Last week's guilty plea by former Orleans Parish School Board president Ellenese Brooks-Simms was the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb. Its fallout will significantly impact the current school board, the embattled political machine and family of Congressman Bill Jefferson, the Recovery School District and District Attorney Eddie Jordan -- to name just a few.
The investigation is ongoing.
Brooks-Simms admitted in federal court last week that she took $140,000 in bribes from an officially unidentified lobbyist -- "Mr. A" in the indictment and plea documents -- who has been widely identified in the media as Mose Jefferson, the congressman's older brother and closest political confidant. Mose Jefferson is also the on-the-ground leader, tactician and muscle of Bill Jefferson's political organization, the Progressive Democrats, which for years has been the city's most effective election day get-out-the-vote apparatus.
Brooks-Simms' plea, along with the disclosure last week that she secretly wore a wire and recorded payoff-related conversations with Mose Jefferson, further undercuts the Jefferson political machine at a time when it is already on the ropes. The congressman was indicted on 16 counts of racketeering, bribery and money laundering by a northern Virginia grand jury earlier this month. The 94-page indictment lays out a vast, almost worldwide web of corruption and deceit by "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, alleging that he used family members as fronts to squeeze money out of private investors who sought his help with various projects. Mose Jefferson reportedly is among those family members who allegedly fronted for the congressman.
Now comes news that Mose was allegedly doing on a local level what his brother was masterminding on the national and international levels. These various allegations -- and so far, that's all they are -- if proved in court, will effectively dismantle one of Louisiana's most powerful political machines and bring down its most prominent African-American political leader.
Coming as it does right before statewide elections, the latest charges also hurt state Rep. Jalila Jefferson, one of the congressman's daughters. She had already announced plans to seek a state Senate seat -- the one that launched her father's political career, in fact -- when Bill Jefferson's indictment came down. Because the congressman's indictment alleges that five unidentified "family members" facilitated the alleged bribery scheme, Rep. Jefferson will be running under a cloud. That's a shame, because by all accounts she has done a fine job in Baton Rouge.
According to the prosecutors in the Brooks-Simms case, the school board bribery scheme also includes other players -- thus far unnamed. Whether that means other school board members, present or former, remains to be seen. At a minimum, however, the nascent movement to reunite the bifurcated Orleans Parish public school system is dead in the water.
The state took over more than 100 of the city's most troubled public schools shortly after Hurricane Katrina and put them into the Recovery School District. Opponents of that move said at the time that the takeover was a bad idea, but supporters said it was the only way to clean house. Since then, there have been whispers about possibly reuniting the city's far-flung system of charter schools and centrally managed schools under one entity, but no one is going to champion the cause of putting Babylon back together now. If anyone can be said to have benefited from the ongoing federal investigation into the local school district, it would be the RSD, which appears to have solidified its already significant political support.
Then there's New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan, probably the best example of Bill Jefferson's ability, at the height of his power, to get almost anybody elected to almost any office in New Orleans. Without the congressman as his padrone, and without Mose Jefferson behind him with the Progressive Democrats' street effort, Jordan has precious little in the way of political capital these days -- literally and figuratively. Last year he raised less than $6,000 in campaign contributions, and most of that came from his first assistant and her husband. Add to that the innumerable -- almost daily -- reports of his office's bungling of major cases, and one has to wonder if Jordan will even be able to mount a serious re-election campaign. Then again, it's still early. He's not up for re-election until the fall of 2008.
By then, we should know the fates of Mose and Bill Jefferson, and we should know where else the school board corruption case will lead prosecutors.
So far, we know enough to conclude that the local political landscape is about to change dramatically. Stay tuned. And be ready for more political bombshells.