NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Ira Thomas pleaded not guilty at an arraignment Monday. The former Orleans Parish School Board member was charged with conspiracy to commit bribery and honest services wire fraud.
Thomas, 56, also served as police chief for Southern University of New Orleans. He resigned from both positions on Friday after the federal charges were announced, according to a SUNO spokeswoman and an OPSB spokesman.
Beginning in September 2013, Thomas and several others participated in the scheme, according to U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite and FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael Anderson.
The bill of information alleges that Thomas, in his role as a school board member, attempted to defraud the parish by receiving kickbacks. Investigators say Thomas used his office to provide favorable treatment, including attempting to facilitate the awarding of a contract, that was designed to benefit the business and financial interest of an individual who provided him with a bribe and kickback in the form of cash payment disguised as a campaign contribution.
"Everyone in this community - law enforcement, average residents, your co-workers, even those who you believe are trusted co-conspirators - will eventually work together to turn a spotlight on your criminality," Polite said.
According to prosecutors, a witness was approached by an OPSB employee in September 2013 about a janitorial services contract that would soon be up for bid by the school board in exchange for a payoff. Later that year, the witness, Thomas, the OPSB employee and at times another private citizen, met to discuss the contract.
The conversations were recorded by the witness with the help of the FBI. Prosecutors allege it was decided the witness would pay Thomas $5,000 in cash to the private citizen acting as a conduit for Thomas, which was recorded on video. The money was then taken to Thomas.
In the Fall of 2014, Thomas and the OPSB employee discussed over recorded telephone conversations how to alter the bid process so the witness would be given an improper advantage in bidding for the contract, according to prosecutors.
The OPSB would not comment on Thomas because the ongoing federal investigation, according to Superintendent Stan Smith.
Thomas had recently served as school board president.
If convicted of the charge, Thomas faces up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of probation.
He remains free on a $25,000 bond. Trial is set for mid-May.