Former New Orleans school board member faces sentencing in federal bribery case

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NEW ORLEANS — A former New Orleans school board member was sentenced Wednesday to a year in prison, months after his guilty plea in a federal bribery case echoed earlier instances of widespread corruption in the city's public education system.

Ira Thomas stepped down from the Orleans Parish School Board and from his job as police chief at Southern University in New Orleans after he was charged in March. He pleaded guilty in May and U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan handed down the sentence of 12 months and one day on Wednesday afternoon.

Thomas could have received five years in prison. Morgan opted for the much shorter sentence after taking into account numerous letters of reference from Thomas' friends and relatives and his four letters of commendation from his years with the New Orleans Police Department. The commendations included two crediting him with saving lives by physically intervening to prevent suicidal men from leaping from highway overpasses.

"Nevertheless, Mr. Thomas was an elected official placed in a position of trust," Morgan said as she rejected a defense request that Thomas be spared prison in favor of probation or home incarceration.

Thomas acknowledged disappointing friends, family, members of his church and the community as a whole in a brief statement before he was sentenced. "I want to publicly apologize to all of them," he said.

He is to report to an as yet undetermined federal prison on Nov. 30. Morgan agreed to recommend a low-security facility. Thomas declined comment as he left the courthouse.

Thomas' crime dates back to the fall of 2013. Prosecutors said Thomas took a $5,000 bribe, disguised as a campaign contribution, to influence the awarding of a janitorial services contract.

A former school board employee, Armer Bright, faces sentencing in the case later this year. It is unclear if there will be other arrests in the case.

Widespread corruption at the Orleans school system was one of the reasons the state moved to take over most New Orleans public schools after levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 devastated the city. Before and after the storm there were federal charges involving teachers, teacher aides, school secretaries, contractors and the politically connected all the way up to a school board president who pleaded guilty in 2007 in a bribery case.

Voters have replaced all of the school board members from the Katrina era. The board retains oversight of roughly two dozen schools.

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