By Bill Lodge
Advocate staff writer
June 14, 2012
Former Port Allen Mayor Derek Lewis was sentenced Tuesday in Baton Rouge to 40 months in federal prison for his guilty plea to a charge of racketeering.
Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson also ordered Lewis, 52, to repay the federal government $18,990 for cash and other bribes he and former Port Allen Police Chief Fred Smith accepted during a FBI sting against corrupt municipal officials.
Smith was convicted at trial in October on related racketeering and fraud charges.
Jackson sentenced Smith to 90 months in prison earlier this year and ordered him to repay his share of the $18,990 he and Lewis accepted.
Some of Lewis’ family members sobbed after Jackson announced the former mayor’s sentence.
And Lewis cried as he told them minutes earlier, “I just want to say that I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let you down. If I could change what I’ve done, I would do it.”
Lewis also apologized to Jackson “and the entire court system … for the trouble I’ve caused.”
The two-year FBI sting, dubbed Operation Blighted Officials, featured undercover investigators who paid bribes to municipal officials for promises of public contracts.
Those contracts would have gone to a garbage-can cleaning service that eventually was revealed to be a fictional firm known as Cifer 5000.
Six officials in White Castle, St. Gabriel, New Roads and Port Allen were convicted as a result of the sting.
After pleading guilty, Lewis cooperated with prosecutors and testified against Smith, as well as former St. Gabriel Mayor George L. Grace Sr.
Grace was convicted at trial in March and was immediately jailed. He is scheduled for sentencing in August by visiting U.S. District Judge Maurice Hicks, of Shreveport.
Thomas C. Damico, one of Lewis’ attorneys, asked Jackson for a variant sentence below the guideline range of 33 months to 41 months in federal prison.
Damico said Lewis’ cooperation was substantial, adding: “I think Mr. Lewis’ whole life should be considered, not just his aberrant behavior in this case.”
The attorney said Lewis is a valued church member, 35-year employee of a Port Allen grocery store and beloved parent.
“I don’t believe Mr. Lewis should be judged on just one single act,” Damico told the judge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Corey R. Amundson argued that Lewis’ indictment and guilty plea did not result from actions on one or two days, but from a two-year pattern of corrupt behavior.
“Again and again and again, he took cash,” Amundson told Jackson.
The prosecutor said Lewis’ actions “undermined the faith and trust the citizens of Port Allen gave him when he was elected.”
The judge agreed with Amundson.
“Mr. Lewis, you engaged in a very, very serious crime,” Jackson said. “I don’t know what motivated you. I don’t know if it’s ego, a sense of superiority.”
Jackson conceded that Lewis provided notable assistance to prosecutors, but added: “This is very serious conduct.”
The judge then announced the 40-month prison sentence and also ordered Lewis to serve two years of post-prison supervision by federal investigators. Jackson permitted Lewis to remain free until he reports to federal prison by 2 p.m. July 23.
“You’re a very fortunate man to have a loving family,” Jackson added. “Good luck to you.”
Under federal rules, Lewis must serve 34 months of his prison term before he can seek early release.
Lewis did not respond to questions after the hearing.
But Damico said the former mayor will not ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a reduced sentence.
“He’s not disappointed by this sentence,” Damico explained. “He knew he was going to have to pay for his actions.”
Damico added: “The fact that he received a sentence that was a third of that of any of the other mayors certainly is significant.”
Former New Roads Mayor Tommy Nelson was convicted at trial and received a prison term of 11 years.
Former White Castle Mayor Maurice Brown was convicted at trial and is serving 10 years.
Like Lewis, former Port Allen Councilman Johnny Johnson pleaded guilty and cooperated with prosecutors. Johnson was sentenced to two years of probation that includes a six-month stay at a halfway house.
U.S. Attorney Donald J. Cazayoux Jr. noted after Tuesday’s hearing that the Cifer 5000 investigation remains ongoing. He did not specify where the investigation may lead.