Ex-official Renee Gill Pratt steers cash to nonprofits
As one of her last official acts as the City Council member for District B, Renee Gill Pratt steered a $16,071 city grant from a council discretionary fund to a little-known Central City nonprofit agency called Orleans Metropolitan Housing.
Gill Pratt didn't mention her long history of showering millions in taxpayer money on the group -- or her ties to its president, Mose Jefferson, with whom she has had a long personal relationship. In an interview, Gill Pratt described Mose Jefferson -- the brother of embattled U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, Gill Pratt's political mentor and former boss -- as a friend.
As it turns out, the 11th-hour grant to the housing nonprofit was just one of several deals Gill Pratt made from which she or someone close to her benefited personally.
In another transaction, three days before the primary, Gill Pratt gave another nonprofit group two vehicles that had been donated to the crippled city as a goodwill gesture by car maker DaimlerChrysler. This time the beneficiary was an outfit named Care Unlimited, to which she and the Jefferson family have long-standing ties.
In early June, not long after voters rejected her bid for re-election to the City Council, Gill Pratt took a job with Care Unlimited, and has taken the wheel of one of the cars she gave the group, a $28,266 Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle. She knows the car well, having made personal use of it for eight months in her role as councilwoman after the car maker made the donation.
Gill Pratt said her continued use of the SUV was pure serendipity.
"My intention when I donated the car was to be re-elected," she said. "But sometimes God puts things in places for you. It just happened. It wasn't something that was planned intentionally."
Gill Pratt donated two other vehicles from DaimlerChrysler to Orleans Metropolitan Housing. Mose Jefferson often drives one of them, a Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab pickup that lists for $29,661.
Jefferson said he has his own vehicle, and drives the Dodge only to "haul stuff, move stuff around" when he's working "on behalf of the agency."
"Most times, I take my own car," he said
During the past 12 years, Gill Pratt and other Jefferson allies have steered at least $5.5 million in public money to Orleans Metropolitan Housing and Care Unlimited. While most of the money came through the long-derided and recently junked Office of Urban Affairs discretionary fund controlled by the Legislature, where she spent a dozen years before joining the City Council, the dismantling of that program has hardly turned off the spigot.
In fact, in the just-concluded legislative session, the state budget bill earmarked $300,000 for Care Unlimited, though it does not state any purpose for the money. Orleans Metropolitan, meanwhile, landed $150,000 for similarly nebulous goals. Both groups' stated missions are to provide minor repairs to homes of people in the community.
Gill Pratt is no longer able to direct state money, though state Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, D-New Orleans, the congressman's daughter, now has the legislative district Gill Pratt once represented. Officials from the Legislature said they were not able to identify the author of the Care Unlimited earmark.
Given the fuzzy aims of such appropriations, it's nearly impossible to figure out how the $5.5 million funneled to the two nonprofits since 1995 has been spent. There is virtually no state or federal oversight of the money.
An extra office
The Urban Affairs discretionary fund may have been the pot most often tapped by Care Unlimited and Orleans Metropolitan Housing, but their principals were working other angles as well.
Shortly before she was sworn in, incoming City Councilwoman Stacy Head, who defeated Gill Pratt in the May 20 runoff, learned that her $40,000 annual office fund was substantially depleted. A major reason: District B was on the hook for a $1,800-per-month lease for a satellite office in a modest Central City building owned by Mose Jefferson.
After taking the oath of office, Head immediately wrote Jefferson and Brenda Foster, one of his sisters, who is listed as the lessor, to alert them that she was exercising her right to cancel the lease in 30 days.
The only other council member to have a satellite office during the past four years was former Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, whose District C is divided by the Mississippi River to include Algiers and an east bank portion. Clarkson's Algiers office was in the courthouse and thus did not involve rent payments. Pratt's satellite office, in contrast, was the second within District B, where City Hall is located.
Though the building at 3313 S. Saratoga St. that housed Gill Pratt's satellite office is owned by a corporation whose only listed officer is Mose Jefferson, city records say the lessor was a company called Southwind Inc., headed by Foster. Foster is also listed in state records as the registered agent for Care Unlimited, which also leases space in the building.
The 840-square-foot council office rented by Gill Pratt at public expense is one of eight units in the drab complex, which has long served as unofficial headquarters for the Progressive Democrats, the Jeffersons' political organization.
During that time, the building has had several owners, most recently BEP Consulting, a corporation organized by Mose Jefferson, which bought the property for $10,000 in November. BEP Consulting bought it from Southwind, his sister's firm.
At the rate Gill Pratt agreed to have New Orleans city government pay to rent one unit, BEP recouped its expenses for the entire complex in less than six months.
Gill Pratt began renting the space in 2003, shortly after she took office, at an initial rate of $1,600 per month. The rent went up to $1,800 in January 2005. In total, taxpayers have spent at least $70,800 in just over three years to rent one of the eight units in a building that Mose Jefferson's firm bought for $10,000.
Jefferson and Gill Pratt both said they thought the rent was reasonable. Jefferson added that the deal had to be approved by the entire City Council, though the council tends to rubber-stamp matters that only involve one member.
In renting the office, Gill Pratt was a creature of habit: She kept an office in the building during her dozen years in the Legislature, she said, and she wanted to keep that community presence while on the City Council.
That community presence was somewhat low-profile: The office was not listed in the phone book or on the council's Web site. However, Gill Pratt said the office was listed on her letterhead and was well-known to many of her constituents.
Though Head's election means the city is no longer on the hook for the lease, Louisiana taxpayers continue to pour money into the building, at least indirectly. Gill Pratt is still using the office in her new capacity as an employee of Care Unlimited, which receives virtually all of its money from the state.
