Nearly three years after a jury found her guilty of helping to loot a string of sham charities, former New Orleans City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt is finally about to see the inside of a prison cell.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ordered her to surrender to authorities June 30 after having allowed her to remain free on appeal since her 2011 conviction on a racketeering charge.
But Lemelle also granted Gill Pratt, once a stalwart of disgraced former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s political machine, a bit of a reprieve, shaving roughly three years off the sentence of more than seven years that he originally imposed.
Gill Pratt’s new sentence calls for a prison term of 50 months.
Lemelle had been ordered to resentence Gill Pratt by a federal appeals court that found he miscalculated the sentencing guidelines the first time.
Despite the shortened sentence, Gill Pratt’s defense attorney, Mike Fawer, vowed to file a motion seeking a new trial, claiming the proceedings were tainted by an online-commenting scandal involving federal prosecutors.
Gill Pratt was convicted for her role in a scheme by several members of the Jefferson family to steal more than $1 million from a string of Central City nonprofit organizations that family members created and controlled.
“We don’t think any sentence is appropriate in the case,” Fawer said after the sentencing. “I don’t think the trial was a fair trial given the amount of blogging and leaking that was going on” in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Gill Pratt’s main role in the scheme was that she steered public money to charities whose funds she knew would be pilfered by her allies in the Jefferson political clan, federal prosecutors said. Gill Pratt, who also served for more than a decade as a state representative, was well aware that the charities to which she was funneling state and federal grant dollars were actually shams, they said.
The nonprofits were run by members of the Jefferson family, including Mose Jefferson, Gill Pratt’s longtime boyfriend and the former congressman’s chief political strategist, who was convicted in a separate bribery scheme but who died in prison before he could be tried in the racketeering case.
Two other siblings of the congressman, Brenda Foster and former 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson, also pleaded guilty in the case. Both have since died.
Gill Pratt asked Lemelle for leniency so she could continue to care for her 85-year-old mother, who has an array of health problems and can no longer live on her own. Her mother recently went into a diabetic coma and had to be hospitalized, but Gill Pratt said she would rather not put her in a nursing home.
That request was passionately opposed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Harper, who said Gill Pratt “is in no different position with regard to the collateral damage that’s caused by their engaging in criminal conduct and criminal activity than any other defendant.”
If Gill Pratt was so concerned about her mother’s health, Harper said, she should have thought about that before she became a criminal and betrayed the public’s trust as an elected official.
“There are family members who have to pick up the ball,” said Harper, who noted he has a 95-year-old parent living with him. “She doesn’t reap a benefit from being able to stand here and say, ‘I want to take care of my mother.’ ”
Wednesday’s hearing sprang from a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year that upheld Gill Pratt’s conviction but found Lemelle had applied the wrong guidelines in sentencing her to 87 months. Lemelle seemed to welcome that opinion — “Sometimes hindsight is great,” he said — and noted he had learned several new details about the case, which he factored into the new sentence.
Perhaps most critically, he settled on a lower “loss calculation,” a figure derived from the value of goods and services misappropriated that was “reasonably foreseeable” or intended by Gill Pratt. Lemelle said he agreed with Fawer’s contention that the “loss” attributed to Gill Pratt should be discounted considerably — from more than $1 million to less than $700,000 — and that finding helped to lower her adjusted sentencing range.
He ordered Gill Pratt to pay $688,444 in restitution, with payments of $150 a month to begin during her incarceration.
“I found it interesting that whenever you do a relook at something that you’ve done before, you do come up with things that weren’t presented before,” Lemelle said.
Fawer has said Gill Pratt deserves a new trial in light of the anonymous online-commenting scandal involving former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone, who used various aliases to author disparaging comments about Gill Pratt and other defendants. Those comments, as well as some from other former federal prosecutors, formed much of the basis for U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt’s decision to throw out the convictions of five NOPD officers in the Danziger Bridge police shooting after Hurricane Katrina.
That ruling, which cited “grotesque” prosecutorial misconduct, prompted a parade of other defendants to try to use the commenting scandal to either vacate their sentences or quash federal indictments, though the Danziger case remains the only verdict to have been set aside.
Fawer asked Lemelle to avoid imposing an overly harsh “trial penalty” against his client, who, unlike her co-defendants, elected to roll the dice with a jury. Gill Pratt deserved a sentence below the guidelines in the interest of “parity,” he argued, pointing to the 15 months of home detention to which Betty Jefferson was sentenced and the three years of probation that Angela Coleman, another co-defendant, received in the case.
Fawer argued in a court filing that “Betty Jefferson’s criminal intent, criminal actions and culpability far exceeded that (of) Gill Pratt, even on the government’s best day.”
But a key distinction between Gill Pratt and those other defendants, Lemelle noted, was “that they indeed cooperated with the government.”
Lemelle said he remained befuddled at how Gill Pratt, whom he described as having a “stellar career,” ever got involved in such shady dealings.
“I still find myself missing something,” the judge said. “But it’s led us to this point.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.