A former Louisiana lawmaker was sentenced Wednesday to more than seven years in federal prison for her role in a plot to pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for charitable and educational programs.
Renee Gill Pratt maintained her innocence before a judge sentenced her and ordered her to pay just over $1 million in restitution.
The former state representative and New Orleans City Council member said she feels as if she has been trapped in the "twilight zone" since she was charged with conspiring to loot more than $1 million from taxpayer-funded charities controlled by relatives of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.
"I know that I'm not a thief," she said. "I feel that all of my hard work and trying to do good was for nothing."
She insisted her only mistake was falling in love with her longtime boyfriend, Mose Jefferson, a brother of William Jefferson. Mose Jefferson also was charged in the case but died before he could be tried.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle described Gill Pratt as a "puppet on the string" who was played by Mose Jefferson, whom the judge called the brains behind the conspiracy. But that didn't excuse her actions, the judge added before imposing the sentence of seven years, three months.
"She misused her position of trust," he said.
A jury convicted Gill Pratt at the conclusion of a retrial this summer. Her first trial ended with a deadlocked jury.
Gill Pratt had faced up to 20 years in prison for her racketeering conspiracy conviction, but sentencing guidelines had called for a prison term ranging from 61/2 to 8-plus years.
Former New Orleans tax assessor Betty Jefferson and her daughter, Angela Coleman, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy charges and testified against Gill Pratt. Another sister of William Jefferson, Brenda Jefferson, died after pleading guilty to helping her relatives conceal the scheme.
Betty Jefferson avoided prison earlier this year when Lemelle sentenced her to 15 months of home detention.
William Jefferson is appealing an unrelated 2009 bribery conviction in a case that included the discovery of thousands of dollars in his freezer. He wasn't charged in the case against Gill Pratt and his relatives.
During her first trial, Gill Pratt said she relied exclusively on financial reports to judge the effectiveness of the charitable and educational programs run by the Jeffersons even though she had an office in the same building as the groups. She said the reports didn't raise any concerns, but prosecutors said Gill Pratt must have seen for herself that the programs weren't performing services.
Gill Pratt sponsored $300,000 in state funding for two New Orleans schools to buy computer-based teaching software sold by Mose Jefferson. The indictment claimed Jefferson was paid a $30,000 commission for the sale and later paid his girlfriend $3,500. Gill Pratt said the money he paid her wasn't related to the sales commission.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Friel said Gill Pratt reaped more than financial rewards from the plot. The Jeffersons rewarded her with political support and made her "the person at the front of the stage," he said.
Friel rejected the notion that Gill Pratt was a pawn of the Jeffersons or a "useful idiot" for them.
"She was absolutely at the top of this pyramid," he said.
"How do you spell `hyperbole,' judge?" countered Gill Pratt's attorney, Mike Fawer. "Some of this is nonsense."
Gill Pratt is tentatively scheduled to report to prison on Jan. 2, but Fawer is asking Lemelle to allow his client to remain free on bond while she appeals her conviction and sentence. Lemelle didn't immediately rule on that request.
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