Fourth District Assessor Betty Jefferson, another sister of Mose and William Jefferson, lists an office in the building, according to her letterhead. However, Mose Jefferson said the office was used only during her campaign and was paid for with campaign funds.
Betty Jefferson did not return a phone message seeking comment.
While its eight suites seem to command high rents, the building at 3313 S. Saratoga St. hasn't appreciated in value for 15 years, at least if real estate transactions are any guide.
Southwind, Brenda Foster's company, also paid $10,000 for the complex in 2002. The seller was Orleans Metropolitan Housing.
Orleans Metropolitan had paid the same amount, $10,000, for the complex 10 years earlier in a purchase from the Resolution Trust Corp., the federal agency charged with disposing of property owned by banks that failed during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.
Because its goal was to get property back into commerce, the RTC tended to sell its holdings at deep discounts.
Given the high rents being charged, a savvy seller might have decided the eight-unit building was worth more than $10,000. But the president of Orleans Metropolitan, Mose Jefferson, may have had a soft spot in his heart for the eventual buyer: Mose Jefferson.
Jefferson thinks the deals were all fair. He said the building was abandoned when Orleans Metropolitan first bought it, and he said he "did a lot of the fixing on it" himself.
But he referred questions about specific transactions involving Orleans Metropolitan to Ezra Jones, listed in records as the group's director. Jones could not be reached for comment.
The nonprofit agency, which has bought and sold about a half-dozen properties in the past two decades, has a history of similar inside dealing.
When Betty Jefferson ran for 4th District assessor in 1998, for instance, she needed to establish residency inside the district. Incumbent Ronnie Burke claimed Jefferson's real residence was the house she owned on Valmont Street, in the 6th District. Jefferson said her actual home was a two-story Greek Revival house on Jackson Avenue. Owner of the property: Orleans Metropolitan Housing.
The next year, Jefferson decided to buy the house. The nonprofit sold it to her at a price of $18,296 -- $2,204 less than it paid for the property seven years earlier. Like the complex on South Saratoga, Orleans Metropolitan had bought the Jackson Avenue house from the Resolution Trust Corp.
Mose Jefferson said he thought his sister paid a fair price for the property, noting that it had been damaged by fire. But he referred specific questions to Jones, the nonprofit's president. Jones could not be reached for comment.
In another transaction, Orleans Metropolitan paid $26,000 in 1985 for a blighted, unremarkable shotgun house on Willow Street. Eighteen years later, the nonprofit sold the still-dilapidated property to Lionel Brown Sr. for $1,000. It does not appear to have been an arm's-length transaction: Brown and Mose Jefferson served as co-witnesses when Gill Pratt signed the lease for her satellite office.
Jefferson said Brown Sr. is a "a private contractor, a carpenter" who sometimes does work for the nonprofit. Brown could not be reached for comment.
Another transaction worked out equally poorly for the nonprofit, though there's no evidence of insider dealing. Orleans Metropolitan paid $56,000 for a house at 2201 Gen. Taylor St. in 1989, then lost the property at a sheriff's sale six years later, recouping only $16,400.
Close ties to nonprofit
While Gill Pratt said she had no idea she would be working for Care Unlimited when she donated a city vehicle to it, she acknowledges that she has long, close ties to the organization.
The corporation, according to newspaper accounts, was founded nearly 20 years ago by Bennie Jefferson, one of the congressman's three brothers and the husband of Civil District Judge Carolyn Gill-Jefferson. Gill-Jefferson served as notary when Gill Pratt signed the four city vehicles over to the nonprofits.
Each fall, Gill Pratt has co-hosted a back-to-school rally with Care Unlimited at which the organization hands out free school supplies to needy schoolchildren. The agency buys some of the supplies, while others are donated by companies.
The event is now in its 15th year, according to Gill Pratt, who said the organization gave supplies to 2,500 children last year.
Brenda Foster, the sister of Mose, Betty and William Jefferson, has long been associated with the nonprofit organization. And more recently, the group's president has been identified in state records as Aisha Duniver, who signed for the cars donated to the group by Gill Pratt.
Duniver's driver's license lists her home address as 936 Jackson Ave., Betty Jefferson's home. Duniver did not return messages left on an answering machine there.
Whether Care Unlimited has been a boon to the community is difficult to determine.
Several leaders of other Central City nonprofits said they were unaware of its existence. The organization does not seem to go to great lengths to promote itself: It's not listed in city phone books.
Care Unlimited's mission, according to agreements the group signed when it accepted the cars from the city, is to "provide minor repairs to homes of senior citizens who could not afford the expense of repairing their homes" and to "provide food baskets, toiletries, household items, clothing and other items to needy families."
Gill Pratt said she'll be working with a program, called Project Chance, that targets schools "with healthy initiatives for young people. It's about making healthy choices, mainly about obesity prevention.
"Our focus is working with young people, and seniors also," she said. "We'll be doing initiatives to help them get information about health. We're focused on health and education."
Gill Pratt added that she plans to seek a grant that will "focus on pre-employment readiness skills."
As for Orleans Metropolitan, while it has dabbled in real estate, its main aim, according to Mose Jefferson, is to perform minor repairs to homes -- "renovation and weatherproofing, windows and doors . . . some cleanups of lots, painting."
He said the organization has helped hundreds of people over the years. Asked for the names of people the organization has helped, Jefferson said the group's records are in a shambles because of Katrina.
"Most everything got wrecked," he said.
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Gordon Russell can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3347.