Renee Gill Pratt, the last member standing of the once-potent Jefferson political machine that federal prosecutors charged with looting more than $1 million in public money, suffered a sharp legal setback on Wednesday, with a panel of judges for the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decided to uphold her conviction on a conspiracy charge. The decision means Gill Pratt, who has been free pending her appeal, will likely end up in prison after years in limbo, although it’s not clear yet how long a sentence she might serve.
In 2011, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle sentenced Gill Pratt to more than seven years on a charge of conspiracy, but allowed her to remain free on bond while she appealed the decision. The appellate judges agreed with her conviction, but vacated the sentence, ruling that Lemelle applied the wrong sentencing guidelines. That means Lemelle will have to come up with a new term, likely 8 or 9 months shorter than the 87 months he initially handed down.
Gill Pratt’s lawyer, Michael Fawer, did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the court’s decision. She could still appeal the 5th Circuit’s ruling.
Federal prosecutors painted Gill Pratt as the classic corrupt politician, using her seat in the state Legislature and later on the New Orleans City Council to help funnel state and federal grant money to sham nonprofits run by members of the Jefferson family, including her longtime boyfriend, Mose Jefferson.
Gill Pratt tried to fend off the charges by claiming that the Jeffersons never let her in on the scheme, that she did, in fact, direct public money to the nonprofits in question but never realized the Jefferson’s were using it to line their pockets.
Her first trial, in 2011, ended in a hung jury. The second time around, a jury found her guilty of one count of conspiracy.
In her appeal, Gill Pratt, who is African American, argued that her second trial had been tainted with a jury that was pitted against her by negative media coverage and that was deliberately stripped of black jurors.
She said the government failed to properly establish that the racketeering involved in the case actually happened, and accused Lemelle, the judge, of misapplying sentencing guidelines.
Appellate Judges Patrick Higginbotham, Priscilla Owen and James Graves, in an opinion written by Owen, rejected all of Gill Pratt’s arguments. They did rule that Lemelle applied the wrong sentence, but even on that point, they used different reasoning than Gill Pratt’s lawyer had proposed.
The judges acknowledged that Gill Pratt’s trial was preceded by significant media attention, much of it negative. But they argued that the district court’s questioning of jurors on potential bias was “extensive and probing.”
While prosecutors did choose to strike five of only six potential black jurors, the court found that the government had plausible race-neutral reasons for excluding them from the jury pool. One, the judges pointed out, gave a “bizarre nonresponsive answer” when asked if he had had any prior contact with Gill Pratt. Another had served with her as a fellow employee of the local school district. Others had reasons to be disgruntled with the federal government.
Gill Pratt’s lawyer also argued that the prosecution left her open to double jeopardy in the future because it never spelled out details of the racketeering that Gill Pratt was accused of conspiring to commit, making only “generic reference to the mail fraud and money laundering statutes.”
The appellate judges disagreed, ruling that the government in fact did establish a specific “pattern of racketeering activity,” and that the defendant “knew of and agreed to the overall objective” of the offense.
On the sentencing, the judges dismissed Gill Pratt’s contention that Lemelle got the length of her term wrong by miscalculating the amount of money that had been laundered, but did find that Lemelle applied the wrong guidelines altogether. For technical reasons, they decided that he should have applied the standard not for money laundering but for mail fraud.
In a mail fraud case, the judges pointed out, federal guidelines call for 70 months to 87 months, and since the district court chose explicitly to give Gill Pratt a sentence in the middle of the guideline range, based on her alleged crimes, a sentence of 78 months or 79 months would be more on target.
If Gill Pratt does go to jail, she would be the last domino to fall in the larger probe. Mose Jefferson died in 2011 while incarcerated on an unrelated charge. Betty Jefferson and her daughter, Angela Coleman, both pleaded guilty in 2010 to charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and aggravated identity theft. Betty Jefferson was sentenced to 15 months of home confinement. Coleman has not been sentenced because of a terminal illness.