|EDITORIAL: Lowest form of looting|
Sunday, June 08, 2008
New Orleans 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson, her daughter Angela Coleman and her brother Mose Jefferson are named in a 31-count federal indictment that accuses them of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from charities that they created, but federal authorities say that they did not act alone.
The 47-page document lays out a broad family enterprise, listing unidentified relatives -- "Family Member 1" through "Family Member 9" -- as playing roles.
Given the mounting accusations, the Jefferson family is a strong contender for Louisiana's first family when it comes to political corruption. Mose Jefferson will go to trial on federal bribery charges in a separate case in October, and U.S. Rep. William Jefferson was indicted last year on 16 counts of public corruption and is awaiting trial.
The three defendants, who face charges ranging from identity theft to money laundering, are entitled to presumption of innocence and their day in court. But in the midst of what looks like the downfall of a politically powerful family, it's important to focus on the victims of the scheme laid out in this indictment. We don't know their names or faces, but we still know who they are: the poor residents of Central City, in many cases poor youth, who didn't get the help that the money was intended to provide. The victims also include the taxpayers of Louisiana whose money was misused.
The schemes that federal prosecutors say enriched Betty and Mose Jefferson and Angela Coleman came at the expense of the poor and the public, and that makes them all the more repugnant. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten called the practice looting, and that's an apt description of the activities spelled out in the indictment.
According to prosecutors, the three defendants founded nonprofits, sought grant money for them and then wrote checks to supposed employees who never received the money. Instead, the indictment alleges, the money ended up in bank accounts under the control of Betty or Mose Jefferson or Ms. Coleman.
The indictment focuses on three charities -- Care Unlimited, Orleans Metropolitan Housing and Central City Adult Education -- that received at least $5.5 million in state grants from 1994 to 2006. Most of that money was steered to the charities by lawmakers connected to the Jeffersons: former state Rep. Renee Gill Pratt, a protégé of Rep. Jefferson, and her successor, former state Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, the congressman's daughter.
The indictment does not analyze how all of the money was spent, and Mr. Letten does not claim that the charities were complete frauds. But the indictment takes a close look at $791,468 in grants and concludes that $627,378 was diverted "through false and fraudulent means" to one of the defendants or "Family Member 1."
Prosecutors outline a pattern of diverting money that is stunning in its brazenness. According to the feds, the trio didn't take nickels and dimes but grabbed the lion's share of the grants.
For example $176,029 of a $178,000 grant to Care Unlimited that was supposed to be used to train and counsel at-risk black males was improperly diverted. So was an entire $25,000 grant to Orleans Metropolitan Housing that was supposed to buy equipment to clean Central City. And $71,447 of a $100,000 grant for pregnant teens ended up enriching the defendants, according to prosecutors.
The money that the three are accused of taking was intended for what sounded like worthwhile causes. The grants called for helping pregnant teenagers, at-risk youth and adults and high school dropouts who are trying to pass the GED, among others.
In many cases, though, the indictment says that the programs were simply shams. A Care Unlimited report that claimed to have provided certified teachers for 25 pregnant teenagers, for example, didn't do so, the indictment said. The person that supposedly provided the teachers did not work for the charity, the indictment said, and two-thirds of the grant money went to Betty Jefferson and her daughter.
Using poor people to bilk the taxpayers is reprehensible. But there is one more victim in this case, and that's Louisiana itself. This state and everyone in it is harmed by the perception that corruption is tolerated here -- that money intended for the public good can be siphoned off by crooked officials and their cohorts without consequence.
The aggressive pursuit of this case and others like it is the best way to prove that isn't true.