Prosecutors and defense attorneys laid out their cases to jurors Tuesday in opening statements in the federal corruption trial of former Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson. The Democrat was indicted in 2007 on 16 counts of soliciting bribes, money laundering and racketeering related to his family's business dealings in West Africa. That was two years after the FBI raided his apartment in Washington, D.C., and retrieved $90,000 in cash from his freezer.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle forecast a blitz of witnesses and presented a dizzying array of PowerPoint slides and photographs. The photos included up-close shots of an FBI investigator's gloved hand sliding foil-wrapped bricks of cash out of frozen pie-crust boxes and veggie-burger packages.
Lytle told jurors that Jefferson had expertise in African development through his congressional work and was considered the "gatekeeper" to doing business there. He said nearly a dozen businesses sought help from Jefferson in brokering deals and were asked to direct stock shares to members of the congressman's family. Lytle also told jurors that Jefferson needed the money to pay the Ivy League tuitions of his five daughters and to cover a revolving door of credit card debt.
The defense called the "cold cash" the "elephant in the room" that had to be addressed immediately and described it as the product of an FBI sting. Attorney Robert Trout told the jury that the money in the freezer came from an FBI informant who was urging Jefferson to bribe the vice president of Nigeria. Trout said Jefferson did not carry out the plan and did not plan to. He said Jefferson took the money after he was badgered by the informant.
Trout also told jurors that there was no evidence that Jefferson provided any tax break, earmark or legislation for the benefit of his business contacts. His client's actions "may have raised ethical concerns," Trout told the jury, but Jefferson did not violate bribery laws.
The trial is expected to last at least a month.