Fed probe of Opelousas housing authority nets guilty plea

A former employee of the Opelousas Housing Authority pleaded guilty Thursday in a federal investigation of bid rigging that steered most of the public agency’s construction contracts to the same company.

Garnette L. Thomas, 75, faces up to five years in prison after pleading guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Thomas had worked as the Housing Authority’s grant and capital funds coordinator from 2005 to 2009 and was involved in the bid rigging scheme from 2007 to 2009, according to court filings from prosecutors.

She is the only person charged in the investigation so far, but has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators as part of a plea deal that could bring her a more lenient sentence is she provides “substantial assistance.”

At a court hearing Thursday, Thomas told U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna that she helped ensure the bids went to the same business “because I was told to,” but did not elaborate.

The Housing Authority oversees federally subsidized public housing programs in Opelousas.

The agency is required to follow laws that call for competitive bidding on most projects, with the contract awarded to the lowest bidder.

Federal prosecutors said to cover up the bid law violations, Thomas and others fabricated false bid documentation using letterheads from other contractors who did not place bids on the projects.

“These false bids were placed in the file in order to give the appearance that the bid rules were being followed,” prosecutors wrote in court filings.

Prosecutors did not name the business that received the contract work in question or any other people allegedly involved.

Hanna allowed Thomas to remain free without bond pending sentencing, which is set for Jan. 10.

The bid rigging occurred in the same period in which several management problems were noted in a 2011 state audit of the Housing Authority. The director at the time, Walter Guillory, has since left.