The William Jefferson Chronicles

Jefferson case shows meltdown of Orleans Parish School Board
by Brian Thevenot, The Times-Picayune
Sunday August 23, 2009, 6:09 AM

In January 2004, Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms, dressed in her typical high style, pulled her burgundy late-model Cadillac up to McDonogh No. 35 High School. She knew nothing of the palace coup awaiting at that night's meeting.

And Brooks-Simms' board colleagues had no clue she had taken a $50,000 bribe that same day, the second in a series of three kickbacks totaling $140,000.

Even so, her erstwhile allies Jimmy Fahrenholtz and Una Anderson turned on her that night, demanding she stop meddling in system patronage and undermining Superintendent Tony Amato. Shouting and cursing ensued backstage. Minutes later, just before voting to dethrone Brooks-Simms as president, Anderson summed up the intrigue in a whispered aside: "Welcome to the Roman Arena."

In hindsight, that day signaled the beginning of the end for the Orleans Parish School Board. During the next year, the board would melt down so spectacularly that, by the time Hurricane Katrina hit, the wholesale state takeover of the city schools would become a fait accomplit.

Brooks-Simms' comeuppance was completed in this week's bribery trial, in which she testified against her benefactor Mose Jefferson, brother of recently convicted former U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson, and of the indicted Betty Jefferson, the former School Board member and current 4th District assessor.

A jury on Friday convicted Mose Jefferson on four of seven counts, including two counts of bribery and two for obstruction of justice. He likely faces between five and eight years in prison.

Mose and Betty Jefferson will go on trial again soon in a separate corruption case alleging they looted nonprofits meant to aid the poor.

The courtroom drama yielded new details of the treachery that pervaded the last days of the old School Board. Back then, Brooks-Simms led a ruling board faction, running off one superintendent, Al Davis, and casting the deciding vote to hire another, Amato. The board ran about 120 schools and controlled a budget that topped $500 million, a fair bit of which was squandered or stolen.

Today's iteration of the School Board directly runs just four campuses in relative anonymity. The state-run Recovery School District controls nearly all the city's schools, and has placed most public-school students in independent charter schools, managed by dozens of corporate-style boards.

The political revolution resulted less from an ideological devotion to school choice than a pragmatic desire to separate New Orleans politicians from schools and money. And that strategy grew from outrage over the kind of corruption laid out in vivid detail during this week's trial.

On the stand, Mose Jefferson revealed a telling cynicism for the entire enterprise of school politics. Before Brooks-Simms ran for School Board, he said, he warned her it was "dead-end job."

"My sister was on that board, " he recalled telling her over dinner at Houston's. "As much as you think you can change something, you can't change anything over there."

The conversation, relayed in his own defense, struck an irony: He and Brooks-Simms would go on to become such exemplars of the problems plaguing the board that they indeed helped spark radical change, if unwittingly.

Sex, lies and cash

Other enlightening testimony came from Burnell Moliere -- a longtime Jefferson family ally and political contributor. He said Brooks-Simms acted as the "protector" of his company's lucrative janitorial deal with the School Board, the subject of constant complaints about filthy school bathrooms and unkempt grass. Brooks-Simms' son-in-law worked at the firm.

Moliere testified after striking a deal with the government to reduce his sentence; he has admitted helping Brooks-Simms cash one of the checks from Mose Jefferson and hide the payment. Brooks-Simms' daughter, who also pleaded guilty in connection with covering up payments, provided a detail that underscored the at-times theatrical nature of the corruption wars. Stacy Simms testified that Stuart Piltch -- the well-paid consultant who Brooks-Simms had championed as waste-and-fraud fighter -- once gave her $5,000 while unsuccessfully seeking her romantic attentions. He later asked for it back after Brooks-Simms canceled his contract, Simms testified, adding that she returned the money.

Piltch denied the romantic overtures entirely. He acknowledged writing the $5,000 check, but said Simms had pitched him on sponsoring a benefit concert. When the concert never happened, he asked for the money back and received it.

Mose Jefferson, for his part, candidly testified that he did almost no work for the $900,000 he earned as a commission on sales of I CAN Learn math software to the school system -- the money he used to pay kickbacks to Brooks-Simms. Five other board members testified they didn't even know he was involved. A defense investigator couldn't find the remaining member, Cheryl Mills.

Mose Jefferson, of course, proffered another rationale for the payments, calling them a gift for a longtime friend in need. Then he alleged that he had a romantic relationship with her in the 1980s, an odd disclosure that only added to the theater-of-the-absurd atmosphere.

On cross-examination, federal prosecutor Michael Simpson ridiculed the claim, which Brooks-Simms had denied through her attorney.

"Are you telling this jury that you paid Ellenese Brooks-Simms $140,000 for sex you had in the '80s?" Simpson asked.

Jefferson demurred. When Simpson pressed him on whether he maintained sex had nothing to do with the payments, he replied: "Well, sex always has something to do with it."

Jeffersonian democracy

It was fitting the pre-Katrina, pre-takeover board reunited at a federal corruption trial. Though Brooks-Simms is the only board member of that era tarred with a conviction, the U.S. attorney's office has convicted more than two dozen system employees of theft or corruption.

