Jefferson lawyers cite race case in change of venue request

Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) lawyers have asked a federal judge to reconsider a ruling denying a change of venue for his corruption trial.

The attorneys want to make their case for the venue transfer on June 13 before Virginia District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III. They argue that the case should be tried in Washington, D.C., because there likely will be fewer black jurors where the case is located now in Alexandria, Va. to evaluate the charges against Jefferson, who is black.

Moreover, the lawyers contend, most of the alleged activities took place in Washington, D.C., not Northern Virginia.

“The center of gravity of the case as a whole is the District of Columbia, not the Eastern District of Virginia,” they wrote in the motion.

A 7-2 Supreme Court ruling in March ordered a new trial for convicted murderer Allen Snyder of Louisiana because there was evidence that a prospective juror was excluded from the all-white jury for racial reasons.

The lawyers cited the case in a motion filed with the court last week and argued that Ellis made his initial ruling against a change of venue without demanding that the Justice Department answer questions about whether the racial makeup of the area impacted their choice of venue.

Jefferson faces trial on a 16-count indictment that accuses him of masterminding a vast, complicated conspiracy to elicit bribes for family members’ businesses in exchange for his assistance in reaching out to government officials in western Africa to establish businesses there. He has repeatedly denied the charges and vowed to fight them.

In a separate filing, Jefferson’s lawyers asked Ellis to force the depositions of two people in Nigeria who were listed as co-conspirators in the 16-count indictment against him. They want the Justice Department to use a mutual legal assistance treaty between the U.S. and Nigeria to obtain pretrial depositions of Nigeria’s former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, and businessman Suleiman Yahyah.

The lawyers led by Robert Trout, a partner at Trout Catcheris PLLC, argue that the depositions are essential because the government is charging that Yahyah agreed that the bribes would be paid but has publicly denied making them. The indictment similarly implicated Abubakar, who also has denied making any payments to Jefferson in exchange for help with aiding a telecom project in Nigeria.

Abubakar’s wife, Jennifer Douglas Abubakar, also is listed as a co-conspirator in the indictment. She is a U.S. citizen, however, and has agreed to provide testimony so the treaty would not be required to obtain her testimony even though she is living in Nigeria. The two men have refused the defense team’s request to come voluntarily, according to the motion filed last week.

“These allegations, which are based on the government’s interpretation of recorded conversations between Mr. Jefferson and a government agent, are not otherwise corroborated; in particular, there are no recorded conversations between Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Yahyah, Mr. Abubakar, Mrs. Abubakar, or anyone else that support these allegations,” the lawyers wrote in the motion filed last week.

The FBI videotaped Jefferson taking a briefcase with $100,000 in cash from a cooperating witness. That money, prosecutors argue, was intended to bribe Abubakar. All but $10,000 of it was later found in the freezer of Jefferson’s D.C. residence. Jefferson, however, says he never agreed to make the bribe and did not do so.