Armer Bright, an Orleans Parish School Board employee who was hired to make sure minority-owned companies get work from the school system, pleaded guilty Wednesday to helping former board member Ira Thomas arrange a kickback scheme.
Thomas himself pleaded guilty on May 13 and resigned his position.
Bright was initially identified as “Employee A” in court documents charging Thomas, but The New Orleans Advocate named him in late May as the board employee suspected in the scheme. He signed a plea deal on June 3, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Bright, accompanied by his lawyer, Clarence Roby, entered his guilty plea before U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who also accepted Thomas’ guilty plea in May. Bright is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 23 and faces up to five years in prison.
When Morgan asked him whether he was pleading guilty because he is in fact guilty — a standard question judges pose to defendants — Bright responded in such a low voice that Morgan asked him to speak up.
She repeated the question, and he said, “Yes, your honor.”
In response to another question, Bright told the judge that he had not yet resigned his position with the School Board, but he promised to do so by the end of the day. Bright informed his bosses in March that he was the “Employee A” described in Thomas’ bill of information, and he has been on a leave of absence since then.
As soon as the hearing was over, Bright left the courtroom with a female companion. The two huddled on a bench around the corner; he appeared to be sobbing, and she comforted him.
Like Thomas, Bright was charged in a bill of information rather than a grand jury indictment, usually a signal that a defendant has agreed to cooperate with authorities.
The bill says that in September 2013, Bright approached an unnamed person — described as a “cooperating witness” — and offered to help him get a janitorial contract with the School Board in return for a bribe. The would-be contractor, who recorded subsequent conversations for federal investigators, then discussed the arrangement with Thomas.
Thomas has admitted that he ultimately split a $5,000 bribe from the “confidential witness” with another individual who so far has been identified only as “Private Citizen B.” It’s unclear who Private Citizen B is or whether that person also will be charged.
Meanwhile, the document charging Bright does not say whether he received anything for helping to arrange the crooked deal. Roby declined to answer questions about how, or whether, his client was compensated.
Bright was hired as executive director of the district’s Office of Disadvantaged Business Enterprises in 2012, and he proved controversial from the start. It came to light a few months after the board voted to approve his contract that he had been charged with insurance fraud more than a decade before and eventually pleaded guilty to a count of misdemeanor theft.
The board kept him in his job anyway, in part because the crime had taken place in the 1990s and Bright had an otherwise clean record.
Bright faces up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine as large as $250,000. Thomas is scheduled to be sentenced in August. He faces the same maximum penalties as Bright.