Aaron Bennett, the New Orleans businessman who's become famous for his caution and discretion in the face of lots of recent attention paid to his business, Benetech, by the U.S. Justice Department, today pleaded guilty to federal charges related to a public corruption case against former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle.
Federal prosecutors presented a plea agreement signed by Bennett, who faces a maximum of 15 years in prison.
Bennett's guilty plea came today during a re-arraignment hearing, following his original not guilty plea yesterday. According to this story in The Times Picayune, Bennett was required to plead guilty in arraignment. He had already filed for a change of plea hearing and had presumably already agreed to a deal with prosecutors.
Hingle, who turned in his initial "not guilty plea" today, appears to be doing the same thing. He and Bennett have both been charged in a bill of information, rather than a grand jury indictment, an almost sure sign that both are cooperating with investigators.
Federal prosecutors charged Bennett with bribing Hingle, who resigned his position earlier this month, three times — twice in 2008 and once in 2011.
In 2007, the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office entered into a federally funded disaster relief contract with Benetech. According to the bill of information against Bennett, Bennett paid Hingle $10,000 in March 2008 and another $10,000 in April 2008. Both payments were made shortly after Hingle approved several Benetech invoices totaling more than $700,000.
"Those bribes were made to facilitate the unquestioned payments" of those invoices, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said during a press conference following the hearing. (Bennett paid so the Parish wouldn't check up on his work, in other words.)
Letten also confirmed something long suspected by — basically everyone.
"Two of these bribe payments were made during the course of the conspiracy," between Bennett and Hingle. The third, he said, was made during a federal undercover investigation.
Bennett was charged for paying Hingle three bribes — the two in 2008 and another earlier this year. Hingle, however was only charged with accepting the 2008 bribes. Letten told reporters to draw their own totally obvious conclusions about who was working with the feds and when she, ahem, or he might have been doing it.
Letten also noted that the case against Bennett was a "spinoff" of the case against Mark St. Pierre. According to the 2010 St. Pierre indictment, Benetech acted as a "billing mechanism" for city payments made to St. Pierre. (By the way, St. Pierre is set to begin his 17-year-plus prison sentence today.)
The plea agreement will compel Bennett to cooperate with government investigators on other investigations in which he could provide useful information. Letten would not say whether more charges against public officials or anyone else connected to Bennett or St. Pierre were forthcoming.
"There's a lot of information we intend to get from Mr. Bennett," Letten said.
Bennett is scheduled to be sentenced on February 22, 2012, which is, incidentally, Ash Wednesday. He will remain out on bond until then.
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