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Jefferson Tries New Argument

Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) has asked a federal court to use an international criminal law treaty to force the depositions of three people in Nigeria who have been implicated in corruption charges levied against him.

The motion, filed last week with the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Virginia, asks the court to force the U.S. government to obtain the depositions of former Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar; his wife, Jennifer Douglas Abubakar; and Nigerian businessman Suleiman Yahyah.

In effect, it could end up delaying Jefferson’s trial, originally scheduled to start in January, even longer. Right now, the trial is on hold as Jefferson appeals a denial by a federal court to dismiss the charges against him. (See excerpts from Jefferson’s motion to the appeals court, p. 4.)

Jefferson’s lawyers want to compel the testimony of three people in Nigeria by getting the U.S. government to implement an international treaty or having the court produce a letter seeking the assistance of Nigerian authorities to secure the testimony. The Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the U.S. and Nigeria allows the two countries to work together in collecting and sharing information to aid criminal prosecution.

Last June, the government filed a 16-count indictment against Jefferson, charging the Louisiana Congressman with conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by paying bribes to Atiku Abubakar to ensure the success of a telecommunications venture in Nigeria. The indictment also identifies as co-conspirators Jennifer Douglas Abubakar and Yahyah, who was allegedly tasked with bribing lower-ranking officials.

Jefferson’s motion cites a procedural rule to compel the appearance of witnesses, even if they are foreign nationals. Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure states that a court should grant depositions in the case of a witness whose “testimony is necessary to prevent a failure of justice.”

All three witnesses, who are not subject to trial subpoenas because they reside outside the U.S., have not complied with previous requests to submit testimony.

The Abubakars have said they are not willing to voluntarily appear at a trial, citing the toll lengthy trips would have on their personal and professional responsibilities. Attempts by the defense to contact Yahyah have been unsuccessful.

The defense’s previous attempt to subpoena Jennifer Douglas Abubakar, an American citizen now living in Nigeria, was also unsuccessful. However, her attorney has advised the defense that she is willing to appear voluntarily for a deposition in Europe if permitted by the court.

The defense argues that, because all three potential witnesses have made public statements through their lawyers or the media denying any role in paying or accepting bribes, their testimony is crucial to Jefferson’s defense.

“It would plainly be unjust to deny to Mr. Jefferson the opportunity to obtain exculpatory testimony from those individuals who are placed by the government at the center of the alleged conspiracy and bribe schemes,” wrote Jefferson’s attorneys, led by Robert Trout.

Separately, Jefferson’s attorneys Friday filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit arguing that the bribery charges against the Congressman should be thrown out. The district court had previously rejected this motion.

The defense argues that the entire bribery scheme alleged in the government’s indictment is based on the “influence” that Jefferson had with African officials and that he used to help U.S. businesses establish African operations.

But the prosecution explained to the grand jury that Jefferson’s influence arose from his work on a U.S.-Africa trade bill, which would mean that the entire bribery charge is based on legislative activity that is protected by the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause, the defense argues.

The district court had previously rejected this argument. But Jefferson is asking the appeals court to overturn this ruling on the ground that the district court considered only whether the bribery charges were directly linked to legislative acts, instead of the broader consideration of the role of legislative acts in establishing the “influence” necessary to make the bribery charge.

Paul Singer contributed to this report.

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