For then-Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts, the spring of 2015 was a heady time.
He was gearing up for a run at his fourth term on the council, and he was planning to propose to his girlfriend on the Fourth of July.
Roberts walked into an Adler’s jewelry store in New Orleans on June 3 and plunked down $16,000 on a custom 2-carat diamond engagement ring.
He didn’t have the money at the time. But, according to federal prosecutors, Roberts knew just where he could get it.
On Thursday, a federal grand jury handed up a 29-count indictment against Roberts alleging, among other things, that he paid for the ring with money from two campaign accounts, two businesses he owned and a landscaping company he managed.
He is also accused of using money he skimmed from his businesses to buy three remote-controlled drones and a custom shipping container to use as a retail outlet for fireworks.
Along with the allegedly fraudulent purchases, Roberts is accused of hiding at least $1 million in income from the Internal Revenue Service over a four-year period, saving him tens of thousands of dollars in taxes owed.
In total, Roberts, who until his resignation April 29 was an at-large councilman, faces 22 counts of wire fraud plus seven counts of tax evasion, capping off an investigation into his finances that has been going on for more than two years.
Twenty-one of the counts focus on Roberts’ time as a manager of Dan’s Landscaping, which he took over after the former owner died and his widow assumed control.
He faces prison time and fines if convicted of the counts spelled out in the 32-page charging document.
U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Dana Douglas on Thursday issued a court summons for Roberts at the request of Assistant U.S. Attorney Jordan Ginsberg, who is a top public corruption prosecutor at U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser's office in New Orleans. Roberts’ arraignment date has been tentatively set for May 22.
Such a lengthy grand jury indictment indicates there is no plea deal in place for Roberts at this stage. His lawyer, Eddie Castaing, did not return a call seeking comment.
For now, Roberts is expected to plead not guilty to the charges.
The indictment says Roberts ran a variety of side businesses to supplement his $112,000 annual salary as a member of the Parish Council. He also had some gambling winnings, it says.
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The document paints Roberts as a serial financial cheater who lied on federal income tax forms by underreporting his income for seven consecutive years beginning in 2010. For the first four of those years, Roberts underreported his income each time by between $159,443 and $380,000, the indictment says.
Roberts only corrected his income tax filings, the indictment says, after a January 2017 subpoena and a meeting two months later with federal investigators who were scrutinizing his finances.
Just days before that March 2017 meeting with FBI and IRS agents, records show, Roberts also filed a raft of amended financial disclosure forms with the state agency that enforces ethics rules governing Louisiana’s politicians.
On those disclosures, the indictment said, Roberts included income from sources he had not included on his federal tax returns.
Roberts hid his income most brazenly in 2013, according to the indictment. When he filed his taxes for 2013 in September 2015, he reported $188,759 in income. He also claimed he owed $23,147 in taxes.
But in June 2018, Roberts filed an amended return that acknowledged almost $569,000 in income and more than $78,000 in taxes owed, according to the indictment. He filed amended returns for the other years as well, revising his income dramatically upward in each case.
However, Roberts’ amended returns still didn’t disclose some “substantial income sources,” the feds claim.
The extra income came from gambling winnings and side businesses, including a community newspaper named The West Bank Beacon; fireworks and snowball stands; a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop; a photography business; a consulting firm; and a wholesaler of Mardi Gras-related merchandise.
More than two-thirds of the counts against Roberts focus on money he allegedly took from Dan’s Landscaping, a Terrytown lawn business. Roberts took over management of the firm after the owner died in October 2013. The owner’s widow, Deborah Standley, had little business experience and hired Roberts to run its day-to-day operations.
Roberts began stealing from the company soon after he was hired, according to the indictment. On “dozens of occasions,” it says, he wrote checks to companies and bank accounts that he controlled, such as the West Bank Beacon and the holding company for his Baskin-Robbins franchise. The checks were ostensibly for expenses related to Dan’s Landscaping.
