By the end of his opening statement, it seemed as if Robert Trout had said his piece about Lori Mody. He called her “emotionally fragile,” “difficult” and “unreliable.” He said that in a series of wine-drenched conversations she played a “damsel in distress,” luring his client, then-Rep. William Jefferson, into an FBI sting that would eventually cause Jefferson to lose his congressional seat and lead to his prosecution.
And yet, for all the shots taken, there was much the Trout Cacheris name partner couldn’t say about Mody. One week into testimony in Jefferson’s federal corruption trial, many of the most important questions in the case continue to revolve around the Virginia businesswoman.
Late on Wednesday, Judge T.S. Ellis III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia left open the possibility that the defense might be able to play controversial selections from recorded conversations between Mody and Jefferson — so long as they were used to provide context in the case, not to establish facts.
Prosecutors plan to play their own selections from the tapes, which Mody made of her conversations with the congressman while wearing a wire for the FBI. According to prosecutors, the tapes show that Jefferson conspired to bribe the vice president of Nigeria in order to pave the way for a telecommunications deal for Louisville, Ky.-based iGate Inc. Mody was iGate’s chief financial backer.
During a hearing on the evening of June 17, lawyers argued over whether the defense should be allowed to play certain parts of the tapes that the defense says show Mody manipulated Jefferson into agreeing to the plan, using her history of emotional instability as a weapon. In his ruling released the next day, Ellis essentially put off final decisions about the evidence until later in the trial.
According to court papers filed by defense lawyers on June 16, Mody repeatedly mentioned to Jefferson that she had suffered an emotional collapse in 2004. She said that she was “afraid of her own shadow” and that she had been “mishandled” in past business deals, warning Jefferson that she needed a reason to trust him. Jefferson’s lawyers contend Mody used that leverage to push Jefferson into taking a larger financial stake in iGate.
“It gives me confidence that I, I think, you know what? There’s no way somebody wants to hurt me, to do me in, to screw me, you know…if they have something equally to gain….Cause if it’s not good for you, it’s not gonna be good for me, and it’s not good for us,” Mody said, according to the defense filing.
Jefferson’s concern over Mody’s emotional well being also allegedly led him to agree to the bribery scheme — or at least appear to agree. He did pick up a briefcase containing $100,000 in cash, most of which FBI agents later found in his freezer. But Trout told the jury that Jefferson only wanted Mody to think he was going through with the bribe and never planned to actually hand off the money.
The recordings might be the defense’s only chance to address the issue of Mody’s mental health. Prosecutors have said that they did not plan to call Mody to the witness stand and would rely on her recorded conversations as well as her statements to FBI agents. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle told the jury, “You may not hear from Lori Mody at this trial, but we will present you with the best evidence available.”
In its June 16 filing, made just hours before opening statements, Jefferson’s lawyers complained that the prosecution was denying them the chance to cross-examine a key witness. As he addressed the jury that morning, Trout did his best to talk around the margins of Mody’s alleged emotional issues.
But he clearly would have liked to say more.
Jordan Weissmann can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.