Big Freedia left federal court in a shiny Chevrolet Suburban on Wednesday with a whirl of cameras trailing her and a felony conviction on her record.
The New Orleans bounce rapper, whose reality TV show made her a national star, pleaded guilty to the theft of nearly $35,000 in federal housing voucher money.
The entertainer, whose real name is Freddie Ross Jr., admitted she fraudulently accepted the Section 8 vouchers over a period spanning much of her rise to fame.
Clad in a black velvet jacket, sequined shoes and purple hair, Big Freedia spoke little during the hearing other than to admit her guilt as part of a deal with prosecutors.
She previously had released a statement suggesting that financial illiteracy led her to take the housing voucher money, which led U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to press her on the matter.
“You understand that this crime was much more than an oversight. Do you understand that?” Africk asked.
“Yes, sir,” Big Freedia replied.
Africk ordered the entertainer released on a $25,000 bond and told her to surrender her passport. She faces a maximum 10-year sentence and $250,000 fine at a June 16 sentencing hearing. Africk warned her and her attorney that he did not yet know what kind of sentence he will impose.
Federal prosecutors charged Big Freedia with theft of government funds on March 1 after an investigation involving the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the FBI and the Housing Authority of New Orleans.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jordan Ginsberg read a seven-page “factual basis” for the plea in court that detailed how the New Orleans native tricked the federal government into giving her money for housing despite the fact that she exceeded income limits for Section 8 vouchers.
Year after year, prosecutors said, Big Freedia claimed assets and income far below what she was actually making in applications to HANO. In her first application for Section 8 money in March 2009, she listed monthly income of between $100 and $1,000 and no additional assets. By the time she was a major star in 2014, she claimed she made just $12,000 and had only $250 in the bank.
But all during that time, prosecutors said, Big Freedia was pulling in money from concerts, merchandising and her reality TV show.
In total, prosecutors said, she fraudulently received $34,849 in Section 8 aid between January 2010 and November 2014. She used the money for housing on Bayou Road in the Treme neighborhood and then on Warrington Drive in Gentilly.
Ginsberg said in court that the government was prepared to produce bank statements and offer the testimony of an accountant to show that the star knew she was making far too much to claim the aid.
After the hearing, Big Freedia left the courthouse wearing sunglasses and approached a podium that had been set up by a waiting TV crew, although it was not clear whether the cameras were from her Fuse network show, “Queen of Bounce.”
She did not speak, but her lawyer, Tim Kappel, did read a statement on her behalf.
“This is an incredibly unfortunate situation for which my client unequivocally accepts responsibility,” Kappel said. “Her guilty plea today is another step forward in putting this matter behind us.”
Big Freedia now had a federal conviction, but her fans did not seem to mind. Several women standing nearby shouted “We support you, Freedia!” after the statement was delivered.
And with that, Big Freedia and her attorney stepped into the waiting SUV and drove off.