You might almost say it was celebratory.
Just moments after he was told by a federal judge that he would spend a year and a day in prison, former Orleans Parish School Board President Ira Thomas was glad-handing in the hallway, grinning and giving out hugs.
One well-wisher embraced him and thanked God out loud that the judge had shown leniency.
Given the charges, it could have been much worse for Thomas. But U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan handed down a sentence on Wednesday that made it clear Thomas would be rewarded for cooperating with the federal investigators who caught him accepting a bribe.
After serving time in prison, Thomas will spend a year under supervised release. He must also pay a $4,000 fine and a $100 special assessment.
As is usually the case when a defendant pleads guilty or otherwise cooperates with prosecutors, Thomas’ sentence is lower than the maximum penalty he faced. He could have spent as many as five years in prison, plus three years of supervised release and a fine of as much as $250,000.
Thomas is headed to jail because he and another School Board employee, Armer Bright, worked to steer a School Board janitorial contract to a cooperating witness in exchange for a $5,000 bribe, authorities say. Bright was then serving as the head of the district’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprises office, in charge of ensuring that minority-owned companies got their share of work from the board.
Thomas ultimately split the money with another individual, who thus far has been identified in court documents only as “Private Citizen B.”
The bribe, which occurred in the fall of 2013, was disguised as a campaign contribution, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite Jr. said. Thomas was then mounting a campaign for Orleans Parish sheriff, a bid that proved unsuccessful.
Bright pleaded guilty in July and faces a Nov. 4 sentencing.
Both he and Thomas were charged in bills of information, which is typically a sign that defendants are working with prosecutors.
It is unclear who Private Citizen B is and whether that person also will be charged.
In any case, Thomas made a point Wednesday of praising law enforcement and showing contrition. At no point since he was charged has Thomas ever publicly denied wrongdoing.
“I still think the U.S. justice system is still the best and the finest of any criminal justice system throughout the world,” he said, adding later, “No one is above the law. I’m certainly not.”
His attorney, John Reed, portrayed the bribe as an anomaly for an otherwise upstanding citizen, pointing to almost two dozen letters to the court lauding Thomas’ character, his time as a New Orleans police officer and his difficult childhood.
Still, while Morgan did not hand down as stiff a sentence as she could have, the judge did condemn the crime. Thomas was tasked with caring for children, she said. “Instead, he violated that (public) trust and used his position to enrich himself.”
Because of that, she said, “he is going to prison.”
The scandal is also another black eye for a School Board that has worked for years to rebrand itself after a legacy of pre-Hurricane Katrina corruption.
When he reports to prison in November, Thomas will become the second former School Board president in five years to do so. The first, Ellenese Brooks-Simms, was sentenced to 18 months in jail in 2010 for accepting $140,000 in bribes.
The School Board’s sitting president, Seth Bloom, said he understands why some of the city’s independent charter schools and board critics, who have long shunned the School Board in favor of state oversight under the Recovery School District, might cite the Thomas ordeal as one more reason to stay away.
“Having said that, we have put in mechanisms since Mr. Thomas’ actions to prevent these kinds of things,” he said. “I hope they look past this one instance.”
Board Vice President Cynthia Cade, who has long been Thomas’ ally, said Wednesday after the sentencing that one man’s actions do not speak for the board. “I still to this day don’t believe that there was any conspiracy involving Thomas,” she said. “He’s a gentleman.”
The Rev. Marie Galatas Ortiz, of New Creation Christian Church, who said Thomas was a longtime friend, agreed. “If he would have started singing, they would have let him free,” she joked, praising his voice.
Thomas hugged Ortiz before filing into an elevator at the federal courthouse. Though he would not take questions from reporters, he bid them pleasant good-byes as he stood, surrounded by friends and relatives, on the steps outside the Poydras Street building.
He will report to a low-security prison on Nov. 30.