Image: Jefferson court sketch
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle makes opening statement in the trial of former Congressman William Jefferson. The briefcase in the left foreground was found in Jefferson's freezer, filled with cash.
updated 6/16/2009 4:16:07 PM ET 2009-06-16T20:16:07

The $90,000 in cash found in the freezer of a former Louisiana congressman charged with taking bribes is evidence of nothing more than a failed FBI sting, a defense lawyer told jurors Tuesday.

William Jefferson, a Democrat who represented parts of New Orleans, is accused of soliciting bribes, racketeering, money laundering and other crimes. Prosecutors say he received more than $500,000 and sought millions more in exchange for using his influence to broker business deals in Africa.

In opening statements Tuesday in U.S. District Court, defense lawyer Robert Trout addressed at the outset what he called the "elephant in the room" — the cash that was found in the freezer in Jefferson's Washington home.

Trout said that if one accepts the government's theory of the case, the money would never have been in the freezer. Instead, the congressman would have used the money to pay a bribe to the then-vice president of Nigeria.

The fact that Jefferson hadn't paid the bribe as the FBI anticipated suggests a hole in the government's case, Trout said.

There's no dispute that FBI agents videotaped Jefferson receiving a suitcase with $100,000 in cash from a cooperating witness in the investigation. Most of the money was found a few days later in the freezer.

Earlier Tuesday, prosecutors told the jury that Jefferson intended to give that cash to the Nigerian vice president but missed his window of opportunity.

Image: Jefferson
Jacquelyn Martin  /  AP
Former Democratic Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson, center, exits U.S. District Court.
Trout said Jefferson may have acted unethically but never illegally under federal bribery laws.

"You may think the evidence raises ethical concerns," he said. "He is not charged with violating House ethics rules."

In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle said Jefferson was more than $60,000 in debt and suggested that may have motivated him to seek bribes.

"This case is about ... one of our government's most powerful officials using his public office for private gain repeatedly," Lytle said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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