When former Congressman William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson was indicted on corruption charges in June 2007, I compared him to Tony Soprano, lead character in the HBO hit series The Sopranos. At the time, I was just trying to have a little fun at the congressman's expense.
Turns out my attempt at parody hit closer to home than I ever imagined. In the wake of testimony from Jefferson's own kin in the federal corruption trial of former New Orleans Councilwoman and former state Rep. Renee Gill Pratt, Dollar Bill makes Tony Soprano look like a piker.
The Jefferson political and crime family squandered no opportunity to loot the public treasury, skim from family-controlled nonprofits and generally fleece unsuspecting marks. In Gill Pratt's trial and in Dollar Bill's indictment, the feds accuse the Jeffersons of running a "criminal enterprise." That term is an essential element of the federal crime of racketeering.
In Dollar Bill's 94-page indictment, the feds alleged that his congressional office was a criminal enterprise. The government won on that point, too. Although Jefferson beat the rap relating to the $90,000 in cash found in his freezer, he was convicted of racketeering and 10 other corruption charges. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison — the most for any congressman so disgraced — but he remains free pending an appeal.
Now, in federal court on Poydras Street, Gill Pratt is offering up what appears to be The Bimbo Defense: She was Mose Jefferson's dutiful but unsuspecting girlfriend (one of more than 20, according to testimony). Mose, who was scheduled to be tried alongside Gill Pratt, is dying from cancer after previously being convicted of bribing another public official who he claimed was his lover — former Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms. Brooks-Simms denied any intimacy with Mose, but she nailed him on the witness stand in 2009, testifying that she took $140,000 in bribes from him for helping his client land a lucrative school board contract.
It's clear now that Dollar Bill presided over a vast criminal empire — not a mere enterprise. From his congressional office he used his influence to squeeze investors in African high-tech projects while older brother Mose provided the political muscle to keep local officials in place and turn out voters for favored candidates. Betty Jefferson, as the 4th District assessor, cut special deals for favored (read: family) property owners and kept key operatives on the payroll. Gill Pratt, as a state rep, steered public money to sham nonprofits that allowed family members to enrich themselves at the expense of society's weakest — the very people whose votes they routinely delivered and whose interests they were supposed to protect. She also shared in the "vig," or take, that was skimmed by the Jeffersons. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, she helped herself to an SUV that had been donated to help relief efforts.
It was a well-oiled machine that merged politics, graft and free enterprise.
In her testimony during Gill Pratt's trial, Betty Jefferson (who has pleaded guilty to corruption charges) put her family's now-hallmark arrogance and misplaced sense of entitlement on full display. She bristled when defense attorney Mike Fawer doggedly cross-examined her about her family's avaricious exploits, assuming an air of moral indignation when he attempted to get her to admit that she "ripped off" poor people and taxpayers. "It's money we received," she said coolly.
Right. It wasn't stealing. It was just the vig, pure and simple.
I don't know how jurors will respond, but Tony Soprano would have understood. In fact, he would have envied everything about the Jeffersons' criminal empire — except the part about getting caught.