Less than four months after he shocked New Orleanians by pleading guilty to accepting bribes while in office, former City Councilman Oliver Thomas is scheduled to be sentenced this week.
Observers called the quick sentencing a clear sign that Thomas, who resigned his at-large council seat after his plea in federal court, has given investigators little or no information to aid other public corruption probes.
The sentencing is scheduled for Wednesday at 10 a.m., four days after city voters elected former City Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson to replace Thomas and serve the two-plus years remaining in the term.
Thomas will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance, who, if history is a guide, may have stern words for him. When the councilman entered his plea in August, Vance called his actions “a body blow to a community that is already reeling under a wave of public corruption,” adding: “If this city is ever to recover, we have to have an end to this type of venality.”
Though he faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, Thomas is likely to receive far less for various reasons, including his previously clean record, his admission of guilt and the relatively small amount of money, about $20,000, that he confessed to taking.
Federal sentencing guidelines call for a sentence in the range of 30 to 37 months based on the offenses Thomas admitted, according to Tulane law professor and former federal prosecutor Tania Tetlow. Federal judges are no longer required to follow sentencing guidelines.
However, it appears unlikely he will receive extra leniency in exchange for providing what federal law calls “substantial assistance” in the investigation or prosecution of another person, according to courthouse observers. Were that the case, prosecutors would have almost certainly asked Vance to delay Thomas’ sentencing.
“When someone is cooperating, you usually see one or two motions to continue,” said Loyola Law School professor Dane Ciolino. “The purpose is to make sure he cooperates as expected, and that he testifies as expected.”
“The government has a policy of waiting (to sentence a convict) until after he has testified,” agreed lawyer Julian Murray, a former federal prosecutor. “It doesn’t mean he hasn’t given them some information that was helpful, but it’s unlikely he’ll testify in another case.”
Not only does a delay ensure prosecutors the testimony they seek, it gives them time to complete the paperwork to request a downward departure, often known as a cooperation letter, or a 5K1 after the section of the federal sentencing code that describes it.
That Thomas’ sentencing appears to be on schedule is a “pretty good suggestion that he is not cooperating — or at least has not been able to deliver any additional wrongdoers to the government,” Ciolino said.
In contrast, Ciolino noted, convicted restaurateur and political operative Stan “Pampy” Barre, — who helped provide the government with the evidence it needed to prosecute Thomas — still awaits sentencing.
Barre pleaded guilty in January to conspiring to skim more than $1 million from a large City Hall energy contract awarded by former Mayor Marc Morial. His sentencing, now set for January, has been delayed numerous times.
Thomas’ lawyer, Clarence Roby, said he couldn’t discuss the details of Thomas’ conversations with investigators. But he hinted that his client hadn’t provided the government much information, and he said he doesn’t expect any delay in the sentencing.
“He’s cooperated the best he could,” Roby said of Thomas. “But unlike Stan Barre and others, he didn’t necessarily walk in saying, ‘Let me tell you about every corrupt act I’ve ever witnessed.’ He’s in an unenviable position. But he’s taken responsibility for his misdeeds.”
MORAL OF THE STORY: He who cannot provide testimony about other’s wrongdoing, do not get a break in sentencing.