Kentucky businessman dominates Jefferson trial

The first week of former Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) corruption trial was dominated by testimony from the head of a telecommunications firm who said he paid thousands of dollars to the lawmaker for his influence.

Kentucky businessman Vernon Jackson said Jefferson used his office to secure multimillion-dollar deals for the telecommunications firm iGate, and enriched himself in the process.

Jackson is a star witness for the prosecution, which claims Jefferson used his office to help iGate in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. Jefferson faces a maximum of 235 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

Jackson took the stand in a green prison jumpsuit Tuesday through Thursday and is expected to continue testifying on Monday. He’s serving a seven-year, three-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to bribery charges involving Jefferson.

Jackson paid $500,000 to a consulting firm, the ANJ Group, owned by Andrea Jefferson, the congressman’s wife. But Jackson testified the money was intended to get the lawmaker’s help. Prosecutors argued that these payments were thinly-veiled bribes.

“I was paying him to use his office on behalf of iGate,” Jackson testified, referring to the then-congressman.

Jackson suggested if he had refused to agree with any of Jefferson’s terms, Jefferson would have stopped helping iGate.

“I didn’t want to alienate him because I believed he could take steps to impede my company—even put us out of business,” Jackson said.

Jefferson’s defense team argues the payments were legitimate consulting fees paid for his wife’s services to iGate. During its cross-examination of Jackson, the defense sought to show that the Jeffersons’ dealings with iGate were always through ANJ.

Jefferson’s defense said the former congressman made no “official acts” on behalf of iGate and that Jefferson and his family did not benefit materially because of acts Jefferson made as a congressman. They emphasized ANJ’s business relationship with Jackson and iGate.

Jefferson lost his bid for reelection last fall to Republican Joseph Cao. He previously had won reelection, even after the FBI found $90,000 in unmarked bills in his fridge and linked him to a bribery scheme. Jefferson was indicted in 2007.

The trial is expected to take at least a month, and the prosecution plans to call more than 40 witnesses.

Prosecutors showed jurors letters written by Jefferson on Congressional letterhead to iGate clients, investors, and government officials, introducing himself as “Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus of the U.S. Government.” Jackson testified that Jefferson secured financing from the Export-Import Bank of the United States for two multi-million dollar ventures in West Africa, never disclosing his financial interest in iGate or ANJ Group.

Jackson said, “This is the way he handled all projects in Africa with iGate.”

Prosecutors also questioned Jackson about conversations he held with Jefferson that were caught on tape by the FBI. The talks climaxed in a profanity-peppered 2005 phone call in which Jefferson said his dealings with iGate hadn’t been “above ground,” and warned that they could end up in the “goddamned pokey” if they ousted Lori Mody, a Virginia businesswoman who was a major investor in iGate.

Mody, who cooperated with the FBI as an informer on Jefferson, is not expected to testify for the prosecution.