More than four years after former Gretna City Councilman Jonathan Bolar was found guilty of extorting constituents and sentenced to 17 years, a federal judge has scheduled a hearing to determine whether Bolar’s defense attorney told him to reject a plea bargain that would have given him a much shorter sentence.
The plea deal supposedly called for him to serve between a year and 18 months behind bars.
In a motion seeking to set aside his sentence, Bolar claims his lawyer’s advice amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel, depriving him of his Sixth Amendment rights. He also accuses his trial attorney, Marion Floyd, of understating the possible sentence he faced if he rolled the dice at trial rather than cooperated with the government.
Floyd stands by his defense of Bolar and, in a recent court filing, flatly denied that a plea deal had ever been on the table.
“There were no plea negotiations because Mr. Bolar was adamant that he wanted to go to trial,” Floyd wrote.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Harper filed a similar statement, calling the purported plea offer “highly improbable.”
“I did not and would never have offered Bolar a plea deal involving 12-18 months incarceration, nor would I have recommended acceptance of such an offer, which would have been an unacceptable, unrealistic proposition in view of the significant evidence against Bolar on the extortion and other charges,” Harper wrote. “Indeed, such an offer would have strayed so far from promoting the interests of justice as to have been preposterous.”
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk called an Aug. 14 evidentiary hearing to determine “whether a plea offer was made and, if so, as to whether counsel’s advice and actions relative to that plea offer prejudiced the defendant.”
Bolar, who served on the Gretna City Council between 2001 and 2010, was convicted of extorting money from constituents by insisting he be paid off to ensure various business decisions by the council.
One local businessman testified that Bolar demanded a $5,000 campaign contribution before the businessman could receive a permit to renovate an apartment complex. The former councilman also insisted that his own construction firm be used for that renovation.
Bolar argued against another rezoning request after a business owner refused to pay him off.
In a scathing order explaining his reasons for punishing Bolar beyond the federal sentencing guidelines, Africk said the disgraced councilman had sought to foster his “own economic development” rather than that of his district during his time in office.
“The deceit that permeated your past behavior is further manifested by your covert attempts to conceal cash deposits from the Internal Revenue Service in an attempt to evade U.S. currency transaction reporting requirements,” the judge wrote. “When one examines the ignominious criminal conduct that forms the foundations of these convictions, a pattern of deceit and immoral behavior is strikingly apparent.”
Bolar’s new attorney, Robin Schulberg, filed a motion Monday seeking to recuse Africk from future proceedings in the case, saying the judge “expressed a firm opinion during the sentencing hearing that would cause a reasonable person to question (his) impartiality” toward Bolar.
While he granted an evidentiary hearing to probe the alleged plea deal, Africk gave short shrift to Bolar’s claim that former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann made disparaging online comments that influenced his trial.
“He identifies no evidence to support this conclusory assertion,” Africk wrote, “nor does he identify how the misconduct prejudiced the impartiality of the jury or the integrity of its verdict.”
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