Ira Thomas, who ran for Orleans Parish Sheriff in 2014, stepped down from his presidency of the Orleans Parish School Board March 6 after being charged with conspiracy to commit bribery.
The resignation of Orleans Parish School Board member Ira Thomas marks another sad chapter in the tarnished history of the beleaguered school board. Thomas resigned March 6 after the feds charged him with conspiracy to commit bribery. He is accused of accepting a $5,000 kickback from a janitorial company seeking a school board contract.
The fact that Thomas was charged in a bill of information and not indicted by a grand jury suggests he is assisting in a wider investigation into political corruption. The factual scenario painted by prosecutors in the charge against Thomas mentions an unnamed public employee who asked the janitorial company for a $5,000 payoff in exchange for Thomas' help in landing the contract.
The contractor, to his or her credit, wired up for subsequent meetings with Thomas, the unnamed employee and an unnamed private citizen as part of a sting operation. Thomas was running for Orleans Parish Sheriff at the time. Ironically, Thomas now faces the prospect of spending time in Sheriff Marlin Gusman's jail — after he accused Gusman during the campaign of overseeing a less-than-honest public agency. (Gusman's office has seen its share of corruption, though the sheriff himself has not been implicated in any of it.)
According to the feds, Thomas structured the kickback as a contribution to his campaign for sheriff. The private citizen allegedly collected the payoff and was recorded on video doing so before depositing the loot in a bank account, then withdrawing some of it and giving it to Thomas. Prosecutors say the alleged conspirators met again last fall and discussed ways to help the contractor by changing the bid specs.
If the charges prove true — Thomas pleaded not guilty last week but is expected to change his plea soon — it'll be another example of an elected official felled by petty corruption. Five thousand dollars isn't chump change, but it's no golden parachute either. It makes you wonder why crooks so often sell their souls so cheaply. Thomas will surely spend a lot more than $5,000 in legal fees, even if he cops a plea relatively soon. Then there's that lifetime of ignominy.
All for a measly five grand. How pathetic.
There's a much bigger price to pay, of course, by Thomas' former board colleagues (who are trying to hire a new school superintendent) and the thousands of children and parents who count on elected officials at every level to put citizens' interests ahead of their own.
School board members have been trying for years to return all New Orleans public schools to local control, but supporters of the Recovery School District have pushed back. The stain of corruption is one of the main reasons why the board hasn't succeeded in getting more schools back under its control, which makes this scandal all the more damaging.
It's not fair that one person's actions should hurt the honest efforts of others, but there's no denying that reality. Meanwhile, the school board is moving quickly to replace Thomas. By law, board members get to make an interim appointment — but if they cannot agree on one, the governor gets to name someone. It's a safe bet the board won't let that happen.
Persons who are interested in the interim appointment had until last Friday (March 13) to apply. They must be domiciled in School Board District 1 for at least a year. There is no legal reason why the interim appointee cannot run for the seat in October, but it would be a good idea for board members to elicit a promise from the appointee not to run, lest it appear the board is trying to rig the special election.
Voters have seen enough rigging already.