If a guy walks into a convenience store and robs it of $500, and cops arrest him, typically he’s going to jail. And yet a former state senator rips off taxpayers two times for close to a quarter of a million dollars total but never spends a minute behind bars.
Former state Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying about misusing $188,000 in taxpayer money.
U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser said that in June 2012, Bishop received the cash as a part of the Road Home program. The money was intended to rebuild or restore properties for low-income tenants, after the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Under the program, Bishop wouldn’t have to pay the money back as long as his low-income renters lived at his New Orleans East 4-unit property for at least 10 years.
But FBI special agent Bryan Vorndran said Bishop made false statements on paperwork to have his $188,000 loan forgiven, claiming he had low-income renters at his property. Vorndran says the low-income tenants Bishop claimed he had never existed.
Bishop told U.S. District Judge Greg Guidry during sentencing, “I made a stupid mistake, and I’m sorry for that.”
Eating potato salad after it was left out in the hot sun all day is a stupid mistake. Ripping off hard-working taxpayers for $188,000, and denying low-income renters the housing they desperately needed after Katrina, is so much more than a “stupid mistake.”
Katrina brought so much pain, suffering, devastation and heartache. Many lost the roof over their heads. For Bishop to take advantage of a program designed to help Katrina victims get back on their feet and have a place to live, by pocketing money meant to help them, is beyond reprehensible.
You would think Judge Guidry would sentence Bishop harshly for his actions. He didn’t. Federal sentencing guidelines recommended an 18- to 24-month sentence. The judge could have given Bishop up to five years in prison. But Guidry only put Bishop on probation, meaning the disgraced senator would never spend a minute in jail for his crime.
“Respecting the court’s decision, this is a significant variance from where the guidelines are,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Andre Lagarde in his opposition to Bishop’s sentencing.
If you’re wondering if Judge Guidry is a typical soft-on-crime appointee of former President Barack Obama, he’s not. President Donald Trump appointed him to the bench.
The only real penalty Bishop received for his admitted crime was a $100 special assessment fee. He will have to pay the money back he defrauded from the federal government, but Guidry is allowing Bishop to do that in monthly $400 payments.
Pocketing cash from a program meant to help Katrina victims is not the only scandal in which Bishop was under investigation. Bishop also ripped off his employer, Southern University of New Orleans, for unearned sick pay.
Investigative reporter Lee Zurik with Fox 8 television found Bishop was claiming sick pay from his $80,000-per-year position as vice-chancellor of SUNO while showing up at the State Capitol for his other job as a legislator.
Tulane law Professor Joel Friedman described Bishop’s actions as illegal and criminal. But in the end, prosecutors didn’t charge Bishop for his sick-pay scandal.
Zurik found Bishop was paid close to $40,000 for 122 days of sick leave. Bishop agreed to pay $20,000 of that money back after Zurik’s investigation aired.
Some may wonder why SUNO officials didn’t question why Bishop claimed to be sick 122 days while simultaneously appearing on television during legislative sessions and committee hearings. As a legislator, Bishop helped control the amount of funding SUNO potentially received each year. Confronting Bishop and holding the senator accountable could have been costly for the university.
Bishop has since resigned from SUNO and chose not to run again for his New Orleans state senate seat.
Bishop used his position, clout and influence as a state senator to enrich himself of $40,000 he hadn’t earned. He also attempted to defraud taxpayers of close to $200,000. New Orleans jails are filled with defendants who attempted to steal far less spending months if not years behind bars.
Email Dan Fagan at Faganshow@gmail.com.