Renee Gill Pratt, ex-N.O. councilwoman and state
by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
Friday May 22, 2009, 9:41 PM
Renee Gill Pratt, a former state representative and New Orleans city
councilwoman, was indicted by a federal grand jury Friday on federal
racketeering charges that accuse her and members of the Jefferson
political family of operating a "criminal enterprise" that raided
nonprofit organizations created to help disadvantaged people.
The indictment of Gill Pratt comes nearly one year after a grand jury
indicted her longtime boyfriend, Mose Jefferson; his sister, 4th
District Assessor Betty Jefferson; and Angela Coleman, Betty Jefferson's
daughter; on various charges of skimming money from nonprofit
organizations that were supposed to help impoverished communities. A
trial in that case was scheduled for early August but will be pushed
The indictment of Gill Pratt also includes the two Jeffersons, siblings
of U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson, and Coleman. The four operated "a criminal
enterprise for the financial and political benefit of the defendants"
from 1991 through 2006, according to a news release issued by U.S.
Attorney Jim Letten's office.
The indictment issued Friday incorporates Gill Pratt into the alleged
conspiracy to launder money from nonprofit groups, while offering up
some new details of how the money was spent. Gill Pratt is also accused
of improperly taking possession of vehicles donated to the city after
Hurricane Katrina, channeling city rent money to one of Mose Jefferson's
buildings and using state and city dollars to pay Carnival krewe dues.
Betty Jefferson, as one of the city's elected assessors, is also accused
of using her position to obtain taxpayer dollars to pay her personal
bills, including her mortgage payment.
Many of the descriptions of the intertwined political and financial
relationships among Gill Pratt and members of the Jefferson family were
first detailed in articles that ran in The Times-Picayune in 2006.
The grand jury indicted all four defendants under the Racketeer
Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which is considered to
be an effective prosecutorial weapon because of its enhanced penalties
and forfeiture provisions.
"To put it bluntly, the government has more bricks to hit the defendant
with, " said Shaun Clarke, a former federal prosecutor and criminal
A RICO case also allows federal prosecutors to expand beyond the
five-year statute of limitations for most federal crimes, bringing up
alleged criminal acts that occurred farther in the past, said Harry
Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney.
The money trail
Gill Pratt funneled money to nonprofit groups controlled by the
Jefferson family both as a state legislator for more than a decade and
as a member of the New Orleans City Council. The specific appropriations
mentioned in the indictment date to 1999, when Gill Pratt was a member
of the state House of Representatives.
As a state legislator, Gill Pratt obtained financing for nonprofit
organizations controlled by Betty Jefferson and Coleman from the
now-defunct Governor's Office of Urban Affairs, a pot of money used by
African-American lawmakers to support charities in their districts. She
also tapped a fund run out of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition
District that allowed New Orleans lawmakers to earmark financing for
certain projects, according to the indictment. The nonprofit groups also
obtained federal money, according to the indictment.
One of the nonprofit groups that benefited from Gill Pratt's largesse
was Care Unlimited, a group that she went to work for after she was
defeated in her 2006 re-election bid for the District B seat on the City
Council. That group was supposed to offer a variety of programs for
people in the Uptown district she served as a state representative,
programs such as those helping impoverished teenage boys or giving
academic assistance to pregnant teenage girls trying to finish their
Instead, the indictment accuses Betty Jefferson, Coleman and Brenda
Jefferson Foster, another sibling of the Jeffersons, of writing checks
directly to various companies controlled by the Jeffersons, unnamed
family members and themselves. In several cases, some of the money was
used to pay for remodeling projects at property owned by the defendants.
They also are accused of writing checks to "straw payees, " who are
described as employees but who did not exist. The money would eventually
end up in the bank accounts of Betty Jefferson, Mose Jefferson and
Coleman, the indictment stated.
Brenda Jefferson Foster pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony last
year and has agreed to testify against her siblings.
Trucks returned to city
The indictment accuses the leaders of Care Unlimited of misusing state
money even after Gill Pratt left the Louisiana Legislature to join the
Additionally, as a city councilwoman, Gill Pratt is accused of
improperly appropriating the use of four vehicles donated to the city of
New Orleans by DaimlerChrysler. The 2005 Dodge Durango and three 2006
Dodge Ram pickup trucks were used by Gill Pratt, Mose Jefferson and
others as their personal vehicles, according to the indictment.
When she was defeated in her May 2006 re-election bid, Gill Pratt
transferred title of the vehicles to Care Unlimited and another
nonprofit agency controlled by the Jeffersons. She continued to use the
Dodge Durango as her personal vehicle until a public outcry about the
deal forced her to return the trucks to the city in July 2006.
Gill Pratt is also accused of misusing her position on the City Council
to obtain city money to pay for an office in a building owned by Mose
Jefferson. The city paid rent for this "satellite office" in Central
City to a Jefferson company called Southwind Consultants. On March 31,
2003, the company paid back $5,000 of that money to Gill Pratt,
according to the indictment.
In March 2005, Southwind, using rent money paid by the city and money
from Care Unlimited, paid $1,250 that Gill Pratt owed the Krewe of Muses
for membership dues and other charges, presumably Carnival throws,
according to the indictment.
The racketeering conspiracy outlined by the U.S. attorney's office
accuses Gill Pratt of participating in another case pending against Mose
In that case, Mose Jefferson is accused of bribing former Orleans Parish
School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms in exchange for her support
for software he was trying to get both the public schools and various
private schools to buy. The new racketeering count against Gill Pratt
and Mose Jefferson notes that while she was a state representative, she
obtained a $300,000 line-item appropriation to enable two private
schools to buy the software.
This appropriation meant Jefferson got a $30,000 commission, of which
Gill Pratt was given $3,500, according to the indictment.
Along with the racketeering charge, Betty Jefferson, Mose Jefferson and
Coleman all face myriad other charges, including mail fraud, aggravated
identity theft and money laundering. Mose Jefferson also was charged
with making false statements to the FBI when he was questioned by agents
in July 2006 about the finances of the nonprofit organization Orleans
Metropolitan Housing and Community Development Inc.
Additionally, Betty Jefferson is charged with tax evasion, and both she
and Coleman are accused of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Department of
The additional charges dramatically increase the potential sentences
faced by the Jeffersons and Coleman if they are found guilty. While Gill
Pratt faces a maximum sentence of 20 years if convicted, the maximum
penalty for Mose Jefferson would be 70 years. Betty Jefferson and her
daughter would face even tougher potential sentences, totaling 339 years
and 257 years of imprisonment, respectively.