Stacey Jackson, a former City Hall aide charged with running a dysfunctional blight removal program that erupted in scandal and transfixed New Orleanians in the summer of 2008, will apparently plead guilty to criminal charges in federal court Wednesday.
The docket in Jackson’s case, which has been set for trial July 21, shows that a “change of plea” hearing has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Jackson had pleaded not guilty at her arraignment last year, and her lawyer, Eddie Castaing, has steadfastly maintained her innocence since then.
Castaing confirmed late Tuesday that Jackson intends to plead guilty as part of a plea bargain; he declined further comment.
Jackson was charged last year with taking kickbacks nearly five years earlier from several contractors who worked for New Orleans Affordable Homeownership, a quasi-city nonprofit program that she headed. Then-Mayor Ray Nagin gave the agency a central role in a blight-remediation campaign after Hurricane Katrina. The city paid NOAH to hire contractors to gut and board up unoccupied homes and keep their lawns mowed.
In many cases, news reports showed, contractors were being paid for work that was never done.
Though Nagin was not charged in the NOAH probe, the episode occurred at a time of widespread discontent with the city’s halting recovery from the storm, and it became closely associated with him. That was partly a result of Nagin’s handling of the matter, which included angry public denunciations of the reporters who uncovered NOAH’s failures.
His brother-in-law, Cedric Smith, was one of NOAH’s highest-paid contractors, although Smith ultimately was never accused of paying off Jackson.
Federal authorities quickly began investigating the program, but it took years for a grand jury to issue indictments. In the end, four contractors pleaded guilty to charges that they bribed Jackson; all of them were prepared to testify against her at trial.
Jackson hinged most of her defense on a claim of prosecutorial misconduct, arising from the online-commenting scandal that engulfed the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2012.
Castaing cited a handful of pseudonymous rants posted by former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone — including one in which Perricone wrote in a clumsy effort at black dialect — as evidence that Jackson was targeted in bad faith, possibly because of her race. Jackson is African-American.
Fred Harper, the lead prosecutor on the case, countered that Perricone never had any involvement in the Jackson case and in fact resigned from the office more than a year before she was charged. Also, none of Perricone’s remarks addressed Jackson directly, although at least one of his rants referenced the NOAH scandal obliquely.
Castaing sought to show that the commenting scandal went beyond Perricone and Jan Mann, a former top prosecutor who also resigned after admitting she wrote anonymous posts. He succeeded in getting U.S. Magistrate Joseph Wilkinson to order nola.com to turn over information to the court about two other commenters Castaing hoped to unmask, “aircheck” and “jammer1954.” The news organization unsuccessfully fought the order, saying it infringed on the First Amendment rights of those who comment on the site under aliases.
Wilkinson — who had encouraged that line of attack by suggesting in an earlier order that the two commenters might be federal officials — ultimately determined that “jammer1954” was in fact a private citizen. In a joint order with U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon, who is overseeing the case, Wilkinson wrote that he was unable to determine the identity of “aircheck.”
The two judges also shot down an effort by Castaing to seek information about yet another commenter he suspected might be a fed, this one using the handle “kefir.”
Two of the defendants to plead guilty in the NOAH case have already been sentenced: Richard Hall was sentenced to two years in prison and is scheduled to be released in December, while Jamon Dial was sentenced to six months and was released last month, according to federal records.
Two others, Trellis Smith and Earl Myers, are set to be sentenced in October.
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.