Corruption Trial Set To Begin For Ex-Rep. Jefferson

Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson is set to go on trial Tuesday on federal bribery and corruption charges.

His case is best known for the $90,000 in cold cash the FBI retrieved from his freezer four years ago. And Jefferson, a Democrat from Louisiana, was the first member of Congress to have his offices raided by the FBI — a raid that has raised constitutional questions that have delayed the case for two years.

In 2007, a federal grand jury charged Jefferson on 16 counts related to his family's business ventures in West Africa. Jefferson has always maintained his innocence.

"There are two sides of every story," he said after the raid. "There'll be an appropriate time and forum where this can be explained and explicated."

This week, federal prosecutors will set out to prove that Jefferson is guilty of helping make trade deals in Nigeria and Ghana, provided he or his family were paid off — and that he did so in his official capacity; that he was peddling influence as a congressman.

That last part won't be easy, according to University of Baltimore law professor Charles Tiefer.

"There's a strong argument being made by the prosecution that while the acts by the congressman would have been legal if he hadn't taken money, the fact that he took money makes them illegal," he said. "But that doesn't resolve the question of whether this was an official act or not."

Private Dealings Or Official Duties?

Jefferson argues that his actions were part of his private dealings, with no relation to his official duties. At the same time, he and his lawyers have objected to all sorts of potential evidence that they say is related to his legislative work. That's because many congressional duties — like voting and writing laws — are protected from prosecution.

If it sounds confusing, that's because it is, says Stanley Brand, a defense attorney and former general counsel for the House of Representatives.

"On the one hand, the defense is going to be saying, 'Look, you can't go into his legislative activity.' On the other hand, they will be trying to use it to show that he didn't do anything wrong. And the court is going to be faced with making judgments on all those things."

Constitutional Concerns

Jefferson has been challenging the charges, in part, by maintaining that some of the evidence is tainted. He says the FBI improperly raided his Capitol Hill office in 2006. And indeed, part of that raid has been deemed unconstitutional by a federal appeals court.

The court ruled that rifling through the office violated the lawmaker's rights, because the investigators saw legislative materials that are protected under the so-called speech or debate clause. That clause protects lawmakers in their legislative duties and shields their activities from involuntary disclosure. It's supposed to prevent the president or other members of the executive branch from trying to intimidate lawmakers with whom they disagree.

"Basically, the court has put off-limits a lot of the type of investigative tools prosecutors typically used in these cases," says former U.S. attorney Peter Zeidenberg.

Now in question, he says, are actions such as questioning congressional staffers, conducting wiretaps or searching anywhere an elected official keeps legislative work. The ruling even states that a legislator must be present for office searches and be allowed to pull aside legislative papers.

With this ruling in hand, Jefferson has filed numerous challenges and, lawyers say, laid a roadmap for other defendants to delay prosecution. But others point out that it hasn't stopped corruption investigations into other legislators. And despite the delays, Jefferson is scheduled to face a jury this week.

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