The precipitous fall from grace of former state Sen. Derrick Shepherd rivals that of former New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas, except that Shepherds rise was almost as meteoric as his descent. Thomas, on the other hand, methodically worked his way to the top over the course of nearly two decades before being outed as a shakedown artist.
Another key difference is that the public loved Thomas, as did many of his fellow politicos. Shepherd managed to fool his constituents regularly (and this newspaper, at first), but his former colleagues in the Louisiana House and Senate quickly pegged him as a crook. Lawmakers almost universally considered him the least trustworthy member of the entire Legislature, which is saying a lot and that was before his indictment. When the feds finally indicted Shepherd in April, none of his fellow senators was surprised.
A disgraced Shepherd pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit money laundering on Oct. 10 and immediately resigned his Senate seat. His plea and resignation came just six months after his indictment and just five years after he first exploded onto the local political scene. His story is a cautionary tale.
In 2003, Shepherd quickly established himself as a rising star. For all his crookedness, he will always rank among the best campaigners I have ever seen. He was as tireless on the campaign trail as he was shameless in his venality. He often campaigned in his military uniform and always carried himself with a soldiers confidence. Those who didnt know better were won over quickly. Legendary Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn is reputed to have said that the most important thing in acting is sincerity and once you learn how to fake that, youve got it made. Shepherd was among the best at faking political sincerity, at least to his constituents.
Ironically, one of the major factors in Shepherds downfall was the man he sought to beat two years ago: Congressman Bill Jefferson. In the 2006 congressional election, Shepherd campaigned hard against Jefferson. His TV commercials blasted Dollar Bill for corruption and promised a fresh start. He ran third then endorsed Jefferson, dismissing his erstwhile criticism as mere campaign talk.
As it turns out, Shepherds endorsement of Jefferson came right around the time that Jefferson allegedly arranged for Shepherd to meet Gwendolyn Moyo, a crooked bond broker who had been barred from selling construction bonds after two previous fraud convictions. Moyo had sold some bonds anyway but couldnt cash the checks that her clients had written her because her accounts had been frozen. Instead, she signed the checks over to Shepherd, who deposited them into his law office account, fabricated some phony time sheets, and then kept nearly half the loot for himself before dispensing the balance to Moyo as insurance settlements.
Unfortunately for Shepherd, all this left a paper trail that glowed in the dark. The feds had little trouble piecing together a money-laundering case against him and Moyo.
In pleading guilty two weeks ago, Shepherd promised to cooperate with the feds and begged for the chance to make it right. Thats a nice thought, but, coming from a guy who built a career on faking sincerity, you have to wonder how much his testimony will be worth either against Moyo or any of the various Jefferson family members implicated in this and other schemes.
Another irony in all this is that Shepherds resignation from the Senate may help Jefferson get re-elected again. The special election to fill Shepherds vacancy in the state Senate will be Dec. 6, the same date as the general election in the Second Congressional District. On that date, nearly 37, 000 Republicans will get the chance to vote against Jefferson for the first time this year. If Jefferson wins the Democratic nomination as expected on Nov. 4, he will surely benefit on Dec. 6 from higher voter turnout in Shepherds overwhelmingly black and Democratic former Senate district. Otherwise, Jeffersons general election would have been a very low-turnout affair in the black community, as there previously was nothing else on the ballot that day.
Shepherd will have to go a long way to make it right if his demise somehow helps Dollar Bill go back to Congress.