NEW ORLEANS - Crooked businessman Aaron Bennett got a light 15-month prison sentence for bribing former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle, in spite of a string of corruption that’s followed him wherever he went for much of the last decade.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval imposed the sentence at the behest of federal prosecutors, who told him in records filed under seal that Bennett provided “consistent, impactful and substantial” cooperation that helped them win the coveted conviction of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin last month.
Duval said he was “disturbed” that Bennett had corrupted the system by bribing Hingle, who wore a wire in 2011 to catch Bennett in the act of paying a $10,000 bribe as Bennett’s company, Benetech, was handling the parish jail reconstruction project. Bennett pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy and could have faced up to 10 years in prison.
“On the other hand, I note the substantial assistance of Mr. Bennett and I am thoroughly convinced it was substantial and that helps the system and inhibits public corruption,” Duval said from the bench.
“I can't go into all of his assistance but he did cooperate on several very significant cases and the test was whether or not it was substantial,” Bennett’s attorney, David Courcelle, said after the hearing.
Courcelle said Bennett has been helping the feds with cases beyond the Nagin matter, including some that have not yet produced charges, so he was not allowed to discuss them.
But while the public record is thin on what Bennett’s “substantial cooperation” entailed, it’s replete with his repeated flouting of laws and regulations.
My investigations in 2010 and 2011 uncovered violations of federal contracting rules as Bennett installed his father as nominal head of his company in order to get Corps of Engineers work reserved for combat disabled veterans.
I also reported on Bennett’s questionable tax returns; his improper campaign contributions; sports tickets and dinners he provided to Hingle while holding the jail contract; the parish lawyer Bennett had on his payroll who awarded him the jail contract; the hundreds of thousands of dollars Bennett took from his Corps of Engineers pump station storm-proofing contract payments to finance his fourth wife’s movie project.
Nagin called Bennett “reckless.” In fact, Bennett is considered such a loose cannon by everyone who deals with him that prosecutors shied away from having him testify for them at the Nagin trial, leaving the true extent of his help a mystery.
Nagin was convicted on 20 of 21 counts, including a conspiracy charge that alleged the mayor received private jet travel from Bennett in 2007, just as Bennett and his partners began getting lucrative city contracts and help on private business deals from Nagin.
Some of the evidence prosecutors used were from private, encrypted text messages between Bennett and Nagin and between Nagin and others referencing Bennett’s business overtures. Because the feds needed the actual devices to get those messages, Bennett may have been able to provide some of them, but neither Courcelle nor prosecutor Matthew Coman would comment on that.
Duval apparently isn’t allowed to consider the peripheral allegations against Bennett in imposing his sentence. He did note “the problem in Mississippi” that landed Bennett in jail last year while he was on probation for the Hingle bribery.
Bennett was not allowed to leave the state without permission, was not allowed to go to casinos and couldn’t break the law. He did all three in one fell swoop, traveling to a Mississippi casino and walking out without paying two $5,000 gambling markers. A warrant was issued for his arrest in Biloxi and U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson threw him in jail eight months ago for violating the terms of his release.
Wilkinson called Bennett “arrogant.”
Duval apparently felt Bennett has been reformed since then. He said he could “see in Mr. Bennett’s face” that he’d learned his lesson and was truly repentant. So, Duval gave Bennett credit for time served, meaning he has only seven months left on his sentence and could get out in about four months under federal rules requiring that 85 percent of the prison term is served.
Duval also said he also considered the length of the sentence imposed on the man Bennett bribed, Hingle. He got 46 months in prison, more than three times what Bennett received. But Duval noted that Hingle was a public official and also faced a different charge, which related to his campaign finances.
Still, when Hingle was sentenced, the prosecutors asked for a reduction in his sentence because of his help in catching Bennett.