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THE NATION

New Orleans political star says he took bribes

Councilman Oliver Thomas pleads guilty in a wide investigation. He was thought honorable in an often corrupt city.

August 14, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

The longest-serving member of the New Orleans City Council resigned Monday, hours after pleading guilty to charges that he took kickbacks from a businessman who wanted to keep a parking lot contract for the French Quarter.

The swift fall of Oliver Thomas, who until recently was council president, stunned New Orleans' political world. Many residents and commentators fear that it will further tarnish the city's image at a time when some think the stain of corruption is hurting Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

In an emotional news conference Monday at his lawyer's office, Thomas confessed to abusing the public trust and begged for forgiveness. At a court appearance earlier, he said he was being monitored by mental health experts and was taking antidepressants.

"Whatever happens to me, and wherever I may be, I will be working toward the rebuilding of this city," Thomas said, his voice cracking. "My greatest hope is that I will not become a distraction to the thousands of people who are trying to recover their lives, their families and their homes."

Thomas, 50, was considered a future mayoral candidate and one of the city's most effective elected leaders. He was also regarded as one of the least corruptible figures in a city long sullied by sleazy politics.

He is the biggest political figure to fall in a wide-ranging federal investigation of New Orleans government that has already netted several other elected officials, including the former president of the Orleans Parish school board. He probably won't be the last.

Thomas could be sentenced to as long as 10 years in prison. He is cooperating with prosecutors as a part of his plea.

"New Orleans is open for business, not for corruption," said Jim Letten, the U.S. attorney for eastern Louisiana, who made clear Monday that his investigation was not complete. "No one is above the law, as we continue to demonstrate."

In a courtroom filled with Thomas' teary supporters, family and friends, the 13-year council veteran, who held a citywide seat, entered a guilty plea and listened as federal prosecutors described his crimes.

Businessman Stan "Pampy" Barre approached Thomas in 2002, afraid he would lose contracts that he had secured under Mayor Marc Morial to operate three French Quarter parking lots, prosecutors said. Barre was a confidant of Morial, whose mayoral term ended that year.

Thomas solicited $15,000 from Barre to help Barre's company keep the contracts, prosecutors said. Thomas also demanded that Barre hire friend Joseph Jourdain, who steered a further cut of the parking lot profits to the councilman in $1,000 payments, prosecutors said.

Jourdain confessed to the kickback scheme when confronted by federal investigators; he pleaded guilty last week. Barre, a central figure in the federal corruption investigation, pleaded guilty to mail fraud charges this year and has been cooperating with investigators.

When prosecutors finished explaining the bribery charges, U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance castigated Thomas for embarrassing New Orleans at a time when it could not afford such notoriety.

News of Thomas' pending resignation covered the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday, a day when a congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was touring the region to determine whether it needed further federal financial assistance.

"Public service is not about stealing from the people," said James Bernazzani, the FBI's special agent in charge in New Orleans. "When you lose your integrity, you not only lose the people -- you also lose yourself."

On WWL-AM (870), a lively New Orleans talk radio station, news of Thomas' disgrace elicited a torrent of anger and disbelief from Louisianians. Many callers said Thomas had seemed like one of the few straight shooters in city politics.

"If our best guy pleads guilty to corruption, what are we left with?" said radio host John "Spud" McConnell.

Although most callers condemned Thomas' acts, some of the chatter demonstrated that New Orleans had a way to go before it became intolerant of corruption.

After the station broadcast Thomas' mea culpa, a man called in and said he didn't care; he would still vote for Thomas if he could.

miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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