William Jefferson goes to trial

By Ric Bohy

June 18, 2009 at 9:38am

The $90,000 in very cold cash that was wrapped in foil, stuffed into cardboard cartons for Boca Burgers and frozen pie crust, and found during an FBI raid on the home of former congressman William Jefferson wasn’t bribe money, defense lawyers said this week at Jefferson’s corruption trial.

It was evidence of an FBI sting operation that flopped, said Jefferson attorney Robert Trout, who called the cash cache the “elephant in the room” during his opening statement in an Alexandria, Va., federal courtroom.

Jefferson, a Democrat who represented part of New Orleans until voted out of office in 2008, is charged with a long and hefty list of corrupt acts: racketeering, solicitation of bribes, and money laundering among them.

It added up to $500,000 received and millions more that the congressman asked for in peddling his influence to grease business deals in West Africa, prosecutors claim. One of the biggest problems Jefferson’s attorneys face is explaining away recordings made by Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody, who wore an FBI wire while pursuing an African deal with the member of Congress.

Jefferson was also videotaped in July 2005 accepting $100,000 from the wired Mody, all but $10,000 of which ended up in his freezer like so many Boca Burgers.

True, Trout told jurors Tuesday, Jefferson took the money. But he never paid it to Atiku Abubakar, then vice president of Nigeria, to rig a major telecom deal there, as prosecutors charge. True, it was “really stupid” for Jefferson to accept the intended bribe, Trout continued. But he never paid it, which Trout characterized as a hole in the government’s case. Prosecutors say Jefferson didn’t pay it because he screwed up the drop.

Trout didn’t say what Jefferson intended to do with the money, but assistant U.S. attorney Mark Lytle noted in his own opening statement that Jefferson and his wife had $100,000 in credit card debt and overdraft fees, as well the financial pressure of putting five daughters through Ivy League schools.

Jefferson is on trial, Lytle said, because “one of our government’s most powerful officials, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was using his public office for private gain.”

Trout allowed that his client may have acted unethically, but he “is not charged with violating House ethics rules.”

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