But some of them went to companies that had no connection to the business. One $1,500 check went to Gulf Container, allegedly to pay a deposit on a shipping container Roberts hoped to use for his fireworks business. In another case, he wrote an $11,144 check to himself and claimed it as a refund for another business expense, the indictment says.
To hide his behavior, the feds allege, he put misleading notes in the checks’ memo lines and sent Standley texts in which he claimed the funds went for business expenses or to reimburse himself for expenses he incurred on behalf of the company.
Aside from the shipping container, the personal items that he is accused of buying illicitly include the drones and the two-carat diamond engagement ring, which had 84 smaller diamonds surrounding the primary stone.
Roberts’ former colleagues on the council were mostly mum Thursday about the highest-profile political scandal in Jefferson Parish since 2011, when former Parish President Aaron Broussard was charged with — and later pleaded guilty to — accepting bribes from a contractor and arranging a no-show job for his girlfriend.
Councilman Mark Spears expressed sympathy for Roberts, saying, “I know the pain it must be causing him and his family. My thoughts and prayers are with them during this difficult time.”
Councilman Paul Johnston sounded a similar note. "We are praying for Chris and his family," he said.
Parish President Mike Yenni, whom Roberts called upon to resign after a 2016 sexting scandal, said the indictment showed how Roberts had “violated the public trust.”
The wide-ranging probe that produced the charges began after Roberts’ opponents in his successful — but bruising — 2015 re-election campaign attacked him over his late tax filings.
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The investigation then quickly grew to encompass other areas of Roberts' life, including whether his living arrangements at a luxury condominium complex on Gretna's riverfront were above-board.
Roberts' former landlady, Patricia Hargis, was hit with a federal tax charge in the course of the inquiry. Investigators discovered that some of Roberts' rent checks bounced, and they sought to determine whether Hargis ever received anything in return from Roberts, but it is not clear she ever did.
She is not referred to in Thursday’s indictment but is expected to plead guilty May 23 to a charge of inaccurately reporting her income on a 2015 tax return.
The probe turned up evidence that Roberts had a gambling problem, leading the feds to conduct an especially thorough inquiry as they sought to ensure he had never sold his office by doing official favors for people giving him money.
Along with examining his dealings with his landlords, the feds scrutinized a large debt Roberts owed to West Bank land baron Joseph Marcello, as well as his intercession on behalf of at least one Jefferson Parish property owner facing sanctions from the parish. Apparently, they did not find evidence that those dealings constituted a quid pro quo arrangement, and none of them are mentioned in Thursday’s indictment.
Roberts, 41, resigned April 29 after more than 15 years on the council. He had previously served on the Jefferson Parish School Board for six years, meaning he has been in elected office for roughly half his life.
On the council, Roberts spent eight years as the representative for District 1, which includes Gretna and surrounding areas. He spent the rest of his council stint as an at-large representative.
He was term-limited after this year in the parishwide seat. However, until he resigned, he had been expected to make a bid for his old District 1 post in the Oct. 12 primary.
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Support for first responders and labeling the source of seafood sold in the area were perhaps the two issues Roberts was most outspoken on. He was particularly voluble with national media during times of crises, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the BP oil spill five years later.
Toward the end of his time on the council, Roberts sued the chemical company Monsanto, alleging that its weed killer Roundup gave him a form of blood cancer that he overcame several years ago.
When news that a federal grand jury was reviewing Roberts' finances first broke in the media more than two years ago, he acknowledged fiscal problems. But he blamed the bulk of them on a bankruptcy declaration that a partner in a sandwich shop filed while Roberts was dealing with his cancer.
Roberts had an interesting connection to Dan’s Landscaping. After her husband’s death, Deborah Standley married Barry Bordelon, an ex-aide to Roberts’ former ally on the council, Elton Lagasse, as well as a consultant for a company contracted to collect garbage and handle landfill operations for the parish.
Bordelon also served on the Jefferson Parish School Board with Roberts before Roberts joined the Parish Council in 2004.
Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.
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