The FBI also investigated allegations that Dave Anderson, the husband of board member Una Anderson, took $10,000 in bribes from two trash haulers in exchange for a School Board garbage contract. The bureau taped a phone conversation between Dave Anderson and restaurateur Stan "Pampy" Barre, the alleged go-between for the payoffs, and received a reduced sentence in part for that cooperation.

Prosecutors never filed charges against either of the Andersons, however.

It was perhaps even more fitting that the members came together at the trial of a Jefferson family member.

Evidence presented confirmed that the Jefferson family and their cronies heavily influenced the election of board members; jobs and multi-million-dollar contracts; even the naming of principals. In the 2000 election, six of seven board members enjoyed endorsements and vote-canvassing from the Jefferson political machine, the Progressive Democrats. The other ran unopposed and didn't need it.

Trial testimony peeled back the system's who-you-know culture going all the way back to the late 1980s, when Betty Jefferson served on the School Board.

Eddy Oliver, a longtime friend of Mose Jefferson and a lieutenant in the Progressive Democrats, enlightened the court on system hiring practices. Betty Jefferson, as a board member, had instructed an administrator to hire him as a school principal, Oliver said. But the recommendation came from Mose.

"Really, it was Mr. Mose who encouraged me to be a principal" and worked through his sister to get it done, he said. "Mr. Mose always said I should be a principal."

Mose Jefferson, by his own account, knew the economic value of well-placed principals. Brooks-Simms, a former principal, had proved invaluable when he came calling on the schools to sell uniforms in the late 1980s -- shortly after his sister supported the adoption of a school-uniform policy. Brooks-Simms invited Jefferson to a meeting of other principals and helped convince them to grant his company exclusive deals to sell to parents, some of whom complained about being steered in his direction.

"And you made a lot of money?" Mose Jefferson's attorney, Michael Fawer, asked him on the stand.

"Yes, " he replied.

The admission -- now being used to establish a longstanding relationship between the two, in an attempt to justify the $140,000 "gift" -- directly contradicted Mose and Betty Jefferson's strident denials at the time that he had any financial stake in the uniform company, Statewide, Inc.

Filthy riches

The Jefferson family influence on the School Board thrived over the next decade, and only increased with the election of Brooks-Simms, who had worked on Jefferson-backed campaigns and enjoyed enthusiastic backing from the Progressive Democrats. She was so tight with the Jefferson clan that she didn't even have to pay the thousands of dollars the organization typically charged endorsed candidates, she testified.

In 2001, with Brooks-Simms as president, the board appointed William Jefferson's former law firm, Bryan & Jupiter, to a $3 million contract as the board's attorneys, a major expansion of its existing legal work.

Brooks-Simms then set about expanding the janitorial contract of AME Services, run by Burnell Moliere, a fellow church member of Brooks-Simms and a longtime ally of the Jefferson family and the Progressive Democrats. At the time, Brooks-Simms' son-in-law, Joe Montgomery, worked for AME.

Despite previous attempts by administrators to fire the company for leaving schools filthy, Brooks-Simms championed the new deal, oddly, under the banner of a larger effort at privatization -- an ideology anathema to the traditional public-school establishment from which she emerged.

"I've got a whole list of things I want to privatize -- security, payroll, food service, " she said at the time.

But only custodial service would get privatized on her watch, and over the objections of janitors. The deal allowed AME to take over management of the janitors' entire $15 million payroll, and to replace workers who left with part-time employees without system benefits. The move systematically increased the company's take while making low-paid workers even poorer.

Later, Amato, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Al Davis, tried to fire the company, again alleging it left bathrooms smeared with feces and provided few cleaning supplies.

Amato failed. The AME contract would survive everything but a catastrophic flood.

The end

Even after she lost the presidency, Brooks-Simms continued on the warpath against Amato, eventually putting together a new four-member coalition that was accused of moving to fire him. That faction was prevented from ever taking a vote when Amato's board supporters secured a court order to stop it, citing technical issues in his contract and board policy.

The move to dump Amato so angered the public that state legislators passed a law attempting to neuter the board and give Amato broad power over contracts and jobs. The move backfired completely. Amato would resign within a year under pressure from the board -- even after voters elected new board members who had run on a platform of supporting him. Brooks-Simms got trounced in her 2004 re-election bid, getting just 16 percent of the vote; even the Progressive Democrats abandoned her.

Meanwhile, the system's financial collapse accelerated. Soon, federal authorities called state Superintendent Cecil Picard on the carpet for the New Orleans system's failure to properly account for some $70 million in federal funds.

Then came Katrina.

The question of whether the state would take over the city schools was never much debated on the state level -- only the question of how. Picard and others weren't about to send untold millions in hurricane relief to the Orleans Parish School Board.

The second night after the storm hit, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco watched TV news reports showing New Orleans parents enrolling their children in schools across the state and country.

She recalled telling her staff: "This is going to be the end of the New Orleans school system as we know it. These families never even knew what to ask for -- what a real school system looks like. They're going to come back with a whole new level of expectation, and we have to make that happen for them."

. . . . . . .

Staff writer Laura Maggi contributed to this report.Brian Thevenot can be reached at or at 504.826-3482.

Back to article index