Former New Orleans City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt on Friday pleaded innocent to a racketeering charge that accuses her of joining three members of the embattled Jefferson political dynasty in operating a "criminal enterprise" that exploited local elective offices to bilk programs intended to benefit the public.
In a five-minute proceeding, Gill Pratt and her co-defendants each told U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson Jr. that they understood the charges against them. Each offered the same plea: "Not guilty."
For Gill Pratt, who began her political career in the state Legislature, it marked the first public appearance since a federal grand jury indicted her May 22 in connection with charges lodged a year ago against Gill Pratt's longtime companion Mose Jefferson, the brother of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson; Jefferson's sister, 4th Municipal District Assessor Betty Jefferson; and Betty Jefferson's daughter, Angela Coleman.
The two Jeffersons and Coleman had pleaded innocent to the previous charges but had to reprise the exercise Friday because the latest 34-count indictment -- which includes a slightly different array of charges and adds the alleged violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO -- supersedes the earlier one.
Because Friday marked Gill Pratt's initial appearance in court, Wilkinson spent extra time advising her of her rights, including her right to remain silent to avoid self-incrimination.
The judge approved Gill Pratt's release on a $50,000 personal-surety bond and directed her to surrender her passport. She also must notify the court if she travels outside Louisiana.
Wilkinson instructed all four defendants to have no contact with Brenda Jefferson Foster, another Jefferson sibling who pleaded guilty to a minor charge in the case and agreed to testify for the government.
Last year, prosecutors claimed that both Mose Jefferson and another sibling, Archie Jefferson, called Foster to try to set up a meeting after learning she had agreed to testify for prosecutors. Archie Jefferson, a convicted felon who is not facing federal charges, accompanied his siblings to Friday's arraignment.
Gill Pratt's attorney, Michael Fawer, noted twice during Friday's proceeding that his client faces only one of the nearly three dozen charges lodged against the other defendants.
Wilkinson acknowledged that, then asked a court officer to state the maximum punishment for conviction under the RICO statute: 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, plus stiff forfeiture penalties. The law is a potent tool for prosecutors because it lets them link alleged crimes beyond the typical five-year limit.
According to the indictment, Gill Pratt participated in a conspiracy to launder money from nonprofit groups, pilfer vehicles donated to the city after Hurricane Katrina, funnel city rent money to one of Mose Jefferson's buildings, and use state and city dollars to pay Carnival krewe dues, among other accusations.
Many of the descriptions of the political and financial ties among Gill Pratt and Jefferson family members first were divulged in articles published in 2006 in The Times-Picayune.
A trial is set to begin Aug. 3 before U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle. However, Eddie Castaing, who represents Betty Jefferson, said Friday that although his client is "anxious to clear her name, " eight weeks might not be a "realistic" time frame for the parties to prepare for the complex proceedings.
Asked whether the new racketeering charge puts more pressure on the defendants, the attorney suggested the reverse is also true. "It adds to the government's burden. The government has more to prove now. There's a heightened standard under the RICO statutes, " Castaing said.
Arthur Lemann III, one of Mose Jefferson's attorneys and perhaps prosecutors' least-favorite member of the local defense bar, offered a typically irreverent take on the government's use of the racketeering law.
"It's not RICO, it's wacko, " he said.
Prosecutors this week said Lemann should not be allowed to represent Mose Jefferson because he once represented Stacy Simms in a separate case in which Jefferson faces charges of bribing Simms' mother, former New Orleans School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms.
Simms is expected to be a witness in both the bribery case and the racketeering case. Lemann has said he will fight any attempt to have him removed as Jefferson's counsel.
Meanwhile, Fawer, who before Friday was not on record as Gill Pratt's attorney, also represents Mose Jefferson in the bribery case. It is not clear whether prosecutors will see his dual representation as a potential conflict.
Click to view image: 'Mose Jefferson'
Click to view image: 'Renee Gill Pratt'
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