The attorney who previously represented former Gretna City Councilman Jonathan Bolar on extortion charges offered a vigorous defense Tuesday of his performance in the case, denying a claim that prosecutors proposed a formal plea bargain to Bolar before he rolled the dice with a jury and received a stiff punishment.
Bolar, who is serving 17 years in federal prison, claims his sentence should be set aside because he received misguided advice from his former defense attorney, Marion D. Floyd. He claims Floyd misrepresented his potential sentencing exposure in the case, and that he therefore went to trial believing the stakes to be far lower than they actually were.
Bolar, who served on the Gretna City Council between 2001 and 2010, was found guilty of extorting money from constituents by demanding payments to ensure certain business decisions by the council.
A judge ruled in June that Bolar’s claim — that Floyd’s handling of his case amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel — couldn’t be dismissed without a hearing to determine whether the government in fact had offered Bolar a plea deal involving a sentence of only 12 to 18 months.
That proceeding began Tuesday with some three hours of testimony, as Bolar’s new lawyer, Michael Fawer, called Floyd to the witness stand and grilled him about his dealings with the U.S. Attorney’s Office leading up to the 2010 trial.
Given the severity of the corruption charges Bolar faced, Floyd testified that he’d been taken aback by the willingness of federal prosecutors to cut the city councilman a deal in exchange for Bolar’s cooperation and information he purported to have about various other unnamed officials. “I thought it was Christmas,” Floyd said, describing the government’s general overtures as “jump-on-it-that-day good.”
From his first day representing Bolar, Floyd said, he believed it was in his client’s best interest to take a plea deal involving as little prison time as possible. But that was a nonstarter, he added, because Bolar never accepted responsibility for his actions or pursued the possibility of pleading guilty.
Floyd recalled that he and Bolar met with Fred Harper, a senior assistant U.S. attorney, and other federal officials at the FBI’s Lakefront office, a venue Floyd said Harper had selected for privacy. He found the meeting — and the prosecution’s posture — to be so striking that “I can remember the suit I had on that day.”
As an example of the government’s flexibility, he said, Bolar was advised during the meeting to look no further than the case of Ellenese Brooks-Simms, a former Orleans Parish School Board president who received 18 months in prison for accepting bribes. That light sentence reflected her assistance to the authorities in convicting Mose Jefferson, the eldest brother and chief political strategist of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.
Harper discussed a number of possible legal avenues that would have been made available to Bolar if he decided to cooperate, Floyd said. Floyd stressed, however, that nothing ever was put into writing and the two sides never drafted a formal plea bargain, as negotiations never reached that phase.
“It was a general meeting about the types of plea arrangements that were available to the government,” Floyd said. “It was very preliminary.”
Bolar, who shook his head several times during Floyd’s testimony, is expected to offer a different version of events when the hearing resumes Friday. Bolar has claimed that Floyd told him he faced between 40 and 44 months behind bars if convicted at trial — a claim Floyd denied.
Fawer pointed to an exchange of emails in which Floyd informed his client that prosecutors weren’t interested in allowing him to plead guilty only to tax charges in the case. Floyd offered at one point in the email to inquire whether “the original deal” — pleading guilty to one felony count of “honest services” fraud and one tax count — was “still available.”
While Bolar contends that email is proof that a formal offer had been made, Floyd said he wasn’t referring to any specific offers made by the government but rather to their “initial discussions.”
Harper, for his part, has scoffed at the suggestion that Bolar would have been let off easily, dismissing the alleged plea offer as “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 in a recent court filing. “Indeed, such an offer would have strayed so far from promoting the interests of justice as to have been preposterous.”
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