|Jefferson attorneys get time to prepare|
By Bill Walsh
ALEXANDRIA, VA. - A federal judge Friday gave Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, an additional six weeks to prepare for his public corruption trial after his attorneys complained about the large volume of evidence they must review.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III set Feb. 25 as the new date for a trial the Justice Department has estimated could last between three and six weeks. Jefferson's trial on multiple counts of racketeering, fraud and bribery had been slated for Jan. 16.
But his attorneys sought a four-month delay citing the difficulty in combing through more than 100,000 documents handed over from the government along with 90 compact discs and 27 cassettes with sound and video recordings of the congressman's 28 meetings with a government informant.
"We don't believe we can be adequately prepared given the amount of material we are getting," Robert Trout told the court at a hearing Friday morning.
The government had opposed delaying the trial and Ellis said that the Justice Department had "bent over backwards" to provide easily searchable records. The judge said that the three full-time lawyers working for Jefferson should have been ready.
"There has been six months (from the indictment) and that should be enough," Ellis said.
But likely not wanting to provide grounds for an appeal, the judge reluctantly gave Jefferson a portion of the extra time he sought.
The court reprieve could turn into a political liability. The delay pushes the trial six weeks closer to next year's election. Jefferson beat a dozen challengers in 2006, but his subsequent indictment by a federal grand jury, difficulty in raising money and negative publicity surrounding a lengthy criminal trial could severely handicap his chances for winning a 10th term next fall.
Jefferson's office Friday tamped down speculation that the congressman won't run for re-election.
"I haven't heard anything that would indicate to me that he is not," spokeswoman Ashley Wilson said.
Jefferson was indicted in June by a northern Virginia grand jury on charges related to his promotion of a variety of business ventures in West Africa. In the largest of 13 alleged schemes, the government says Jefferson accepted nearly $400,000 and millions of shares in corporate stock from U.S. telecommunications firm iGate Inc. to push for contracts in Nigeria and Ghana.
There is some legal drama expected before the trial gets under way. Ellis has not yet ruled on a Jefferson motion to throw out all of the bribery charges against him on the basis that the congressman's actions were private dealings and not "official acts" as required by the bribery statute.
The judge hinted in court Friday that he is taking the issue seriously. He called it "a very substantial argument."
The motion is the linchpin of the defense's case that the congressman took money but didn't commit bribery.
The government said that letters Jefferson wrote to presidents of African governments, meetings he attended with the Export-Import Bank on behalf of U.S. businesses and trips he took abroad to promote their ventures should be considered "official acts."
The outcome will turn on the judge's interpretation of the meaning of the term. Should Ellis agree with Jefferson's arguments, the government's case will be severely undermined. A ruling is expected soon.
The judge is expected to rule next week on other defense motions to exclude potentially damaging comments made to FBI agents when they raided Jefferson's New Orleans home in 2005. The agents said that after they spelled out the evidence against him, a dejected Jefferson said, "What a waste."
Ellis also is expected to decide whether former congressman and appellate court judge Abner Mikva will be allowed to testify at the trial. The government wants to call Mikva to say that Jefferson's actions amounted to "official acts" under the bribery statute, but the defense argues that testimony from a former judge would be prejudicial to a jury.
In the meantime, Ellis admonished the government not to refer to the potential witness as "Judge Mikva" as it did six times in court filings.
"He will be Mr. Mikva in this courtroom," Ellis said.
Bill Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or (202)¤383-7817.