For almost two weeks, former state Sen. and ex-convict Derrick Shepherd has been mum about the scandal that erupted around his appearance at a meeting between Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell and some of his former colleagues in the Legislature.
But this week, he changed his mind — and in a big way.
Shepherd, who served time in prison for conspiracy to commit money laundering, launched a full-throated response Tuesday on the airwaves and the Internet in the form of a self-financed commercial excoriating the local news media and a website promoting his new cause: giving second chances to ex-offenders like himself.
The well-known Jefferson Parish politico also made the rounds of local news organizations to tell his side of the story, and to make his case that while he was not lobbying for a job in Cantrell's administration, he has much to offer in the public sector.
Now that he's been "beaten up" by the press and others, he said, he feels a strong calling to run again for elected office. He also is open to working as a bureaucrat. Among the possibilities he sees: director of the embattled Sewerage & Water Board or a position devoted to re-entry of ex-offenders into society that he believes Cantrell should establish.
He’s not lobbying to get that position, but “I would be interested in helping out any way I can,” Shepherd said in an interview at The New Orleans Advocate on Wednesday, before adding, “I’m not advocating for the position. I’m advocating for the creation of it. Because there is a need.”
Shepherd's media blitz came almost two weeks after he referred all questions on whether he was angling for a role at City Hall to Cantrell herself, a move that — coupled with a vague response from Cantrell’s camp to a question about Shepherd's job prospects — fueled talk that he might be in negotiations with the incoming mayor.
Some state lawmakers, who spoke off the record, voiced concerns about that possibility, given Shepherd’s past. And Cantrell did not move to unequivocally rebut the claims until more than a day after the meeting he attended with Cantrell was reported by The New Orleans Advocate, when she issued a statement saying that Shepherd “did not accompany me to that meeting nor was he invited to participate.”
She added: “Shepherd does not now, nor will he ever, have any role in my transition or in my future administration."
Shepherd backed up Cantrell's statement Wednesday, saying that he attended the event with the legislators because he was curious to hear what the new mayor had to say, and that he ended up helping to serve food because he has an affiliation with the church, which he would not name. He stopped short of calling himself a member, saying that he attends many churches.
He said he found out about the event from the church’s pastor — whom he also would not name — and then took it upon himself to show up.
He said he did not think his presence at the meeting would cause the stir that it did because he was there merely to listen and help.
"I was absolutely surprised," he said. "And I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which (legislators had concerns). I would like to apologize to them, and I called each and every one of them, best as I can, to apologize to them."
Shepherd, a Marrero Democrat, was elected to a state House seat in 2003 and won a spot in the state Senate during a special election less than two years later.
He followed that with an unsuccessful bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson, who was facing corruption accusations that eventually landed him in federal prison.
That race later played a role in Shepherd’s own demise, after Jefferson connected him with a bond broker who needed help accessing money from a scheme involving bogus bonds.
Shepherd moved about $141,000 through his law firm as part of the deal, keeping about $65,000 for himself and his campaign account, according to federal court documents. He eventually pleaded guilty to just one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and resigned from the Legislature in late 2008.
He was sentenced to more than three years in a federal prison in February 2010, serving time behind bars and in a halfway house before being released to federal probation in March 2012.
He was disbarred as a result of his conviction. Since his release, Shepherd said, he has worked in real estate development and has a license as a general contractor.
Separately, he has faced multiple allegations of domestic violence, including accusations that he attacked a former lover in 2008 and left her bruised after breaking down her door in the middle of the night. She claimed it was the third time he had attacked her.
While state lawmakers and others have cited those details as they raised concerns about Shepherd’s potential involvement in a Cantrell administration, Shepherd sought Wednesday to set the record straight about his past, which he said has been inaccurately reported by the "fake local news."
He said his jilted lover went to federal court to take back the claim she made that he abused her, a fact he said most news outlets have overlooked. The Times-Picayune reported in 2008 that Thaise Ashford in fact testified three days after the attack that she fabricated the incident because she was angry at Shepherd.
He also claimed the charges were dropped. The Advocate could not immediately confirm the disposition of the case.
[Update, 1/4/18, 10:59 a.m.: A Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office spokesman said the DA refused all three charges in Shepherd's case, due to insufficient evidence.]
Shepherd said the negative reaction to his presence at the recent legislative meeting underscored for him the challenges ex-convicts face in trying to re-enter society. He said he plans to speak with Cantrell about the creation of a position to address that issue.
Before the meeting at the church, Shepherd said, he had spoken only once to Cantrell, at a civic meeting in Algiers, at which time he shared with her his ideas about fixing problems at the Sewerage & Water Board. He said he knows Cantrell's husband, Jason Cantrell, a lawyer, better than he knows the mayor-elect.
“I talked to her not about me having a role, but about some of the ills, and said through the military background that I have, there’s a way to address that. And she seemed to be attentive to it,” he said.
In addition to filming a commercial attacking the local media and explaining his reasons for attending the meeting, Shepherd has created a website called 2nd Chance NOLA, to “change the stigma of ex-offenders and demonstrate the power of gainful employment in turning around lives.”
The website styles itself as a platform for ex-offenders to tell their stories. And Shepherd offered more details about his own story Wednesday.
"Yes, I made a mistake, and I cashed checks for a woman who I was in love with and would have done anything for," he said, speaking of Gwendolyn Moyo, who also was charged in the federal case. "If she would have told me to go walk down the street butt naked, I would have did it, 12 years ago. I was dumb."
But that one blunder shouldn't define him, he said, nor should others' mistakes define them and their potential contributions to society.
"We deserve a second chance to be given," Shepherd said. "And I’m not necessarily saying to be your financial director. But something of worth, to do something."