NEW ORLEANS - Former Orleans Parish Prison official John Sens received the maximum sentence of five years behind bars Wednesday, despite prosecutors’ requests for leniency amid Sens’ ongoing cooperation in a bribery and corruption probe at the lockup.
Sens, the former purchasing director for the jail, was sentenced after pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery in a bid-rigging scheme at the prison.
In sentencing Sens to 60 months in prison, U. S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt took the rare step of going above the federal guidelines that called for a sentence between 46 and 57 months.
In a blistering sentencing speech, Engelhardt said the 60-month prison term already amounted to a "golden parachute" from prosecutors.
“Very simply, you stole from taxpayers and you would have gone it again and again if you hadn’t gotten caught,” Engelhardt said.
Sens confessed to participating in a bid-rigging and bribery scheme from 2007 to 2011. He confessed to taking bribes in exchange for rigged contracts at OPP. In exhange for steering work to certain contractors, Sens admitted receiving about $30,000 in cash, a swimming pool installed at a Mississippi vacation home, and several Blue Dog art prints.
In requesting leniency, Sens’ attorney Ralph Capitelli portrayed his client as a late-comer to a long-standing scheme at the prison.
“Mr. Sens did not invent the corruption that existed at Orleans Parish Prison, he just took advantage of what already existed there,” Capitelli said.
But Engelhardt wasn’t buying it, not even when Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Chester reiterated Sens’ cooperation in the continuing grand jury probe looking at activities inside the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“This script is all too familiar and tired,” Engelhardt said. “Earning a 5K (letter from prosecutors requesting leniency) is so common around here it’s almost like a badge of honor….The charade of public officials cooperating only after they get caught has got to stop.”
Capitelli said afterward that he was surprised by Engelhardt’s comments.
"What Judge Engelhardt did today is extremely detrimental to law enforcement's efforts to solve public corruption cases," Capitelli said. "It's naive to think that people are going to cooperate and take risks and just be told that they shouldn't be given any consideration, which is basically what Judge Engelhardt said today."
Sens was the first defendant to be sentenced in the case.
In a similar plea deal, former maintenance chief Gerard Hoffman Jr. previously pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks from contractors. One of those former contractors, Richard Molenaar III, also pleaded guilty in the scheme.
In court documents, prosecutors outlined the fraud in detail. The government stated that Sens and Hoffman would help contractors submit phony high bids in the names of fictitious companies so that their companies could secure the low bid. At least three bids were required for a job to be awarded.
Sens resigned from the sheriff’s office in February and the Garden District home where he lives was put up for sale. He was removed from the purchasing job in June after Eyewitness News broke the news about federal grand jury subpoenas being issued in connection with prison contracts.
Engelhardt also ordered Sens to repay $67,903 in forfeiture costs. Sens will report to prison on Sept. 30.