Longtime head of Jefferson family political machine sentenced to 30 months in bribery scheme

Richard Chambers Sr., a former state deputy insurance commissioner and the longtime president of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s now-defunct political machine, has become the latest member of Jefferson’s once-potent circle to be sent off to federal prison.

Chambers, 68, of LaPlace, was sentenced Thursday to 30 months in federal prison for racketeering by U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson of Baton Rouge.

Chambers’ crimes had no clear connection to his work heading the Progressive Democrats, Jefferson’s Central City-based political organization. He was snared in a FBI sting called Operation Blighted Officials, in which agents sought to promote a made-up company called Cifer 5000, which allegedly sanitized residential garbage cans. The sting resulted in felony convictions for four mayors of small towns in the Baton Rouge area, a police chief and a city councilman, as well as Chambers.

According to prosecutors, Chambers agreed to take a total of $11,341 in bribes. In return, he agreed to use his office in an effort to help FBI agents posing as “corrupt businessmen” win a municipal insurance contract in Cleveland, Ohio. He also admitted taking bribes to help other undercover FBI agents land contracts with city officials in Port Allen, New Roads, St. Gabriel and White Castle. The bribes included cash, free hotel rooms, meals at expensive restaurants, and tickets to Saints and Hornets games.

Chambers was promised 40 percent of the commissions from the Cleveland insurance contract and others he could deliver from municipalities in Louisiana, court records show. He estimated at the time of those discussions that commissions from those municipal contracts could range between $200,000 and $4 million.

While Chambers’ crimes had no direct link to the Jefferson machine, it was likely his tight relationship with the congressman that landed him the position with the Department of Insurance that allowed him to reel in the bribes. As a state senator, Jefferson sponsored a bill that created the job Chambers would soon hold, deputy insurance commissioner for minority affairs. Chambers was hired in 1988; by the time he left the department in 2010, he was earning $116,105 annually.

Not long after taking the job with the state, Chambers and Jefferson’s elder brother, Mose Jefferson, incorporated a firm that sold school uniforms. Betty Jefferson, sister to Mose and William, sat on the Orleans Parish School Board at the time, and had led a push to require uniforms in all public elementary schools.

Parents at some schools complained they had been directed to buy uniforms from Statewide, the firm Chambers and Mose Jefferson had just founded. One school principal who admitted steering parents to Statewide was Ellenese Brooks-Simms, who later became School Board president and then admitted accepting bribes from Mose Jefferson in an unrelated scheme.

Years later, Chambers’ son, Richard Chambers Jr., was among those who wound up with a job at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office after Eddie Jordan won the post with the Progressive Democrats’ backing. Chambers Jr. was named head of the office’s child-support division after Mose Jefferson oversaw a purge of the office that a jury later determined was racially discriminatory. When Chambers Jr. later ran for city constable, his wife sued him for $11,000 in unpaid child support. Chambers Jr. is now a New Orleans homicide detective.

Chambers Sr., who pleaded guilty in the bribery scheme last year, became the seventh Jefferson family member or close ally to be convicted of a federal crime since 2009. The others are:

William Jefferson, the longtime congressman, who began a 13-year prison sentence in 2012 for his conviction on bribery and other corruption charges;

Mose Jefferson, the congressman’s chief political strategist, who died in prison while serving 10 years for bribing Brooks-Simms;

Betty Jefferson, the former New Orleans assessor and School Board member, who was sentenced to 15 months of home confinement after she pleaded guilty to looting a string of bogus charities she and other family members set up and funded through government grants;

Brenda Foster, another Jefferson sibling, who died not long after pleading guilty in the charity scam;

Angela Coleman, Betty Jefferson’s daughter, who pleaded guilty in the charity scam and was not sentenced because she has a terminal illness;

Renee Gill Pratt, a longtime companion of Mose Jefferson as well as a former state representative and City Council member, who was sentenced to seven years in prison after she was convicted in the charity scam.

Gill Pratt remains free on bond while her appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal is pending.