Former Orleans purchasing director gets five years, attorney chagrined

Published: Jul. 3, 2013 at 9:15 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 10, 2013 at 9:15 PM CDT
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John Sens (File)
John Sens (File)

John Sens, the former purchasing director of Orleans Parish Prison, received a longer sentence Wednesday than the prosecution requested.

His defense attorney believes the sentence was harsh even though his client cooperated. Now Ralph Capitelli questions the integrity of a system that relies on witness cooperation to bust public corruption.

Sens left federal court just minutes after being sentenced to five years for getting tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks, including a swimming pool for his Mississippi home.

"I think what happened today can change the dynamic of what goes on here," said Capitelli.

Sens' attorney thought he would get a much better deal, but U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt saw it differently, based on the level of his cooperation with the feds in other cases.

"There's a handful of judges that don't play the game, that if you cooperate you get a better deal," said FOX 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti.

Engelhardt's five-year sentence exceeded the penalty asked for by prosecutors by 14 months. Capitelli says it seems as if Judge Engelhardt made John Sens pay for Orleans Parish Prison sins of the past, saying " He didn't invent public corruption at the sheriff's office, it was there long before he got there."

If you don't cooperate, sentences can be far more severe. Two years ago, a judge sentenced Mark St. Pierre, a vendor in Ray Nagin's City Hall, to 17 1/2 years for bribery. St. Pierre cooperated with no one.

"Without question, St. Pierre thumbed his nose and got spanked severely," said Raspanti.

It could all be food for thought for the former mayor. Nagin is awaiting trial on 21 counts of bribery and fraud. Nagin attorney Robert Jenkins won't say whether he's negotiating a deal.

Raspanti said, "Nagin could be the top of the food chain, he may be able to give somebody too. But in regards to people who may cooperate against him, it may have a bearing."

Then there's the other end of the spectrum.  Former assessor and school board member Betty Jefferson got 15 months' home confinement after cooperating against former Councilwoman Rene Gill Pratt, having pled guilty in an embezzlement scheme.

"Someone like Betty Jefferson cooperated and got home incarceration, which is somewhat shocking to people who work in the building every day," said Raspanti.

Sens got no such break, causing some attorneys to re-think recommending a deal. "I have to look at the case differently, and every criminal defense attorney has to look at it differently," said Capitelli.

Capitelli says future witness cooperation may suffer as a result.

Then there's the case of former city Councilman Oliver Thomas. Five years ago, he got 37 months in prison for his role in a kickback scheme. Thomas stated publicly he wouldn't rat out anyone else, but even though he offered little cooperation, his sentence was actually below the maximum allowed under federal sentencing guidelines.

So, attorneys say, you rarely know exactly which way a judge will go.