The stakes could not have been higher for Big Freedia as she walked into U.S. District Court on Thursday afternoon, flanked by her defense attorneys and a dedicated group of supporters. Her freedom and burgeoning career hung in the balance as she rose to read a letter of contrition she had prepared for U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, recounting her theft of public housing dollars.
To her relief, rather than prison time, the popular New Orleans bounce rapper received the legal equivalent of a take-two, wrapped in a stern admonition to remain drug-free.
Africk placed the entertainer on probation for three years, ordered her to pay a $35,000 fine and warned Big Freedia, 38, to avoid a relapse into substance abuse.
"Please do not mistake kindness for weakness," the judge said. "You have the advantage of not only keeping yourself healthy and unaddicted but also acting as a role model for others."
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Big Freedia, whose real name is Freddie Ross Jr., pleaded guilty in March to stealing nearly $35,000 in federal housing voucher money, admitting to fraudulently accepting Section 8 vouchers over a period of several years.
Prosecutors said the entertainer, in her applications to the Housing Authority of New Orleans, claimed assets and income far below what she actually was earning.
In her first bid for Section 8 assistance, in March 2009, she listed a monthly income of between $100 and $1,000 and no additional assets. Even after she had become a star, propelled to fame by her reality TV show, she claimed to have earned just $12,000 in 2014 and to have only $250 in the bank.
In fact, federal authorities said, Big Freedia had been earning money from performances and merchandising, in addition to her reality show. Among other accomplishments, she has starred in five seasons of the Fuse digital cable and satellite channel's show "Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce."
In pleading guilty, Big Freedia signed a factual basis acknowledging she "should have, but did not, notify HANO of (her) increased income in 2010, which would have rendered (her) ineligible to receive Section 8 benefits." She faced a maximum of 10 years in prison but a far lesser penalty under federal sentencing guidelines.
Big Freedia accepted responsibility for her crime after releasing an initial statement in which she suggested that financial illiteracy had prompted her to accept the housing voucher money. Africk chided her for her earlier characterization of the theft as a "victimless crime."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jordan Ginsberg said the government did not object to Big Freedia receiving a relatively lenient sentence under the guidelines. But he noted that public housing remains "indispensable" in New Orleans, and that some 20,000 people are waiting on the assistance. "Those resources, unfortunately, are limited," Ginsberg said.
Big Freedia, in addressing the judge Thursday, said she was "very embarrassed" by her decision to understate her income. "I am at fault for my criminal conduct," she said.
Her defense attorneys argued their client is well on her way to rehabilitation, noting her efforts to raise awareness about AIDs and citing a concert planned to raise money for flood relief in Baton Rouge.
"Freedia is New Orleans, and she’s determined to make a career here and elsewhere," defense attorney Vinny Mosca said. "This is very embarrassing for her, so basically it gives her an opportunity now to regroup to show the community that she’s back to help them."