Stephanie Grace: Indictments are all in the family for former Congressman Bill Jefferson
Posted by Stephanie Grace, Columnist, The Times-Picayune
May 27, 2009 6:04PM
After he was indicted two years ago, former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson stood outside a Virginia federal courthouse and vowed to restore his good name "and that of my family." Having just recounted his wife's, daughters' and sons-in-law's academic credentials and careers, Jefferson said that, "incredibly, this is the same family that the U.S. attorney and FBI want you to believe are a family of bribers, racketeers and conspirators. They want you to believe that I . . . am the architect or leader of this supposed family of bribers and racketeers."
"This is not who we are. This not who I am, " Jefferson said. "This is not what I have done."
Let's put aside for a moment who Bill Jefferson is and what he may have done, which will be the subject of a lengthy trial starting next month.
Let's consider the family, of which Jefferson is the undisputed patriarch.
No, the ex-congressman's wife and kids haven't been accused of anything.
But the tight-knit clan with the damaged name includes several siblings who also benefited from Jefferson's power and prominence -- and who stand accused in a newly revamped federal indictment of forming a criminal enterprise to steer an appalling amount of federal, state and city money into their own pockets.
Last year, Jefferson's political operative brother Mose and his assessor sister Betty, along with Betty's daughter, were charged with systematically bilking government-funded social service programs. Another sister is cooperating with the feds.
And last week, a grand jury added a new alleged racketeer to the mix, former state representative and City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt.
Gill Pratt isn't a sibling, although as Bill Jefferson's former aide, Mose Jefferson's longtime companion and a lieutenant in the family's political organization, she's as close as it gets.
According to the indictment, she also acted as an inside woman, using her public offices to steer earmarks, grants, inflated leases and even vehicles donated to the city after Katrina to various nonprofits and firms controlled by family members.
Among the new allegations: While in the Legislature, Gill Pratt secured $300,000 for two New Orleans schools to purchase software from a company for which Mose Jefferson was exclusive sales agent. He earned a $30,000 commission, a portion of which he allegedly funneled back to her. The "I Can Learn" software is also at the center of another federal case involving Mose Jefferson, who is accused of bribing former Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms to support the School Board's purchase of the product.
For her trouble, Gill Pratt is alleged to have received some free home repairs and use of the infamous donated Dodge Durango, which she transferred to a Jefferson family-controlled nonprofit that later hired her. The indictment says she also got a taxpayer-funded ride in the Muses parade, which Mose Jefferson supposedly financed with his ill-gotten gains. That's less than Mose and Betty Jefferson are accused of skimming via a complicated scheme involving payments to fake employees, but it's still plenty.
The most amazing part of the whole story is that all that taxpayer money was designated to help the most vulnerable of Bill Jefferson's, Betty Jefferson's and Renee Gill Pratt's constituents.
The Central City Adult Education Agency was supposed to provide education and GED preparation for "educationally disadvantaged adults for the Orleans area." Project Chance, a program of the state-funded Care Unlimited, claimed to train at-risk black males in Central City for jobs in building and painting.
Care Unlimited's Bridge Program, which got money from the state and the federal Department of Education, supposedly provided educational support services to pregnant teens. Orleans Metropolitan Housing & Community Development, funded by the state, promised to "enhance the quality of life by removing harborage for vermin and pests" and beautify the "now dismal eyesore" of run-down, overgrown lots in Central City.
Money that the federal Housing Department of Urban Development granted Greater St. Stephen Manor was supposed to go exclusively toward housing the elderly poor.
Instead, hundreds of thousands of dollars slated for these programs were used to pay Jefferson family members' personal expenses, according to the indictment.
To borrow Bill Jefferson's term, it is indeed an incredible tale of a well-connected family run amok. And it's all the worse because there's so much evidence to back it up.
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Stephanie Grace is a staff writer. She may be reached at 504.826.3383 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.