By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN / Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A lawyer for a former Louisiana lawmaker convicted of plotting to loot more than $1 million from taxpayer-funded charities asked a federal appeals court Wednesday to throw out her racketeering conspiracy conviction.
Michael Fawer, former state Rep. Renee Gill Pratt's attorney, told a panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that his client's retrial was a "mockery" because of what he called flaws in the jury selection process.
"Justice demands that this conviction be thrown out," he said.
Fawer argued that U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle didn't let him adequately question prospective jurors through a process called "voir dire."
"If voir dire is supposed to have any meaning, then there has to be some in-depth probing," he said. "There was none here."
Fawer also claimed prosecutors struck five of the six potential black jurors without a legitimate reason.
Gill Pratt, who is black, was sentenced to more than seven years in prison following her 2011 conviction for conspiring with relatives of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson to pocket money earmarked for charitable and educational programs. Her first trial ended with a deadlocked jury.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Friel said any bias in the jury pool was mainly directed at members of the prominent and once-powerful Jefferson family.
"There was a significant effort made to make sure this was an impartial jury," he said.
Friel said the racial makeup of the roughly 100 prospective jurors was "fairly consistent" with the Eastern District of Louisiana's demographics, with at least 20 minorities in the pool.
The 5th Circuit panel didn't indicate how soon it could rule. Only two of the three judges on the panel were present for the hearing.
In court papers, Fawer argued that Gill Pratt's indictment didn't adequately specify the nature of the accusations against her.
"What is the crime? What has she been specifically convicted of?" Fawer asked Wednesday.
Friel said the prosecution "met its standard" in crafting the indictment, but 5th Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham sounded skeptical.
"I have some sympathy to Mr. Fawer's argument that those things are difficult to fight," the judge said.
Lemelle sentenced Gill Pratt to 87 months in prison and ordered her to pay just over $1 million in restitution. Gill Pratt, also a former member of the New Orleans City Council, has been free on bond pending the outcome of her appeal.
Fawer argued that the judge misapplied sentencing guidelines in calculating her sentence, a claim Friel didn't dispute.
The 5th Circuit could order Lemelle to resentence Gill Pratt even if they don't toss her conviction, though she could still face a minimum of nearly six years.
At her sentencing hearing, Gill Pratt insisted her only mistake was falling in love with her longtime boyfriend, Mose Jefferson, a brother of William Jefferson. Mose Jefferson also was charged in the case but died before he could be tried.
Gill Pratt sponsored $300,000 in state funding for two New Orleans schools to buy computer-based teaching software sold by Mose Jefferson. The indictment claimed Jefferson was paid a $30,000 commission for the sale and later paid his girlfriend $3,500. Gill Pratt said the money he paid her wasn't related to the sales commission.
Former New Orleans tax assessor Betty Jefferson and her daughter, Angela Coleman, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy charges and testified against Gill Pratt. Another sister of William Jefferson, Brenda Jefferson, died after pleading guilty to helping her relatives conceal the scheme.
Betty Jefferson avoided prison when Lemelle sentenced her to 15 months of home detention.