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A Bad Week for Bill Jefferson

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Congressman Bill Jefferson does his best to keep his game face on, but these days his political fortunes give new meaning to the old notion of death by a thousand cuts. Case in point: his brother Mose was indicted by the feds last week on bribery, conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges. No one was surprised by the indictment, least of all Les Freres Jefferson. Legally speaking, the cases against the two brothers will proceed separately. Bill will stand trial on a wide range of corruption charges in the Northern District of Virginia; Mose will face the music on Camp Street. The feds have a strong case against each.

Politically, however, their fates remain intertwined. Each is the yin to the other's political yang, but the empire they built in New Orleans is crumbling around them. About the best Dollar Bill can do is try to delay his trial until a Democrat is ensconced in the White House. I doubt it will do him much good.

Last week, even before Mose's indictment was announced, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider the issue of whether mounds of computer evidence taken by the feds from Jefferson's congressional office in May 2006 are "privileged" because the raid violated the "Speech and Debate Clause" of the U.S. Constitution. The trial judge all but laughed that argument out of the courtroom.

Later, an appeals court held that the FBI raid violated Jefferson's rights because it allowed investigators to get files that might have been related to legislative business — even though the feds set up a "filter team" to screen out privileged materials. At the same time, the appeals court rejected Jefferson's request that all the documents be returned to him. Instead, the court held that the trial judge should decide which material is "privileged" and which is not, with all "non-privileged" material going right to the feds. The Supreme Court let those rulings stand.

The important thing to remember here is that the feds indicted Jefferson without relying on any of the disputed evidence. If investigators get even 10 percent of what Jefferson claims is privileged, it still would be a windfall for the government.

Procedurally, this kind of evidentiary review would occur anyway in a criminal case — but typically at a later stage, in response to defense motions to exclude certain (usually highly incriminating) evidence already in the government's hands. In Jefferson's case, that's happening on the front end, which makes it even less likely that the disputed material will be excluded later.

Jefferson's lawyers hailed the Supreme Court's decision as a great victory. Truth is, the High Court's ruling means that the trial judge's review will continue and, probably sooner than Jefferson cares to admit, the congressman will go to trial. A handful of other Jefferson appeals are still pending, and once those are resolved another new trial date will be set.

Even if he manages to delay his trial until after Election Day, Jefferson probably won't have the full attention of his brother and campaign manager, Mose, who is widely considered the best GOTV (get out the vote) organizer in the state. Come October, Mose could be standing trial himself.

Worst of all, the once invincible Jefferson political machine has been reduced to rubble. Dollar Bill doesn't even control the parish Democratic committee any more, and most of the unlikely band of politicos who helped him claw his way back into office in 2006 are either dead, under investigation themselves, no longer in office or no longer in Jefferson's corner.

But losing the election is not the worst thing that could happen to Bill Jefferson. His wife and some of his children are on the bubble with him, according to the government. If he loses his next round of appeals, which are aimed at tossing most of the charges against him on technical grounds, look for Jefferson to cut a deal to spare his family. Even if he wins his pending appeals, some charges will remain, which means he probably hasn't seen his last bad week.

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