Ira Thomas, who resigned from the Orleans Parish School Board after being indicted in March, appeared in a federal courtroom Wednesday and formally admitted accepting a bribe in exchange for fixing a janitorial contract at the school district.
Thomas entered his guilty plea before U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, answering the judge’s questions in a calm, deliberate voice as she explained the charges and read him his rights.
The hushed, mostly empty courtroom was in some ways a jarring scene. Thomas was an emphatic and contentious presence on the School Board. A few years ago, he called a news conference to denounce the school district’s interim superintendent for committing “fraud, malfeasance and forgery” in office. He traded accusations about criminal dealings with rival board members on the radio. At one meeting, he attacked a compromise proposal offered by a fellow board member as “asinine.”
However, in a pair of brief court appearances since U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite charged him with arranging a kickback scheme, Thomas has given every appearance of contrition.
He has made no attempt to fight the allegations and appears to be cooperating with federal authorities in an ongoing investigation. The scheme outlined by prosecutors involved at least three other people, all of them as yet unnamed.
Thomas, a former police officer who ran for Orleans Parish sheriff last year, made no public comments either before or after Wednesday’s court appearance. But in an interview this week with the weekly newspaper Gambit, he both accepted responsibility for his crime and defended the rest of his record as a public figure.
“I have served this community for more than 35 years,” he said.
“I have championed the right causes for our community, for the Police Department and for the School Board to make sure children receive a quality education. In this particular challenge, I take full responsibility. I will create a positive outcome by continuing to serve this community, the children and to champion other important causes that are larger than myself.”
Thomas is facing a maximum of five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000. Morgan set his sentencing for Aug. 12, though that date may well be pushed back if Thomas becomes a government witness.
The customary pleas for leniency from family and friends began this week with a letter to the court from John Penny, chairman of the Department of Social Sciences at Southern University at New Orleans, where Thomas served as head of security until he was charged.
Penny mentions that Thomas graduated from the school’s Criminal Justice Program on Saturday with a 4.0 grade-point average and claims “the crime rate on this campus is among the lowest in the nation due to his outstanding leadership.”
Thomas’ lawyer, John Reed, asked Wednesday if he could make some remarks in order to provide additional “context” to go along with the summary of facts outlined in federal charging documents. But Morgan said that if the remarks weren’t directly related to the guilty plea, they could wait for sentencing.
“This is not an opportunity to make public-relations statements,” Morgan said.
It was not clear what kind of context Reed wanted to add, or whether it would have further illuminated the scheme to rig the contract.
Federal prosecutors say a school district official identified in the court record as “Employee A” approached a cooperating witness — also unnamed in the documents — in 2013 and offered the janitorial services contract in return for a kickback.
The employee, the witness and Thomas, along with someone identified as “Private Citizen B,” later met to discuss the scheme. Eventually, the witness handed over $5,000 in the form of a campaign contribution to the “private citizen,” a portion of which he later gave to Thomas in cash. Thomas did not deposit the money into his campaign finance account.
Perhaps inevitably, the case has become fodder in the continuing debate over public education in New Orleans. The School Board lost control of most city schools to a state agency after Hurricane Katrina, in part because of a reputation for self-dealing among board members and district staff. A decade later, the debate goes on about whether schools should ever go back to the School Board’s fold.
Last week, a bill that would send a substantial majority of the state-controlled schools back to the board cleared the Louisiana House Education Committee, though its chances with the full Legislature remain unclear.
The influential former state school board member Leslie Jacobs this week urged lawmakers to reject the bill, citing in part the “recent indictment of former OPSB President Ira Thomas,” an “unfortunate reminder of the corruption that has plagued the OPSB.”
A poll released this week by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives suggested attitudes toward the board may be thawing somewhat, but that opinion is still divided.
Just 9 percent of respondents said categorically that schools should not return to the local board, but another 35 percent favored the existing policy, which leaves the decision up to the schools themselves. On the other hand, 31 percent said they favored a return within two years, while 13 percent said it should happen in three to five years.