|Brooks-Simms secretly recorded conversations with Mose Jefferson|
Posted by The Times-Picayune
June 20, 2007 10:05PM
By Coleman Warner and Gordon Russell
Working with FBI agents, former Orleans Parish School Board president Ellenese Brooks-Simms secretly recorded several recent conversations she had with Mose Jefferson -- the brother of indicted U.S. Rep. William Jefferson and the man who investigators believe paid her bribes -- as part of her agreement to cooperate with federal prosecutors, sources close to the case say.
Brooks-Simms pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal fraud and kickback charges in connection with a scheme to win board support for the purchase of the "I CAN Learn" computer-based algebra tutorial.
Federal authorities often ask witnesses to "wire up," as it's known in courthouse vernacular, as a way of securing potentially damning evidence against a prospective defendant. Doing so can earn a cooperator, who may be facing serious consequences, a greatly reduced prison sentence. In an effort to help prosecutors put together a case against him for paying the bribes, Brooks-Simms met in person with Mose Jefferson and captured him on tape discussing the transactions at the center of the government's bribery case against her, one of the sources said.
A one-time forceful political figure who in 2002 urged federal authorities to investigate corruption in the school system, Brooks-Simms appeared subdued in U.S. District Court during an early-afternoon hearing as she admitted taking about $140,000 in bribes from a businessman. Prosecutors said the bribes were provided by "Mr. A," a lobbyist for JRL Enterprises, who was paid more than $900,000 as his "sales commission" for products purchased by the Orleans Parish school system.
With the sales commission rate pegged at 10 percent, the businessman's sales to the district would have totaled more than $9 million.
Sources close to the probe have identified the businessman as Mose Jefferson, the eldest brother of and chief political strategist for U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, who has been indicted in Virginia in a separate influence-peddling case.
Mose Jefferson has declined comment on the criminal inquiry..
JRL Enterprises' founder, John Lee, has said he hired the congressman's brother to "facilitate introductions to the decisionmakers" in Orleans Parish, but said he never authorized bribes.
Brooks-Simms, 67, a former school teacher and principal, could face as much as five years in prison and $250,000 in fines in the bribery case, authorities said. She was released on a $25,000 unsecured appearance bond and faces sentencing Oct. 4.
The bribery charge and guilty plea sent shock waves through close observers of a urban school system that has seen many years of fiscal mismanagement and a virtual takover of many of its functions by state education officials.
"It's a sad situation," said state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, a former member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who often clashed with Brooks-Simms. "Anytime a public official is involved in something like this, it discredits the whole system, and it's disappointing from that perspective."
But Pastorek said he didn't believe the case against Brooks-Simms would strengthen the view that the Orleans Parish School Board can't be trusted.
Standing before news reporters, without Brooks-Simms, outside the federal courthouse, Capitelli took the position that the bribes Brooks-Simms took in connection with the "I CAN Learn" system, which she collected between 2001 and 2004, were the only ones she ever took, and she deeply regrets it.
"From the moment that my client, Mrs. Simms, hired me, it was her desire to admit her guilt and wrongdoing and to accept the consequences of what she's done. She doesn't minimize it in any way, shape or form," he said. "That acceptance of responsibility included her desire to cooperate with the federal investigation which is ongoing ... She's prepared to testify truthfully against every individual who is involved in this."
A summary of the case filed by prosecutors makes clear that the conspiracy included other, unnamed players.The report says that in May 2001, JRL Enterprises and the local businessman executed a "sales agent agreement" that gave his consulting company, identified only as "ABC," exclusive right to market JRL's products and services to the Orleans school system.
Under terms of the agreement, the so-called "Mr. A" was to receive 10 percent of the total sale price of the "I CAN Learn" program purchased by the public school system. The marketing effort, assisted by Brooks-Simms continued for most of the one term that Brooks-Simms represented an Algiers district on the board.
The report says the roughly $140,000 in bribes to Brooks-Simms "flowed through a variety of bank accounts to disguise the illegality of those payoffs."
After receiving sales commissions from JRL in December 2003 and January 2004, the local businessman deposited the money in a corporate bank account, then shifted money he would use as bribes to another consulting firm account he controlled, the federal report says. The businessman then "transferred" several checks to Brooks-Simms, who deposited them in a newly opened Liberty Bank account in the name of a relative, it said.
"From there, the 'kickback'/bribe/reward monies flowed to a variety of recipients designated" by Brooks-Simms, the report said, not naming the recipients.
In January 2005, the report said, the businessman provided Brooks-Simms a $40,000 check in the name of another person, identified only as "Ms. B." . Brooks-Simms solicited the help of another person, identified as "Mr. C," to cash the check. "Mr. C. not only cashed the third-party check, but structured the release of the cash in separate installments to avoid detection and to conceal the true nature of the transaction," the report says.
School board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz said he wasn't surprised to learn of the bribery charge against his former colleague, saying it seemed to him during bruising board deliberations that Brooks-Simms was motivated by something other than a simple concern about what was best for children.
"I think it was fairly obvious that political forces were being used to gain a certain 'in,' he said. "Whether it's for free or for money, if it's not truly for educating kids, then it's the same end ... you're doing it for all the wrong reasons."
Una Anderson, another board member who had a high-profile falling-out with Brooks-Simms over whether the strong-willed member was meddling too much in administrative matters, said she hopes the guilty plea "sends a message loud and clear to businesses" that they don't need to hire a political broker to pitch a product. She also said the criminal case suggests that Brooks-Simms had other motivations during her 2004 power struggle with then-Superintendent Tony Amato.
"In the final analysis, a person's actions speak louder than their words," Anderson said. "It's sad because it was really stealing from the children, but it's also sad because there's no question that she has leadership abilities that she could have used in a purely constructive way. She missed that opportunity."
Karran Harper Royal, a longtime public schools advocate, said she was "saddened, disappointed and disgusted that one of our elected officials would do such a thing. There were always suspicions about these kinds of things going on, but I always consider someone innocent until proven guilty."
No such leniency should apply to Brooks-Simms, since she has admitted her guilt, Royal said.
"I think black organizations and black groups need to come out strongly denouncing what she has done, because it puts us all in a bad light," said Royal, who is black. "White people stealing is wrong; black people stealing from black school children is doubly wrong."
But while some public school critics may use the Brooks-Simms episode to argue against any return of city schools to local control, Royal believes the balkanization of the system could lead to bigger problems down the road.
"The School Board is just one board with seven members," she said. "Now, with the push to chartering, you've got many, many boards, and many, many members, and there's no infrastructure in place for proper oversight and accountability for things like this. You can't tell me that (U.S. Attorney Jim) Letten will be able to be on top of all these boards like he was on top of this issue. I think an atmosophere has been created for much more corruption."
Coleman Warner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (504) 826-3311. Gordon Russell can be reached at email@example.com or at (504) 826-3347.