More than six years after she emerged from obscurity to become a central figure in a scandal that transfixed New Orleanians and badly tarnished Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration, Stacey Jackson was sentenced Friday to five years in federal prison.
The punishment imposed by U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon was the maximum possible sentence for the crime to which Jackson pleaded guilty — conspiracy to receive kickbacks.
Were it not for a deal that allowed her to plead to a charge with a five-year cap, Jackson might have faced a much longer term in prison. Federal guidelines, as calculated by Lemmon, called for a sentence of 17 1/2 to almost 22 years for the criminal acts she was implicated in.
Jackson also was ordered to pay restitution of $442,000 and a fine of $50,000.
In a tearful apology before the court, Jackson said, “I can’t stress how sorry I am.”
Jackson was the executive director of New Orleans Affordable Homeownership, a quasi-city agency that used public money to fund repairs and paint jobs for low-income New Orleanians. After Hurricane Katrina, Nagin decided to make NOAH a cornerstone of the city’s blight-remediation efforts, funneling millions into the agency so it could hire contractors to gut and board up storm-damaged properties.
But an investigation led by journalist Lee Zurik and blogger Karen Gadbois found that many of the homes the agency had paid to remediate had not been touched and that the owners of some of the companies that were paid to do the work had close ties to Jackson, who had hired them.
Initially, Nagin angrily denied the news reports and accused the journalists of standing in the way of the city’s recovery. The dispute captivated the city and became a defining moment for the mayor, whose administration soon would sink further into scandal.
Five years passed before Jackson was charged, but it was no surprise when she was. By then, five alleged co-conspirators had been indicted, and four had taken plea deals with the government. Two of them, Trellis Smith and Earl Myers, admitted that Jackson had overpaid them by tens of thousands of dollars for city remediation jobs; in turn, they had shared the loot with her through cash kickbacks and other gifts.
The case against Jackson appeared strong, with a handful of cooperating witnesses prepared to testify against her and documentary evidence implicating her in both the initial fraud and an attempt to cover it up after the fact.
But she and her attorney, Eddie Castaing, fought the charges, staking much of their defense on a long-shot effort to have the indictment quashed on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. The claim’s initial foundation was a racially tinged rant about the NOAH case posted at nola.com in 2008 under an alias by Sal Perricone, then a top federal prosecutor.
Through subpoenas to nola.com, which the organization vainly fought, Castaing sought to show that other prosecutors or FBI agents had participated with Perricone in an anonymous pile-on aimed at Jackson. But the tactic proved unsuccessful, with U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson — who was charged with reviewing the materials produced in response to the subpoena — ultimately declaring that none of the anonymous posts examined could be linked to a federal official.
That portion of the case is still being litigated, with nola.com and The Times-Picayune trying to persuade a federal appeals court to rule that the subpoena should never have been approved.
But for Jackson, any hope that the tactic would win her freedom died with Wilkinson’s ruling, and she entered a guilty plea shortly afterward.
What punishment was appropriate for the mother of two was the subject of a contentious hearing Thursday. Castaing portrayed his client as a generally upstanding citizen who made a single mistake and wouldn’t do so again. Prosecutor Fred Harper depicted her as a grasping schemer who had every advantage and stole when she had the opportunity simply because she was greedy.
Lemmon offered little in the way of commentary on those competing portrayals. She noted that a host of Jackson’s relatives and friends had written letters to the court in what she called an “amazing tribute to the defendant’s standing,” and she said she did not take sending Jackson to prison lightly. But the judge added that the 60-month sentence already represented a big break of sorts, given the sentencing guideline calculations, and that there were no “extreme circumstances,” such as a gravely ill child, that cried out for a lesser penalty.
Lemmon did grant a request from Castaing to let Jackson surrender herself to the federal Bureau of Prisons after the holidays. The judge directed Jackson to turn herself in Jan. 12.
Two of the defendants who pleaded guilty in the NOAH case were sentenced much earlier. 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 in June.
Smith and Myers, who are both likely to be rewarded for their cooperation against Jackson, are set to be sentenced in November.
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.