Ex-New Orleans school official pleads guilty

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A former New Orleans school board member pleaded guilty Wednesday in a federal bribery case involving bids for a school system janitorial services contract.

Ira Thomas pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud. He had resigned from the board in early March after U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite announced the criminal charge.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan set sentencing for August. The maximum sentence includes five years in prison. However, a lighter sentence is more likely as Thomas is cooperating with authorities in an ongoing investigation.

Thomas, an unsuccessful candidate for New Orleans sheriff, also resigned as police chief at Southern University in New Orleans.

Thomas pleaded not guilty on March 9. But he also waived his right to have a grand jury hear the case and was charged in a bill of information — signaling that he was cooperating with prosecutors.

That bill of information states that Thomas worked with three other people in the bribery conspiracy — one identified only as a cooperating witness, another as school board employee "A," and another as private citizen "B."

The allegations date back to the fall of 2013. Thomas is alleged to have taken a $5,000 bribe, disguised as a campaign contribution, to help an unidentified person get an advantage in bidding for a school system janitorial services contract.

Thomas' abrupt departure from the school board and his guilty plea come amid debate in the city over whether, and when, the board should regain oversight over dozens of schools now governed by the Louisiana Recovery School District. That state agency was given control over most of the city's schools after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Prior the storm, the school system had been plagued by poor student performance and corruption that led to the conviction of a former president.

Ahead of the guilty plea, at least one character reference had already been filed with the court. Dr. John Penny of Southern University New Orleans Department of Social Services wrote that Thomas was a man of "dedication and commitment" to New Orleans who kept the campus crime rate low while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average in graduate school.

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