attorney for William J. Jefferson tackled the “elephant in the room” in opening statements Tuesday, explaining the notorious $90,000 “cold cash” discovered in the former congressman’s freezer as an FBI setup bid. Prosecutors, for their part, painted a portrait of a debt-ridden man selling out the public good.

In his opening speech in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Jefferson attorney Robert Trout addressed the best-known detail in the case - the marked bills found by federal agents in Mr. Jefferson’s freezer wrapped inside Pillsbury Pie Crust boxes. He described the money as the trial’s “elephant in the room.”

He said Mr. Jefferson did not commit bribery because he never passed on the money to its intended recipient - then-Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar - and he accused a Jefferson business partner, who will not be testifying during the trial, of setting up the Louisiana Democrat.

FBI agents “set out to bag a congressman,” Mr. Trout said, claiming the government “wrote the script and directed the action” while finding witnesses to fill the cast and placing Northern Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody in a starring role.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle claimed that at the time Mr. Jefferson and his wife, Andrea, owed more than $100,000 - $62,000 in credit card debts and $40,000 in bounced-check fees and other banking-related penalties. This might have motivated the nine-term congressman, who lost his re-election bid last year, to seek bribes, the prosecution argued.

“This case is about … one of our government’s most powerful officials using his public office for private gain repeatedly,” Mr. Lytle said.

Mr. Jefferson, who represented parts of New Orleans, faces 16 counts of soliciting bribes, money laundering, racketeering and other crimes.

Tuesday’s opening speeches detailed the first bribery case against a current or former member of Congress since the 2002 trial of Rep. James Traficant, Ohio Democrat. Other politicians accused of bribery since, including Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, have pleaded guilty to avoid trials.

Ms. Mody broke open the investigation and is at the center of the defense case. According to court filings, she gave Mr. Jefferson a suitcase stuffed with $100,000 in cash in July 2005, in hopes he would bring it to Nigerian officials as payment for steering business to Ms. Mody.

She approached federal agents after suspecting Mr. Jefferson was ripping her off in some joint business deals, a fact that led Mr. Trout to paint her as a disgruntled and unreliable witness.

The defense attorney said Ms. Mody is “emotionally fragile, unpredictable” and a woman with a habit of “failing to show up for work.”

“She won’t show up here either,” Mr. Trout said in reference to the prosecution’s decision not to call her as a witness - a decision that has not been explained.

The defense argued that the former congressman placed the money in the freezer while he was on vacation to hide it from housekeepers and any intruders. The fact that the agents found the money in Mr. Jefferson’s home rather than at a Potomac, Md., house owned by Mr. Abubakar proves Mr. Jefferson never bribed the Nigerian, the attorney said.

But Mr. Lytle had his own explanation - saying that Mr. Jefferson simply ran out of time to get the money to Mr. Abubakar, who had been vacationing in Bermuda and was in the U.S. for less than a day before returning home.

The defense also indicated that it may accuse federal prosecutors of piling on charges - a strategy with echoes of the Ted Stevens bribery case. One of the obstruction of justice counts, the defense said, rested on nothing more than Mr. Jefferson carrying on his person a fax taken off his machine.

Evidence includes five months of taped conversations between Ms. Mody and Mr. Jefferson that will be played during the monthlong trial for the 12 people and four alternates on the jury.

In these tapes, Mr. Jefferson makes comments that the defense calls “stupid” and “unethical” but not incriminating in regard to accepting the $100,000.

Mr. Trout also told the jury that members of the Jefferson family had financial interests in parts of Africa in which the congressman was advocating business deals.

Also Tuesday, the prosecution called its first witness to the stand. Vernon Jackson pleaded guilty in May 2006 to bribing Mr. Jefferson with more than $400,000 in money and company stock to promote iGate, his broadband technology company, in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon.

Mr. Jackson’s testimony included his networking with Mr. Jefferson, whose African connections he said could promote minority business and bridge the “digital divide,” making technology available to poorer African countries.

It has not been determined whether Mr. Jefferson will take the stand in his own defense.

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