Ex-Jefferson leader apologizes for ‘dishonor’
New Orleans — Former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard was sentenced to nearly four years in prison Monday in the latest chapter of a political saga that rocked Jefferson Parish to its core and dominated headlines for years.
U.S. District Judge Hayden Head Jr. handed down a 46-month sentence to Broussard after labeling the former politician’s machinations to garner kickbacks from a Kenner businessman, and secure a job for his then-girlfriend, and now ex-wife Karen Parker, “sophomoric.” Head also sentenced former Parish Attorney Tom Wilkinson and Parker to three years probation for their roles in the scheme.
All three defendants pleaded guilty to corruption related charges last year.
Broussard told Head he deeply regrets bringing shame to the position he held, which was the culmination of three decades of political service starting with a stint on the Jefferson Parish School Board in 1974. Broussard is slated to report to prison April 8.
“I apologize for bringing dishonor to my position,” Broussard said. “I accept full responsibility for all the actions I have pleaded guilty to … I will pay for that dishonor for the rest of my life.”
Interim U.S. Attorney Dana Boente, who has overseen the case since the abrupt resignation of former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, called the sentence proof of the federal government’s commitment to rooting out corruption.
“This sad end to Aaron Broussard’s career is a self-inflicted wound resulting from his venality, corruption, and deceit. The citizens of Jefferson Parish deserved honest, effective government, and Mr. Broussard made the decision to line his own pockets,” Boente said in a statement. “This prosecution should serve notice that this office will continue its robust and vigilant investigation of public corruption.”
Broussard’s prison term was the minimum sentence recommended by the United States Probation Office under a complex system that assigns a score based on the type of crime and an offender’s prior history. Head also ordered Broussard to repay more than $280,000 to Jefferson Parish and federal authorities through $500 monthly payments.
Head agreed to Broussard’s request to be allowed to serve his sentence close to Louisiana so that Broussard’s ailing mother could visit him. Broussard asked to be sent to a prison camp in Pensacola, Fla., and federal officials expressed no objections.
Broussard declined to discuss the sentence outside the courtroom, telling media members assembled on the courthouse steps that he needed time to “digest it.”
Prior to handing down the sentence, Head reduced the amount of time Broussard faced because the judge argued that some of the accusations against the politician had been overstated. Head challenged the idea that Broussard masterminded a complex scheme to defraud taxpayers. He noted that although Broussard received multiple bribes totaling $66,000 from businessman Bill Mack to steer business to Mack’s telecommunications company, those bribes should be considered part of a single agreement.
“This was not, I don’t think, a very sophisticated operation,” said Head, a Texas judge brought in to oversee the case after all of the judges in the United States Eastern District recused themselves. However, he did note that allegations of impropriety regarding property Broussard is involved with in Canada should be investigated further.
Broussard has admitted to meeting with Wilkinson, former chief administrative officer Tim Whitmer and former Parish President Tim Coulon in 2003 to discuss Parker’s future as Broussard prepared to begin his first term as parish president. Broussard wanted to make sure Parker would be rewarded for leaving her job as a council aide and asked Wilkinson to find a job for her in his office. Broussard and Parker married in 2004 and divorced about five years later.
Wilkinson agreed to make Parker a paralegal supervisor in his office, despite that fact that she was not qualified. Prosecutors assert that after her initial hiring, Parker was moved to a position at the parish’s East Bank Regional Library where she rarely, if ever, showed up for work. According to court documents, Broussard and Parker diverted more than $323,000 in six years as part of the scheme.
Prosecutors also argued that in return for complying with Broussard’s requests, Wilkinson was rewarded with annual pay raises that totaled more than $53,000. However, Wilkinson’s attorney Ralph Whalen denied that there was ever a “quid pro quo” between Wilkinson and Broussard. Instead, Whalen said Wilkinson hired Parker because he believed that was the only way he could keep his job.
Head pushed Wilkinson to explain exactly what crime he was admitting to, and whether Wilkinson believed he had done anything wrong. Wilkinson acknowledged that his actions weren’t in line with the values he taught his children but also said that he agreed with Broussard’s scheme because he thought Broussard y was acting within his authority as parish president. Wilkinson said he pleaded guilty because he feared the might of the federal government in a trial.
“I made a decision, at the end of the day, that was in my family’s best interests,” Wilkinson said about the plea deal.
“I’m embarrassed to admit today ... I didn’t practice what I preached,” Wilkinson said. “(Jefferson Parish residents) deserved better than what they got from me.”
Head said that given Wilkinson’s finances, he could afford to pay the entire $214,209 Jefferson Parish is seeking in restitution. But after Wilkinson expressed concern about being able to support his family, Head mandated an immediate payment of $53,000, and said Wilkinson must pay the balance by the end of his probation. Wilkinson declined to discuss the sentence outside the courtroom.
Parker’s sentencing hearing was the shortest of three, with prosecutors acknowledging that she reached out to authorities even before being indicted.
Parker is being required to pay more than $160,000 in restitution to the parish, but her attorney David Courcelle said that given his client’s finances — she expects to lose her $12-per-hour job at a local car wash — she can only afford to pay $100 per month. Head agreed with that request.
“I’d just like to say I am sorry to my friends, family and the parish of Jefferson,” Parker told the court.
Monday’s sentencing means that only Whitmer and Mack are awaiting sentencing in their corruption cases. They will learn of their fates this spring.
Broussard was one of the parish’s most well-known politicians, rising through the ranks as a School Board member, Kenner mayor, Parish Council member and finally parish president. Broussard’s indictment has been the fulcrum for a series of changes in how the parish does business.
Jefferson Parish is now only the third political subdivision in the state to have an inspector general, and parish officials are considering new guidelines for how the parish hands out professional contracts. Discussions also are brewing about whether a parish president should have outside employment.
In addition to the Parker scandal, Broussard’s administration also was connected to a deal at the parish’s Waggaman landfill that is the focus of a separate federal investigation regarding kickbacks and bribes.