Renee Gill Pratt, co-defendants plead innocent to federal money-skimming charges
by The Times-Picayune
Friday June 05, 2009, 10:55 AM
Renee Gill Pratt, a former City Council member and state representative, pleaded innocent today to a racketeering charge that accuses her of joining three members of the Jefferson political family in operating a "criminal enterprise" that raided nonprofit organizations created to help poor people.
Gill Pratt, who appeared before U.S. Magistrate Joseph Wilkinson Jr., is the longtime companion of Mose Jefferson, brother of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.
Mose Jefferson; his sister, 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson; and her daughter, Angela Coleman also pleaded innocent to charges in a 34-count indictment handed up May 22.
Gill Pratt was charged on only one count, but it accused her of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which lets prosecutors expand beyond the five-year statitue of limitations for most federal crimes, said Harry Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney. The maximum penalty upon conviction is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The two Jeffersons and Coleman had pleaded innocent to federal charges brought against them in this case last year, but they were named in the more recent indictment, which supersedes the earlier list of charges because it provides some details of how the money was spent.
They were arraigned immediately before Gill Pratt in a courtroom appearance that lasted five minutes.
According to the indictment, which was handed up May 22, the four were accused of skimming money from nonprofit organizations in "a criminal enterprise for the financial and political benefits of the defendants" from 1991 through 2006.
Gill Pratt's attorney is Michael Fawer, who also is representing Mose Jefferson on charges that he gave then-Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms $140,000 in kickbacks in exchange for help in steering a contract to a business he represented.
Eddie Castaing, who represents Betty Jefferson, spoke briefly to reporters, saying his client is "anxious to clear her name." Though a tentative trial date of Aug. 3 has been set, Castaing said: "I don't know if that's realistic."
Asked whether the superseding indictment, which adds the racketeering charge, puts more pressure on the defedants, Castaing suggested the reverse was true as well.
"It adds to the government's burden," he said. "The government has more to prove now. There's a heightened standard under the RICO statutes."