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Michael O'Keefe, former state Senate president who served 18 years in federal prison, dies at 89

O'Keefe was a dominant figure in Louisiana politics for more than 20 years, but was convicted in 1996 on federal corruption charges and served 18 years in prison.
Credit: WWL
Michael O'Keefe

Michael O’Keefe, who as state Senate president in the 1970s and ‘80s was one of the most powerful men in Louisiana but went on to spend nearly 20 years in prison on federal corruption charges, died Sunday at his Lakeview home. He was 89.

His daughter, Erin O’Keefe Schmidt, said he died of melanoma, which he had been battling for several years, including during the 18 years he spent in federal prison.

O'Keefe represented Orleans Parish in the Louisiana Senate from 1960 to 1984, the last 12 years as president.

Jim Brown, a former state lawmaker who also served as Insurance Commissioner and Secretary of State, and had in recent years encouraged O'Keefe to write his memoir, said the former senator loomed large in the State Capitol.

“He was one of the dominant figures in the state legislature during his time,” Brown said, calling him a master of the legislative process.  

His position of prominence in state politics made his conviction and fall from power in the 1990s even more dramatic, said WWL-TV political analyst and Gambit columnist Clancy DuBos.

“His downfall was one of the most spectacular, in the sense of how big it was, how powerful he was, and how far he fell, in my lifetime,” said DuBos. 

In 1999, O’Keefe was convicted of bilking millions of dollars from a failed insurance company. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

He reported to jail maintaining his innocence and blasting federal prosecutors for building a case on the lies of witnesses.

"Our system is beautiful and thank God we have it, but we've got some rotten people in it," O'Keefe said as he reported to prison in March 1999. "I am 67 years old, and my life is about to end. They are crushing families. My little grandson cried all night.”

O’Keefe, his son-in-law Eric Schmidt and three other men were found guilty of 17 counts of conspiracy, money laundering and mail fraud for skimming $5.5 million from the now-defunct Physicians National Risk Retention Group.

It was actually the second federal conviction for O’Keefe. In the 1980s, he spent 18 months in prison for scheming to cheat business partners out of $900,000 in a real estate deal. He was pardoned by Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1986. He was allowed to resume his law practice by the state Supreme Court in 1989 but was later permanently disbarred.

In 1984, O’Keefe also pleaded no contest to fraud charges in connection with $6 million in illegal bank loans.

A native of New Orleans' Irish Channel and graduate of Jesuit High School, O’Keefe earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Loyola University New Orleans. 

He was the grandson of former New Orleans Mayor Arthur O’Keefe, who also served as a state senator, as did Michael O’Keefe’s father, who was also a First City Court judge.  O’Keefe’s nephew is former LSU chancellor and NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe.

A Democrat, Michael O'Keefe was elected to the state senate in 1960 to represent the 4th District, which included Lakeview and Mid-City.

A staunch ally of former Gov. Edwin Edwards, O’Keefe was a force to be reckoned with in state government, DuBos said.

“He was the ultimate powerbroker and dealmaker. Nothing big happened without going through him,” DuBos said.

His daughter said her father had a strong ability to work with people on all sides of an issue.

“He was a politician and while a lot of people think that’s a dirty word and making deals is something bad, that’s what it takes to get bills successfully passed, to improve things for your constitutents,” she said. “He would bring people together to compromise.”

In the 1960s, she said her father was a strong proponent of racial equality and social justice. She said one of the first bills he introduced in the senate dealt with integrating public schools.

“He got exactly one vote. It took about six years of him introducing the bills and talk more senators into supporting it,” she said.

While in the legislature, O’Keefe also played a major role in building support for the funding and construction of the Louisiana Superdome, the Morial Convention Center and many other public projects.

O’Keefe was the first Senate president to be elected by his fellow senators under the new 1974 state constitution. Prior to that, the lieutenant governor served as senate president, as is the case in many other states.

In 1983, after being convicted on federal charges, O’Keefe was defeated in his bid for re-election the senate. He lost to Bernard “Ben” Bagert Jr.

In 2009, O’Keefe’s son, Michael O'Keefe Jr., was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for his role in a house-flipping scam. Under a plea agreement, O’Keefe Jr. admitted to making false statements to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He was released from prison in 2011.

O’Keefe’s wife Jean died in 1989. In addition to his son, daughter and son-in-law, survivors include three grandsons: Michael Hanley O’Keefe III (Juliet), Eric Talbot Schmidt Jr. and Gordon Christian Schmidt.

Funeral services will be held Saturday, Feb. 6 at St. Pius X Church, 6666 Spanish Fort Blvd., New Orleans. visitation will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. followed by a Mass for the family.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the American Cancer Society.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story quote Jim Brown as saying O'Keefe was the oldest living former state legislator at the time of his death. Former Sen. George Oubre, 91, is still living and served from 1968-72 representing parts of St. Charles, St. James and St. John the Baptist Parish.

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