Orleans Parish School Board employee sentenced to one year for role in bribery scheme _lowres

Armer Bright

The official who admitted helping former Orleans Parish School Board President Ira Thomas arrange a bribe will serve a year and a day in prison, a federal judge decided Wednesday — the same prison term handed down to Thomas a little more than a month ago.

Armer Bright also will serve a year under supervised release once he gets out. Unlike Thomas, Bright avoided any major fines, ordered to pay only a $100 special assessment.

Bright, 51, pleaded guilty in July to one felony count of conspiracy to commit bribery and honest-services wire fraud after prosecutors said he worked to steer a School Board janitorial contract to a cooperating witness in exchange for a $5,000 bribe.

It was Bright — identified in court records for a time only as “Employee A” — who offered the witness the contract, authorities said. The witness later delivered the money to another conspirator, identified as “Private Citizen B.” That person later split the cash with Thomas, disguising the payment as a campaign contribution.

Bright was then serving as the head of the district’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprises office, in charge of ensuring that the board gave work to minority-owned companies.

It is unclear who Private Citizen B is and whether that person will be charged. Court documents also don’t specify whether any specific compensation went to Bright for facilitating the deal, although they do say Bright and Thomas wielded their influence to get “a corrupt and illicit payment” that benefited both men.

The reduced sentences were expected after both defendants cooperated with prosecutors.

Had U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan given Bright the maximum, he would have been sentenced to five years behind bars, three years under supervised release and a $250,000 fine. Her judgment also fell below the applicable sentencing guidelines, which called for 18 months to two years in prison and a fine of between $4,000 and $40,000.

Bright will have to report to prison Jan. 4, Morgan said.

It’s not the first time Bright has entered a plea deal. A few months after the School Board voted to approve his contract, it came to light that he had been charged with insurance fraud more than a decade before. He eventually pleaded guilty to a count of misdemeanor theft. The board at the time looked past the misstep, in part because it happened in the 1990s and Bright had stayed out of trouble since then.

There was no mention of that background Wednesday. Morgan instead praised a record she described as spotless: “Mr. Bright has no prior criminal history,” she said. “He has a strong employment history, and certainly his prospects for rehabilitation are great.”

Before making her judgment, Morgan said she considered seven letters asking for leniency on Bright’s behalf, some of them from vendors who gained School Board contracts with his help. Many described him as a stellar employee, and some even painted him as a puppet in a scheme orchestrated mainly by Thomas.

William Lewis, of UATC & Associates Inc., a company the School Board has hired in the past, said Bright always kept things above board in their dealings. As for the charge, “I do not condone what Mr. Bright did; however, I can understand when your supervisor asks a favor of you, it’s a very difficult position,” Lewis wrote.

Electrical contractor Chester Williams said that his attempts to win a School Board contract after Hurricane Katrina had been unsuccessful. Still, he said, Bright encouraged him to keep trying. “I have never worn a $1,000 suit or $500 shoes or a Rolex watch,” but “Armer Bright has treated me and my company with the utmost respect,” he said.

Back in court, Bright seemed contrite. “I want to (give) an apology to your honor, the community and to my family and friends. It’s been a painful ordeal for me,” he said, after taking a shuddering breath.

Defense attorney Clarence Roby also downplayed his client’s involvement in the plot. “It is clear that he has played a minimum role in this unfortunate situation,” he told Morgan.

Small role or not, the judge made it clear Bright would not avoid jail time. “He was placed in a position of trust,” which he violated, she said.

After the judgment was read, Bright briskly exited the room, followed by two female companions and Roby. He declined to comment on the sentence.

Unlike Thomas’ almost jovial after-court huddle, there seemed to be little here to be happy about.

As one of Bright’s companions flanked him, her lip trembled. Her eyes filled with tears.

“I’m not OK,” she said.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.