Sugar company paid Mose Jefferson 4% cut
by Jonathan Tilove and Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Thursday July 16, 2009, 9:46 PM
ALEXANDRIA -- The president of Arkel Sugar testified Thursday at the corruption trial of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, that the company hired the congressman's brother as a consultant on a Nigerian sugar project for 4 percent of the profits, but the only time she ever heard from Mose Jefferson was when he'd send an invoice asking to get paid.
Deborah J. Haggard, who was vice president of the Baton Rouge company in 2001 at the time the deal with Mose Jefferson was struck, said she was uneasy with the arrangement from the start.
"I think it didn't sound exactly right, " said Haggard, who said she asked W. Bradley Kimbrough Jr., then president of Arkel Sugar and now deceased, "What are we doing?"
Kimbrough's reply, Haggard recalled Thursday: "Just do it, Debbie. Just do what I say."
Haggard testified that Mose Jefferson received three payments on the sugar deal -- $7,489, $3,436 and $10,427 -- though that deal Haggard said, "fell by the wayside."
In previous testimony at the trial, George Knost, the president of Arkel International, of which Arkel Sugar is a part, said that after an initial meeting about the sugar plant in 2000, William Jefferson told him in the parking lot of the company's Baton Rouge office that Arkel would need to hire Mose Jefferson as a consultant.
Haggard testified that it was clear that it was not Mose Jefferson's help that Arkel wanted and needed, but the congressman's.
But in her cross-examination of Haggard, defense attorney Gloria Solomon sought to portray the payments to Mose Jefferson as similar to a finder's fee. In his testimony, Knost said that it was Mose Jefferson who arrived at the Baton Rouge meeting in 2000 with the governor of Nigeria's Jigawa State, which was going to partner with Arkel in creating the sugar plant there. Haggard's testimony came on a day in which the jury also heard the expert testimony of former Rep. Matthew McHugh, a Democrat from upstate New York who served in Congress from 1975 to 1992.
McHugh testified on what constitutes constituent service and official congressional acts.
Throughout its 16-count indictment against Jefferson, the government contends that Jefferson misused his office by committing official acts to promote business deals in which members of his family had a financial interest.
Indeed, prosecutors contend, in the Arkel case and others, the congressman made it plain that giving his family a piece of the action was the price for getting his help in pursuing business deals in West Africa, where the congressman was among the most knowledgeable and influential members of Congress. For that, the congressman has been charged with soliciting bribes.
The defense contends that when Jefferson was working to advance these deals he was not acting in his capacity as a member of Congress, and thus was not liable under the bribery statute. As Knost testified Monday that Jefferson assured him in 2002 that as a Harvard-educated lawyer he believed his involvement with international business deals was legal as long as he didn't legislate on those projects.
But, under prosecution questioning, McHugh drew a broader picture of what constitutes a U.S. representative's official actions.
McHugh, now retired, said that constituent service was not necessarily limited to helping people actually living in a member of Congress' district, but could include helping those, including businesses, who approach a member of Congress because of that member's particular expertise, influence or interest on a subject. For Jefferson that would include trade -- he served on the relevant Ways and Means subcommittee -- and Africa, where he chaired both the Congressional Nigeria Caucus and Africa Trade and Investment Caucus.
McHugh also testified that while it was possible for a member of Congress to mix the personal and the official on trips abroad, if members of Congress use their office to "facilitate" meetings with officials, that would constitute an official act.
Under cross-examination by Amy Jackson, another member of Jefferson's defense team, McHugh acknowledged that it isn't a regular occurrence for members of Congress to promote businesses with foreign leaders. It's certainly not as commonplace, he said, as doing constituent service for a resident of a member's district seeking help to secure Social Security or veterans benefits.
But if members use their office to set up meetings abroad, or raise capital for private ventures, McHugh said, they are engaging in the "settled practices" of congressional members, even if the activity itself is unusual.
Throughout the trial, the prosecution has produced evidence that Jefferson arranged meetings with African heads of states and other top officials to foster deals that his family had an interest in.
From Thursday's testimony, it does not appear that in the case of Arkel Sugar Jefferson is suspected of using improper influence to promote a sugar plant in Jigawa State.
Rather, Haggard testified that Jefferson, his office and particularly a Washington staffer, Atonte Diete-Spiff, facilitated travel and communication with Nigerian officials, helped to gain delivery of money Arkel was owed from Nigeria, and assisted in preparing an application seeking assistance from the U.S. Export-Import Bank for the project.
Haggard said that at Kimborough's insistence, she continued to seek Mose Jefferson's help, but the only thing she ever received from him were invoices asking for his 4 percent.
"To the best of my knowledge, he didn't do anything, " she said. Nonetheless, Arkel entered into a similar agreement with Mose Jefferson for another project in Nigeria's Kaduna State. In her testimony, Haggard said she had not come clean about all of this when she was first questioned by the FBI because she was "nervous, flustered, scared and didn't know what was going on, " and was trying to protect Arkel.
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Jonathan Tilove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7827. Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or 202.383.7861