Ex-councilwoman convicted of conspiracy charge
Former New Orleans City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt, who has been free on bond for more than two years since her conviction on a federal conspiracy charge, will continue to enjoy her freedom until the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether to take up her appeal.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle on Friday granted Gill Pratt’s request to remain free on bail while the high court considers her appeal. The judge also agreed to delay a resentencing hearing until the Supreme Court weighs in on her case.
Mike Fawer, Gill Pratt’s lawyer, said his application to the high court is due in late November.
Loyola Law School professor Dane Ciolino predicted it will take between six and 10 months for the Supreme Court to decide whether to take up Gill Pratt’s case, meaning she could easily stay out of prison for another year.
Lemelle sentenced the former councilwoman and state legislator — a member of disgraced former U.S. Rep William Jefferson’s political machine — to 87 months in federal prison after a jury convicted her in July 2011 in a scheme to loot more than $1 million from a string of Central City non-profit organizations controlled by the Jefferson family.
Gill Pratt’s main role in the scheme was to steer state and city money to the charities; most of the money went to two of the congressman’s siblings, then-4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson and political operative Mose Jefferson.
Mose Jefferson, who was also Gill Pratt’s longtime boyfriend, had by then been convicted in a separate bribery scheme. He died in prison. Betty Jefferson pleaded guilty in the charity scam, along with her daughter, Angela Coleman. She was sentenced to 15 months of home confinement.
Ciolino called the judge’s granting of Gill Pratt’s request not to report to prison “highly unusual — almost unheard of, particularly in a case like this one.” He said there’s little reason to think the high court will decide to hear an appeal from Gill Pratt, given the relatively banal facts of the scheme she was accused in.
Judges are more apt to grant such requests when the case has unusual features. For instance, the judge who oversaw the bribery case against William Jefferson — Gill Pratt’s political mentor — allowed the congressman to stay out of prison while his appeal was considered by the Supreme Court. But that case was the first-ever prosecution of a public official under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The case also provoked a constitutional debate, with Jefferson arguing that the executive branch’s investigation of a legislator, including a search of his Capitol Hill office, violated the Constitution. And the defense raised questions about which of Jefferson’s actions constituted “official acts” under the law.
Ultimately, Jefferson remained free on bond for two and a half years after his 13-year sentence was imposed. He reported to prison in May 2012.
In her appeal, Gill Pratt asked to have her conviction tossed out on the grounds that her trial jury had been tainted by negative media coverage and deliberately stripped of African-American jurors. Gill Pratt is black.
Her appeal also argued that the government failed to properly establish that the racketeering involved in the case actually happened, and she accused Lemelle of misapplying sentencing guidelines.
In August, a panel of judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld her conviction but agreed that Lemelle had applied the wrong sentencing guidelines. If Gill Pratt’s Supreme Court appeal fails, the 5th Circuit decision is expected to result in a sentence reduction for her of about eight to nine months.