Former St. Gabriel Mayor George L. Grace Sr. was sentenced Monday to 22 years in federal prison for his March 3 conviction on seven charges that included racketeering, bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud.
“It is believed to be the longest public corruption prison sentence in the history of Louisiana,” U.S. Attorney Donald J. Cazayoux Jr. said in a statement after the hearing. “This historic sentence should send a loud and clear message that those engaged in public corruption will face severe punishment.”
The former president of the National Conference of Black Mayors also was convicted on charges of making a false statement, obstruction of justice and using a telephone in aid of racketeering.
Visiting U.S. District Judge S. Maurice Hicks Jr., of Shreveport, described Grace, 68, as the leader of a group of municipal officials in Port Allen, White Castle and New Roads. Those officials and Grace used their public offices for personal gain, the judge said during the hearing.
“This is a real ugly set of circumstances,” Hicks said. “This is not a light-touch sort of situation.”
The judge, who also fined Grace $50,000 and ordered him to forfeit $22,000 in cash and other bribes, noted that federal guidelines would have permitted him to sentence Grace to life in prison.
Under federal rules, however, Grace will be at least 86 before he becomes eligible to request an early release from prison.
During a trial of more than six weeks, the 17-year mayor was portrayed by prosecutors and government witnesses as a public official who demanded bribes and kickbacks from people who sought his help to establish businesses in St. Gabriel.
Grace was prosecuted as a result of an FBI sting known as Operation Blighted Officials. The sting featured a fantasy company, Cifer 5000, that was promoted as a garbage-can cleaning service seeking municipal contracts in Louisiana.
Defense attorneys argued there was no corruption in St. Gabriel before undercover FBI agents and an undercover operative arrived.
Grace wanted Cifer 5000 executives to establish their operations hub in St. Gabriel and “believed it was a good company,” defense attorney Lance C. Unglesby told Hicks.
Grace “was doing things that he believed were good for his community,” Unglesby added.
Some of the bribery allegations against Grace were unjustified, argued another attorney, E.J. Hurst II, of Durham, N.C., for the former mayor
“Our position is Mr. Grace did not accept bribes,” Hurst told the judge. “He accepted campaign contributions.”
Hicks replied that business people know the difference between a bribe and a real campaign contribution.
“The gray area here … is not gray at all,” Hicks said. “That bright line of demarcation was crossed (knowingly) by Mr. Grace.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Corey R. Amundson said Grace’s investigation reflected “a lifetime of corruption, not just a couple of years or a couple of transactions.”
Amundson added that many St. Gabriel residents either work for the municipality or have relatives who are municipal employees.
While Grace was mayor, Amundson said, “You knew if you crossed George Grace … you were going to suffer the consequences.
“We urge a significant sentence,” Amundson told Hicks.
Others convicted in Operation Blighted Officials include former New Roads Mayor T.A. “Tommy” Nelson Jr., serving an 11-year prison term; former White Castle Mayor Maurice Brown, serving 10 years; and former Port Allen Mayor Derek Lewis, serving a 40-month prison term.
Former Port Allen Police Chief Frederick W. Smith was sent to prison for more than seven years. Former Port Allen Councilman Johnny Johnson was sent to a halfway house for six months and ordered to serve two years of probation.
Richard Chambers, former deputy commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Insurance, pleaded guilty last month to a charge that he used a telephone in aid of racketeering. Chambers is scheduled to be sentenced in November.