‘Dr. Betty’ 5th of family political machine to die
Betty Jefferson was elected to the School Board in 1988, then, in 1998, to the 4th District Assessor’s Office, the smallest of the city’s seven assessorships.
Betty Jefferson, who served as the city’s 4th District tax assessor and as a member of the Orleans Parish School Board before her family’s political machine imploded in a string of corruption prosecutions, died at a local hospital Sunday night, according to her attorney, Eddie Castaing.
Jefferson, 74, was an elder sister of disgraced former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson and a key standard-bearer for the Progressive Democrats, the Central City operation that the congressman and his siblings built into a formidable force in New Orleans politics.
Five of the Jefferson siblings, who once numbered 11, have died since 2007.
The Jeffersons came from impoverished Lake Providence, in Louisiana’s northeastern corner.
They were the children of Mose Jefferson, a heavy-equipment operator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Angeline Jefferson, the longtime head of the local PTA.
Most of the Jefferson children left the area for college after childhood, with one group migrating to New Orleans and another heading for Chicago.
Betty Jefferson had a foot in both camps: She spent more than a decade as a schoolteacher in Chicago but eventually came to New Orleans, where her younger brother William had begun a career in politics.
Another sibling, Mose, who had by then cut his teeth as a political organizer in Chicago, moved to New Orleans to manage William Jefferson’s 1982 campaign for mayor.
That campaign was unsuccessful, but Jefferson, at the time a state senator, steadily increased his profile, finishing second in the mayoral race in 1986, then, four years later, becoming Louisiana’s first African-American congressman since Reconstruction.
By then, the Progressive Democrats were a force, one of a handful of neighborhood-based black political organizations whose endorsements were sought by almost anyone seeking office in New Orleans.
With the Progressive Democrats’ backing, Betty Jefferson was elected to the School Board in 1988, then, in 1998, to the 4th District Assessor’s Office, the smallest of the city’s seven assessorships.
Along the way, she acquired a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University, and those around her sometimes referred to her as “Dr. Betty.”
She was close to William Jefferson, who often sought her counsel and who depicted her as a near-saint in his semi-autobiographical book, “Dying Is the Easy Part.”
Shortly before Hurricane Katrina, FBI agents investigating the congressman’s business dealings raided his homes in Uptown New Orleans and in Washington, D.C.
Other federal probes soon followed, including one sparked by a 2006 Times-Picayune article that examined the ways in which members of the Jefferson political family steered taxpayer money to a string of nearly invisible charities they controlled, then reaped benefits from those charities.
That investigation led to charges against three Jefferson siblings — Betty, Mose and Brenda — as well as Angela Coleman, Betty Jefferson’s daughter, and former City Councilwoman and state Rep. Renee Gill Pratt. Brenda Jefferson soon pleaded guilty in the case, and Betty Jefferson and Coleman confessed their roles in the scheme in 2010, agreeing to testify against Gill Pratt. They admitted the charities were essentially fraudulent, and, as a group, they had managed to skim roughly $1 million from them over a period of years, often by cashing checks made out to straw payees. Betty Jefferson resigned as assessor shortly after her guilty plea. The office was to be phased out a few months later anyhow as part of a post-Katrina reform that consolidated the city’s seven assessors’ offices into one.
Jefferson never had to testify against her brother. Mose Jefferson, who had been convicted of bribery charges in a separate case, died in prison and was never tried. She did testify against Mose’s longtime companion, Gill Pratt, saying Gill Pratt was aware the charities she was funding were bogus.
Jefferson offered little explanation for why she and her relatives looted the charities.
“I wish I could explain it,” she testified, according to a Times-Picayune report at the time. “It is awful. I’d say it’s the sinful nature. Whatever happened got started and kept going. I cannot point to it, I don’t know, but it was a sinful act.”
Prodded again by a federal prosecutor for an explanation, Jefferson said: “You get caught up in it. It was available. The things we did, we’re not proud of.”
Partly on the basis of Betty Jefferson’s testimony, Gill Pratt was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 87 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle. Gill Pratt has been allowed to remain free while the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether to take up her appeal; in addition, Lemelle was ordered by an appellate court to recalculate her sentence because it said he improperly applied the guidelines.
Shortly after the trial concluded, Lemelle sentenced Betty Jefferson to 15 months of home confinement.
The sentence was a lenient one — federal guidelines had called for a prison term of between 30 and 34 months — and Lemelle said he granted it in part because Jefferson’s daughter, Angela Coleman, had a terminal illness, and Jefferson had asked to be allowed to take care of her. Coleman, who was never sentenced, is still alive, although she remains seriously ill, according to Castaing.
Brannum Funeral Home in Lake Providence is handling arrangements, which were incomplete as of Monday evening.