The Orleans Parish School Board employee accused in court documents of helping former board member Ira Thomas arrange a kickback scheme is the official in charge of making sure that minority-owned companies get work from the board, according to sources familiar with the matter.
So far identified only as “Employee A” in court filings, Armer Bright is described in federal charging documents as helping to secure a janitorial contract in return for a bribe.
Bright allegedly proposed the kickback scheme to a would-be contractor — who recorded subsequent conversations for federal investigators — and then discussed the arrangement with Thomas.
Bright has acknowledged to school district officials that he is the employee named in the indictment filed against Thomas in March, but as of Thursday, he still worked for the district.
Matthew Broussard, a spokesman for Orleans Parish Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., declined to comment because the federal investigation is ongoing.
Bright did not immediately return a phone call and email asking for comment Thursday.
As they typically do in federal cases, prosecutors have kept his identity under wraps because they have not charged Bright with a crime.
The corruption charges have upended the school district’s fierce internal politics and may further damage the board’s fragile reputation. Thomas and Bright were allies in a fractious series of disputes that often saw the board’s public meetings descend into acrimony over the past three years.
Bright raised suspicions shortly after he was hired as executive director of the district’s Office of Disadvantaged Business Enterprises in 2012. It came to light just a few months after the board voted to approve his contract that he had pleaded guilty to a count of misdemeanor theft in 2000, having been accused of insurance fraud.
Bright had not disclosed the criminal record when he applied for a job with the school district. But the board kept him in place anyway, in part because of how many years had passed since the conviction.
Even so, Bright quickly became a point of controversy on a sharply divided board.
He had the emphatic backing of Thomas and Cynthia Cade, who were the board’s only black members at the time and were pushing for a stronger policy on hiring minority-owned businesses. They clashed with fellow board members about how aggressively to word that policy and about how big a budget to give Bright’s office.
Some of the board’s other members at the time worried that the district’s so-called DBE policy might run afoul of laws that require public contracts to go to the lowest bidder. And they stood by the decision to give a larger budget to the district’s charter school office, given its wider range of responsibilities.
It also was obvious at the time that some board members already distrusted Bright. At one public meeting, Cade took former board member Lourdes Moran to task for having told Bright privately that she was keeping a close eye on him.
The result was a split that reached from the board into the district’s central office. Thomas and Cade eventually pushed to fire the interim superintendent at the time, Stan Smith, alleging among other things that he was hampering Bright’s efforts to enforce a mandate that board contractors hire minority-owned subcontractors.
When Thomas held a news conference to condemn Smith publicly and demand that he resign, Bright was among the group of supporters who showed up to cheer him on.
A four-member majority on the seven-member board blocked Smith’s firing and kept him in the job until Lewis, the district’s new permanent superintendent, took over this year.
Thomas pleaded guilty before U.S. District Court Judge Susie Morgan earlier this month. He is scheduled to be sentenced in August. He faces up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine as large as $250,000.
Like all defendants who accept plea deals, Thomas has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators, though whether he has provided information about Bright isn’t clear.
Federal prosecutors say Thomas ultimately split a $5,000 bribe from their “confidential witness” with another individual who so far has been identified only as “Private Citizen B.”
The charging documents do not say whether Bright was ever compensated for his alleged role in the scheme.
It’s also unclear how Thomas planned to make sure that the janitorial contract went to the right person, but the federal indictment says investigators have recordings of 2014 phone conversations between Thomas and Bright in which they discussed how to rig the bidding process.
Bright’s previous run-in with law enforcement came in the late 1990s. He was accused of taking out multiple insurance policies and then filing claims with each of them for what he said was property stolen from his car. Facing five felony counts of insurance fraud, he ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge. He got a six-month suspended prison sentence and had to pay the Travelers Insurance Co. $7,000.