ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A Louisiana congressman accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes told a judge Thursday that FBI agents who interviewed him back in 2005 were so overbearing that they followed him inside the bathroom of his own home.
Testifying under oath for the first time in his bribery case, Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., contradicted the testimony of multiple FBI agents who said the Aug. 2005 interview was cordial and friendly.
Jefferson is seeking to suppress statements to FBI agents during the interview as well as other evidence seized from the home.
Jefferson's lawyers argued that the circumstances of the interview were so hostile that Jefferson reasonably assumed he was under arrest, and that he therefore should have been advised of his right to remain silent and right to speak with an attorney.
Prosecutors contend that the interview was friendly and professional, and that Jefferson's statements were voluntary and should be allowed at trial.
In testimony lasting more than an hour at Thursday's pretrial hearing, Jefferson remained calm and mannerly, even in the face of an aggressive cross-examination. He frequently asked the judge's permission before repeating words he considered vulgar.
Jefferson testified that shortly into the early morning interview, he stood up to use the bathroom. When an FBI agent followed him, he asked the agent, "'Are you going to the bathroom with me?' He said yes," Jefferson testified.
The agent followed Jefferson into the bathroom and stood in a place that blocked him from shutting the door, and Jefferson asked the agent, "'Are you going to watch me pee?' He said yes."
In previous testimony, the FBI agent acknowledged following Jefferson to the bathroom, but said he did so because Jefferson got up abruptly and he was concerned for Jefferson's safety.
Jefferson also disputed several portions of the FBI agents testimony. Perhaps most significant, agents testified that Jefferson reacted dejectedly and said "what a waste" after they showed him a video in which he accepted a suitcase filled with $100,000 in cash from an FBI informant.
Jefferson testified that what he actually said was "What a waste of time" and spoke in a manner more dismissive than dejected.
He said agents became increasingly aggressive during the interview, yelling at him at one point.
Under the circumstances, argued defense lawyer Robert Trout, Jefferson reasonably assumed he was under arrest, especially after an FBI agent told him that "it was going to be the worst day of his life."
"He thought he was going to be taken out in handcuffs," Trout said.
But under cross-examination, Jefferson acknowledged that he spoke to the agents voluntarily, out of a desire to cooperate. Prosecutor Mark Lytle also pointed out that Jefferson, a congressman since 1991 and a graduate of Harvard law school, presumably well understood the right to remain silent.
Jefferson disagreed, and said his experience was primarily in business and tax law and that his grasp of criminal law is fleeting.
Prosecutors also sought to question Jefferson about the $90,000 cash that was found in the freezer of his Washington home, but U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III cut off the questioning, ruling it was outside the scope of the hearing. Jefferson's lawyers have not sought to suppress the discovery of the cash.
At one point, though, Jefferson did refer to the money, and he acknowledged that he knew at the time of the interview that the money was in his freezer.
"I'm not going to go into it, but there's an explanation for that," he said.
Ellis said he will rule on the issue, and several other pretrial motions, at a later date. The trial is scheduled to begin in February.