Stephanie Grace: Corruption stains N.O. legacy

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

Hurricane Katrina’s eighth anniversary arrived this week, and with it the usual poignant remembrances of that tragic time. By now, it’s become something of a communal ritual to post pictures of the flood ­— ­and ­of the universal symbol of defiance in the face of disaster, the fleur-de-lis — and to once again thank the legions of selfless souls who did everything in their power to help.

This particular anniversary also offered an unexpected reminder of what can happen when that spirit of generosity runs head first into the Louisiana Way — courtesy of disgraced former legislator and New Orleans City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt, who is suddenly back in the news.

It’s surely a coincidence that a panel from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals chose this week to uphold the 2011 conviction of Gill Pratt, longtime girlfriend of the late political operative Mose Jefferson and onetime aide to his now-imprisoned brother, ex-U.S. Rep. William Jefferson. Gill Pratt’s conviction stands, although the panel ordered U.S. District Court Judge Ivan Lemelle to recalculate her 87-month sentence for taking part in a wide-ranging scheme to loot more than $1 million in public money meant to serve needy constituents.

Still, it seems a good time to reflect on the implications of one of the trial’s many infuriating subplots, one that involved the selfish misappropriation not of taxpayer money but of a major post-Katrina donation.

Two executives from DaimlerChrysler flew in to New Orleans to tell jurors the sorry tale of what happened when the company sought out a local contact amid the chaos, to coordinate its emergency contribution of vehicles and supplies, and wound up dealing with the Jeffersons and Gill Pratt.

Assuming that the local congressional office would be a good place to start, DaimlerChrysler officials got in touch with Bill Jefferson, who assigned Gill Pratt, then a city councilwoman, as liaison.

Almost immediately, though, executive Roxie Thomas found herself on a phone call with Mose Jefferson, who jokingly asked when his “convertible” would arrive. Confused, she asked whether he was a city employee. When he said no, Thomas testified, she declared the contact inappropriate and cut him off. (Mose Jefferson was also charged in the scheme but died in prison while serving time on an unrelated bribery conviction).

The conversation bothered Thomas so much, she said, that she decided to travel to Baton Rouge to oversee the transfer herself. Once on the ground, Thomas said she overheard a member of Gill Pratt’s entourage ask what to do with supplies donated by the United Auto Workers, things like bottled water, diapers, chain saws, generators, and tarps that had been packed in the trucks. That made Thomas even more uncomfortable, and she said she reminded everyone that the gifts were meant for the relief effort.

“I wanted to ensure the donation was received in the spirit it was given,” she testified.

It should surprise nobody here to learn that it wasn’t.

Instead, Gill Pratt directed two vehicles to each council member and told them to donate them to local nonprofits. She kept four: a red Dodge Durango that she drove, and three pick-up trucks that wound up in the hands of Mose, his employees and his niece. After Gill Pratt lost her re-election bid, she transferred the four trucks to two charities she’d funded as a state legislator — the same charities that she was eventually convicted of ripping off. Gill Pratt then signed on as an employee of one of the charities and continued driving the Durango until a Times-Picayune story prompted the city to retrieve all the vehicles.

The UAW-donated supplies, meanwhile, landed up in storage at an apartment complex nicknamed “Mose Manor.”

This all made for some pretty emotional testimony, not just because the details were so appalling, but also because it was clear to everyone in the courtroom that company officials had worked hard to get their donations to those in need as quickly as possible, and had taken well-deserved pride in what, from their end, was a successful effort. Watching their good deed subverted by corrupt politicians and hangers-on obviously left them disillusioned and disgusted. And that doesn’t even begin to cover all the damage Gill Pratt and her cronies caused. Not only did they divert resources during an emergency, they also perpetuated the worst stereotypes of their state and gave future benefactors reason to worry whether offers of aid will get to the right people.

After the DaimlerChrysler officials finished testifying, Lemelle went so far as to thank them, on behalf of the citizens of New Orleans, for the company’s kindness.

That may or may not have been appropriate. But honestly, somebody had to do it.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.