William Jefferson defense to take stage soon
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Saturday July 18, 2009, 8:20 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- Now, it's the defense team's turn.
After more than four weeks of surveillance tapes and testimony from former associates describing how former Democratic Congressman William Jefferson demanded payments to family-owned businesses for his help with business projects in western Africa, the federal prosecution is expected to rest its case early this week.
Legal experts say Jefferson's attorneys did a good job focusing on inconsistencies in the prosecution witnesses, but they face the daunting challenge of overcoming not only a 16-count corruption indictment, but also voluminous testimony that has painted an unflattering portrait of their client.
It isn't known whether Jefferson will take the stand in his own defense, which lead attorney Robert Trout said should take between a half-day and two days to present.
Witnesses were particularly pointed last week in accusing Jefferson of manipulating payoffs to family members, although his attorneys say they offered no hard evidence that Jefferson used his congressional office to benefit clients -- a necessary element in the federal bribery statute. They describe his business dealings as private business deals.
On Tuesday, jurors heard satellite radio executive Noah Samara say he was a longtime friend of the congressman's and happy to hire Jefferson's daughter to draw up the papers for an oil deal the two were pursuing. But he said he drew the line when the congressman suggested he also give her equity ownership in the venture.
A day later, it was Folsom oil executive John Melton who said he drew up an arrangement that would give Jefferson's brother Mose a 3 percent interest in a marginal field project the two had discussed for Nigeria, but not the "upfront" money he says the congressman requested.
"He looked at it (the contract) and dropped it on his desk (and said), 'This won't do, ' " Melton told the jury.
And, on Friday, lobbyist James Creaghan said he paid bribes to Jefferson disguised as payments to family-owned businesses in return for Jefferson's help with three separate African business deals.
'Greedy and grasping'
Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who has been following the case, said, "The jury may wonder how a member of Congress can discharge his public duties and have these private deals and how they can be separated."
Stephanie Gallagher, a former federal prosecutor who now practices law in Baltimore, agreed.
"The jurors may have difficulty believing that on each and every one of those occasions, the former congressman was on the 'private' side of that fine line, " Gallagher said.
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who has been tracking the case, said the recent testimony from business executives has done little to strengthen the government's allegations that Jefferson was using his congressional office to assist projects for which family-owned businesses were being compensated.
U.S. Attorney's Office via The Associated PressWilliam Jefferson's lawyers must work to counteract jurors' impressions of pictures, such as this one, showing $90,000 stuffed in his freezer.
But the negative portrayal of Jefferson, even from people who described themselves as his longtime friends, poses a real problem for the defense, especially when added to the pictures shown to the jury of $90,000 stuffed in his freezer. The money was most of $100,000 given to him by a government informant in the summer of 2005 as part of an FBI sting, although Jefferson didn't, as he promised the informant, deliver the money as a bribe to the then vice president of Nigeria.
"The common denominator is greedy and grasping behavior, " Turley said. "The jury already had a dim picture of Jefferson and a vivid picture of his freezer money. This is not going to improve that image."
Also potentially problematic for Jefferson's image with the jury of eight women and four men is testimony by a former aide, Angelle Kwemo, which seemed intended by prosecutors to suggest a possibly inappropriate relationship. Jefferson stayed at her house in the summer of 2005 after the two had driven for hours around the Washington metropolitan area, eventually delivering two letters to an aide to the then-vice president of Nigeria, Kwemo testified.
After the two had an early morning meal at an International House of Pancakes, Kwemo said Jefferson slept in her bed, and she on the couch, attributing the overnight stay to problems with his 1992 Lincoln -- "It was smoking, " she said -- and that he was fatigued.
The next day, back in his congressional office, Jefferson gave her an envelope with $5,000 in $100 bills, a loan because of her personal financial problems, Kwemo testified.
In one sense, Jefferson's legal team has one advantage. All the various schemes alleged by the government come down to a common denominator: that the then-congressman sought payments and equity stakes in ventures for family-owned businesses in return for his help promoting projects.
If his attorneys can convince jurors, or just one juror, that in all these cases he was careful not to cross the line into congressional activities, such as introducing bills or getting appropriations or earmarks for the projects, then they might be able to beat back guilty verdicts on all of the charges.
But with 16 counts and possible support for conviction on a good number of them by at least some jurors, Jefferson's legal team runs the risk of jury-room negotiations. Judge T.S. Ellis III will instruct jurors they shouldn't negotiate a verdict and only vote to convict on counts that they've decided guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
But jurors don't always heed the instructions, and a guilty verdict even on a fraction of the 16 charges likely means a lengthy prison sentence for Jefferson, 62.
"Compromise verdicts are more likely in cases like this one with multiple counts because the jurors have the opportunity to bargain guilty verdicts on some counts for not guilty verdicts on others, " said Gallagher, the Baltimore attorney.
Harry Rosenberg, a former top federal prosecutor in New Orleans now in private practice, agrees.
A case with several charges "frequently leads to compromise, " he said, but "the complexity of these charges may help the defense."
Turley said the large number of charges poses a real problem for Jefferson.
"For the defense, there remains the sticker-shock problem of finding it hard to acquit on all counts, " Turley said.
. . . . . . .
Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or 202.383.7861.