It seems fitting that the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction of Renee Gill Pratt almost eight years to the day that Hurricane Katrina struck southeast Louisiana. The storm killed more than 1,800 people, but it also sparked a wave of reform that changed New Orleans politics forever.
Perhaps Katrina's most high-profile casualty was the political machine headed by former Congressman William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson. Pratt was a lieutenant in the Jefferson organization, and she used her position as a state lawmaker and City Council member to help the Jefferson family skim millions in public dollars that were supposed to be used to help the people who kept them in power.
Pratt claimed she had no idea the taxpayer money she was directing to nonprofits controlled by the Jefferson clan was being looted. Jurors in federal court didn't buy it. She was convicted of a single count of conspiracy.
Considering the amount of money that the feds documented as having been stolen from the nonprofits — and the fact that Pratt was the longtime girlfriend of Mose Jefferson, Dollar Bill's brother, consigliere and street-level enforcer — it strains credulity to expect people to believe that Pratt knew nothing of the ripoffs. After all, in addition to funneling taxpayer dollars to the phony nonprofits as a Jefferson-backed legislator, she also helped herself to a brand-new 2005 Dodge Durango as a New Orleans City Council member shortly after Katrina. That vehicle was one of 20 that Daimler-Chrysler donated to the city to help with local recovery efforts in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
Mose Jefferson got some new wheels as well — a 2006 Dodge Ram pickup — thanks to his paramour. In fact, at Pratt's trial, the feds introduced evidence that she "misappropriated" three pickups — for herself, Mose and various Jefferson nearest and dearest. Jurors no doubt figured if she could glom several vehicles for herself and her co-conspirators, how could she possibly be ignorant of where the nonprofits' money went?
Barring a successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is highly unlikely, the Fifth Circuit's decision closes the book on Dollar Bill's political empire. At his peak, Jefferson influenced virtually every election in Orleans Parish, and a good many public jobs as well. No electoral contest escaped his attention. Whether it was a seat in the legislature or a seat on Criminal or Civil District Court, a clerkship or a constable, and certainly contests for mayor, sheriff and district attorney (remember, he gave us Eddie Jordan in 2002) — Jefferson either called the shots or demanded tribute from those who sought his support.
He had the street-level troops as well as the support of black voters in many parts of town to make his support worthwhile. Even after the feds found $90,000 in cash bundled in his freezer in 2005, he still won re-election a year later. It took an "off" election date in December 2008 — and lots of complacency on his part — for him to lose his congressional seat. After that, the feds methodically dismantled what was left of his machine, putting most of his local siblings in jail on various corruption counts.
Mose died of cancer in prison in May 2011. A year later, Dollar Bill began serving his 13-year prison stretch, the longest ever given to a member of Congress for corruption charges. (He was convicted in an unrelated case in Virginia.) Once a rising star in state and national politics, today William Jennings Jefferson sits in a federal jail in Texas as inmate #72121-083.
Dollar Bill's sister Betty, a former New Orleans assessor, pleaded guilty to corruption charges in connection with the nonprofit scam and received a sentence of five years probation, including 15 months home detention, and was ordered to pay more than $600,000 in restitution. Betty's daughter, Angela Coleman, also pleaded guilty and is terminally ill. Another Jefferson sibling, Brenda Foster, was the first to plead guilty to the nonprofit looting scam; she died in 2010.
On the day the feds raided his home and congressional office in 2005, Jefferson slumped into a chair in his living room and sighed, "What a waste."