NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal corruption charges, admitting he cheated taxpayers in a payroll fraud scheme and took payoffs from a parish contractor.
Broussard, a populist Democrat who may be best known outside Louisiana for sobbing during a nationally televised interview during Hurricane Katrina’s chaotic aftermath, kept his composure as he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and theft charges and answered questions from the judge who will sentence him.
“Why are you pleading guilty?” U.S. District Hayden Head asked him.
“Because I am guilty, your honor,” responded Broussard, who faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. His sentencing is set for Feb. 25.
Broussard, 63, resigned as president of one of the state’s most populous parishes in 2010, ending a political career that spanned four decades.
“At 23 years old, I came into politics as a dragon slayer. At 63 years old, I’m going out as the dragon,” he told reporters on his way into the courthouse.
Four other people — Broussard’s ex-wife, two former parish officials and a parish contractor — already had pleaded guilty in the case and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities. Before cutting his own deal with prosecutors, Broussard was the only defendant facing a trial scheduled to start in November. The trial had been postponed after Broussard disclosed he had been diagnosed with cancer.
On Monday, former parish attorney Thomas Wilkinson pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge. He and Broussard were charged last year with plotting to give a lucrative parish job to Broussard’s former wife, Karen Parker. Prosecutors say Parker was paid $323,000 over six years for a job she wasn’t qualified to hold and never performed.
“This was a crime perpetrated on the taxpayers of Jefferson Parish,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Klebba. “This was really a way to get money to Karen Parker, which then of course benefited Mr. Broussard.”
Parker pleaded guilty in January to misprision of a felony, or concealing a crime, and awaits sentencing.
Broussard also pleaded guilty to a charge that he accepted payoffs to steer parish work to the owner of a telecommunications equipment and services company. The company’s owner, William Mack, allegedly paid Broussard roughly $66,000 during his time in office in exchange for steering about $40,000 in parish work to Mack’s company.
Mack pleaded guilty in July to conspiring to bribe Broussard. Timothy Whitmer, who served as the parish’s chief administrative officer under Broussard, pleaded guilty in March to a charge stemming from the probe.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said the guilty pleas are proof that New Orleans is “on the move” and shedding its image as a haven for political corruption.
Broussard became mayor of the Jefferson Parish city of Kenner in 1982 and served until being elected to the Jefferson Parish Council in 1995. Elected parish president in 2003, Broussard was widely criticized after Katrina struck in 2005 for his decision to shut down pumps as the hurricane approached.
In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” less than a week after the storm’s landfall, Broussard criticized the federal response and broke down in tears while recounting the story of a parish worker whose mother kept calling for days from a nursing home, asking when she would be rescued. He said the woman drowned before anyone could get to her.