Renee Gill Pratt, ex-N.O. councilwoman and state representative, indicted
Renee Gill Pratt, a former state representative and New Orleans city councilwoman, was indicted by a federal grand jury Friday on federal racketeering charges that accuse her and members of the Jefferson political family of operating a "criminal enterprise" that raided nonprofit organizations created to help disadvantaged people.
The indictment of Gill Pratt comes nearly one year after a grand jury indicted her longtime boyfriend, Mose Jefferson; his sister, 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson; and Angela Coleman, Betty Jefferson's daughter; on various charges of skimming money from nonprofit organizations that were supposed to help impoverished communities. A trial in that case was scheduled for early August but will be pushed back.
The indictment of Gill Pratt also includes the two Jeffersons, siblings of U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson, and Coleman. The four operated "a criminal enterprise for the financial and political benefit of the defendants" from 1991 through 2006, according to a news release issued by U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's office.
The indictment issued Friday incorporates Gill Pratt into the alleged conspiracy to launder money from nonprofit groups, while offering up some new details of how the money was spent. Gill Pratt is also accused of improperly taking possession of vehicles donated to the city after Hurricane Katrina, channeling city rent money to one of Mose Jefferson's buildings and using state and city dollars to pay Carnival krewe dues.
Betty Jefferson, as one of the city's elected assessors, is also accused of using her position to obtain taxpayer dollars to pay her personal bills, including her mortgage payment.
Many of the descriptions of the intertwined political and financial relationships among Gill Pratt and members of the Jefferson family were first detailed in articles that ran in The Times-Picayune in 2006.
The grand jury indicted all four defendants under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which is considered to be an effective prosecutorial weapon because of its enhanced penalties and forfeiture provisions.
"To put it bluntly, the government has more bricks to hit the defendant with, " said Shaun Clarke, a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney.
A RICO case also allows federal prosecutors to expand beyond the five-year statute of limitations for most federal crimes, bringing up alleged criminal acts that occurred farther in the past, said Harry Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney.
The money trail
Gill Pratt funneled money to nonprofit groups controlled by the Jefferson family both as a state legislator for more than a decade and as a member of the New Orleans City Council. The specific appropriations mentioned in the indictment date to 1999, when Gill Pratt was a member of the state House of Representatives.
As a state legislator, Gill Pratt obtained financing for nonprofit organizations controlled by Betty Jefferson and Coleman from the now-defunct Governor's Office of Urban Affairs, a pot of money used by African-American lawmakers to support charities in their districts. She also tapped a fund run out of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District that allowed New Orleans lawmakers to earmark financing for certain projects, according to the indictment. The nonprofit groups also obtained federal money, according to the indictment.
One of the nonprofit groups that benefited from Gill Pratt's largesse was Care Unlimited, a group that she went to work for after she was defeated in her 2006 re-election bid for the District B seat on the City Council. That group was supposed to offer a variety of programs for people in the Uptown district she served as a state representative, programs such as those helping impoverished teenage boys or giving academic assistance to pregnant teenage girls trying to finish their schooling.
Instead, the indictment accuses Betty Jefferson, Coleman and Brenda Jefferson Foster, another sibling of the Jeffersons, of writing checks directly to various companies controlled by the Jeffersons, unnamed family members and themselves. In several cases, some of the money was used to pay for remodeling projects at property owned by the defendants.
They also are accused of writing checks to "straw payees, " who are described as employees but who did not exist. The money would eventually end up in the bank accounts of Betty Jefferson, Mose Jefferson and Coleman, the indictment stated.
Brenda Jefferson Foster pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony last year and has agreed to testify against her siblings.
Trucks returned to city
ELLIS LUCIA / THE TIMES-PICAYUNEThis 2005 Dodge Durango was donated to the City of New Orleans by DaimlerChrysler. Renee Gill Pratt, as a New Orleans councilwoman, used the Durango as her personal vehicle until a public outcry forced her to return the truck and three other vehicles to the city in July 2006.
The indictment accuses the leaders of Care Unlimited of misusing state money even after Gill Pratt left the Louisiana Legislature to join the City Council.
Additionally, as a city councilwoman, Gill Pratt is accused of improperly appropriating the use of four vehicles donated to the city of New Orleans by DaimlerChrysler. The 2005 Dodge Durango and three 2006 Dodge Ram pickup trucks were used by Gill Pratt, Mose Jefferson and others as their personal vehicles, according to the indictment.
When she was defeated in her May 2006 re-election bid, Gill Pratt transferred title of the vehicles to Care Unlimited and another nonprofit agency controlled by the Jeffersons. She continued to use the Dodge Durango as her personal vehicle until a public outcry about the deal forced her to return the trucks to the city in July 2006.
Gill Pratt is also accused of misusing her position on the City Council to obtain city money to pay for an office in a building owned by Mose Jefferson. The city paid rent for this "satellite office" in Central City to a Jefferson company called Southwind Consultants. On March 31, 2003, the company paid back $5,000 of that money to Gill Pratt, according to the indictment.
In March 2005, Southwind, using rent money paid by the city and money from Care Unlimited, paid $1,250 that Gill Pratt owed the Krewe of Muses for membership dues and other charges, presumably Carnival throws, according to the indictment.
The racketeering conspiracy outlined by the U.S. attorney's office accuses Gill Pratt of participating in another case pending against Mose Jefferson.
In that case, Mose Jefferson is accused of bribing former Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms in exchange for her support for software he was trying to get both the public schools and various private schools to buy. The new racketeering count against Gill Pratt and Mose Jefferson notes that while she was a state representative, she obtained a $300,000 line-item appropriation to enable two private schools to buy the software.
This appropriation meant Jefferson got a $30,000 commission, of which Gill Pratt was given $3,500, according to the indictment.
Along with the racketeering charge, Betty Jefferson, Mose Jefferson and Coleman all face myriad other charges, including mail fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering. Mose Jefferson also was charged with making false statements to the FBI when he was questioned by agents in July 2006 about the finances of the nonprofit organization Orleans Metropolitan Housing and Community Development Inc.
Additionally, Betty Jefferson is charged with tax evasion, and both she and Coleman are accused of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Department of Treasury.
The additional charges dramatically increase the potential sentences faced by the Jeffersons and Coleman if they are found guilty. While Gill Pratt faces a maximum sentence of 20 years if convicted, the maximum penalty for Mose Jefferson would be 70 years. Betty Jefferson and her daughter would face even tougher potential sentences, totaling 339 years and 257 years of imprisonment, respectively.