Former New Roads Mayor Tommy Nelson was convicted Wednesday in Baton Rouge on federal charges of racketeering, wire fraud, lying to investigators and the use of telephones in aid of racketeering.
The jury of five women and seven men deliberated an hour before finding Nelson guilty on all seven counts of his indictment, which resulted from an FBI sting known as Operation Blighted Officials.
“We definitely are going to appeal,” Michael A. Fiser, one of Nelson’s attorneys, said after the verdict.
“Our sole defense of entrapment was taken away” by Chief U.S. District Judge Ralph E. Tyson, Fiser added. “We think the judge was wrong.”
A day earlier, Tyson ruled that defense attorneys did not provide sufficient evidence of entrapment by undercover FBI agents. The judge said he would not tell jurors they could acquit Nelson if they believed he was improperly enticed or coerced by investigators to accept bribes.
“There simply wasn’t any evidence of entrapment,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Corey R. Amundson said outside the courthouse. “The judge determined no juror could find entrapment.”
“We think the evidence (against Nelson) was very strong,” Amundson added. “Folks in this district … are not going to tolerate corruption.”
Tyson did not immediately schedule a date for Nelson’s sentencing. A pre-sentence investigation must be conducted. Such investigations can require several months for completion.
Prosecution witnesses in Nelson’s trial, which began June 6, included undercover FBI agents who testified that Nelson accepted more than $22,000 in cash and other gifts for his pledge of a municipal contract.
That contract was to have gone to a garbage can cleaning business known as Cifer 5000. Cifer was a fictitious firm used by the FBI in Operation Blighted Officials.
Port Allen Mayor Derek Lewis and Port Allen Chief of Police Fred Smith also were indicted as a result of that operation. They are scheduled for trial July 25.
St. Gabriel Mayor George L. Grace is scheduled for trial Jan. 23.
Amundson would not discuss either pending case.
The prosecutor added, however, that Operation Blighted Officials is a continuing investigation.
“There are other aspects of the investigation that are ongoing,” Amundson said.
In the Nelson case, jurors heard dozens of recorded conversations between the then-mayor, undercover FBI agents and a paid FBI undercover operative. All three investigators presented themselves as Cifer officials.
In some of those conversations, Nelson boasted that he was taken care of by several companies doing business with New Roads.
In others, Nelson demanded payments from Cifer officials and agreed to accept 10 percent of Cifer’s profits from business he steered to the firm.
Jurors also saw video of Nelson accepting cash-filled envelopes from undercover investigators. And they saw a written statement of facts, signed by Nelson, admitting that he committed acts that are alleged in his indictment.
FBI Special Agent Tonja Sablatura testified earlier that Nelson confessed to accepting bribes when he was detained by her and her fellow FBI agent in May 2010. That discussion occurred minutes after Nelson accepted $5,000 in cash from a man he believed to be a corrupt Cifer official.
That confession was not recorded, Sablatura said.
FBI policy only permits undercover agents to record conversations with targets of an investigation
Sablatura was not working undercover.
Page A. Pate, one of Nelson’s attorneys, told jurors Wednesday that undercover FBI agents pushed and pushed Nelson into criminal acts.
“I submit to you he (Nelson) was a different guy in 2010 than he was in 2008,” Pate told jurors. “That’s not the Tommy Nelson everybody knew in 2008. What happened between 2008 and 2010? Two years of undercover agents working on him.”
Pate added: “If he (Nelson) confessed, why can’t we hear it in his own words?”
“All of the bribe transactions were recorded,” Assistant U.S. Attorney M. Patricia Jones told jurors. “He confessed.”
Jones added: “He wrote it down. These were payments in exchange for official acts.”
Amundson told jurors: “Tommy Nelson is here today because of Tommy Nelson.”
Amundson said Nelson accepted bribes, confessed to those crimes and now wants people to believe prosecution witnesses are lying about him.
“Everybody’s lying?” Amundson asked jurors.
“He (Nelson) signed this statement of facts,” Amundson reminded jurors. “What did he admit? He admitted everything we’re charging him with.”
The prosecution’s case was complicated by Nelson’s subpoena of former FBI Special Agent Darin Lee McAllister.
McAllister was an undercover agent who approached Nelson and several other officials indicted as a result of the FBI sting.
In a case unrelated to Nelson’s, however, McAllister was convicted in December in Nashville on 15 counts of wire fraud and three counts of making false statements in his 2009 bankruptcy case. McAllister’s jury concluded that his wire frauds involved bank funds totaling $1.2 million.
Nelson’s defense attorneys repeatedly suggested that federal investigators improperly entrapped him and coerced him into committing acts he otherwise would not have considered.
So, McAllister’s criminal conviction was a problem for prosecutors.
If Pate and Fiser had caught McAllister in a lie during his testimony, the defense attorneys would have been able to ask him about his felony conviction in Tennessee.
And that could have affected the jury’s decision in Nelson’s trial.
Nelson’s conviction is the third to have resulted from Operation Blighted officials.
Former White Castle Mayor Maurice Brown was convicted on felony charges March 3, but has not yet been sentenced.
Former Port Allen Councilman Johnny L. Johnson Sr. pleaded guilty to racketeering and bribery charges last year. Johnson hasn’t been sentenced, either.
There also has been one acquittal.
White Castle Police Chief Mario Brown, brother of Maurice Brown, was found innocent on all counts March 3.