Lee Zurik Investigation: Bennett gets 15-month sentence for Hingle bribery

Published: Mar. 12, 2014 at 8:01 PM CDT
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In this file photo, Aaron Bennett (left) walks with attorney David Courcelle outside federal...
In this file photo, Aaron Bennett (left) walks with attorney David Courcelle outside federal court in New Orleans

A federal judge sentenced New Orleans businessman Aaron Bennett to 15 months in federal prison Wednesday for giving kickbacks to former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle. That means Bennett could be out of jail by the end of the summer.

Bennett and Hingle were the subjects of a series of FOX 8 investigations that sent them both to jail.

Bennett received a break on his sentence because of his cooperation with the FBI and federal prosecutors.

"We're obviously very pleased by the sentence by the judge," said one of Bennett's attorneys, David Courcelle. "He looked at everything, looked at Mr. Bennett's cooperation. And I think today is a testament to... if you've done something wrong and you plead guilty early, you accept responsibility and you cooperate with the government, this can be your result."

Although he didn't testify, Bennett did cooperate with the feds in their case against former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

"I can't go into all of his assistance," Courcelle told reporters outside federal court, "but he did cooperate on several, very significant cases. And the test is whether or not it was substantial."

Bennett's cooperation apparently goes beyond the Nagin case. Courcelle had this response to the question of whether we've heard about all of Bennett's cooperation: "Some you have, some you will, but I'm not at liberty to discuss it right now."

It's been almost two and a half years since Bennett pleaded guilty in federal court to giving Hingle kickbacks totaling $30,000. Hingle received a stiffer sentence, 46 months, Bennett only 15. But Hingle also pleaded guilty to another crime, that of misusing his campaign money.

"One, you have an elected official, someone who's elected by an entire parish who is sworn to uphold the Constitution, the laws of the state of Louisiana," said Courcelle. "The federal guidelines actually address [elected] officials and do allow for greater punishment. We also have other crimes that he pleaded to, in addition to the bribery."

Bennett has been in a Tangipahoa Parish jail since August, when a judge revoked his bond because Bennett admitted to visiting a Mississippi casino.

Courcelle told reporters, "Certainly [he] made a mistake in this case, but he accepted responsibility and he's going to pay for that."

Bennett will now be transferred to a federal prison to serve out the remaining time on his sentence. With the way federal sentencing is calculated, that means Bennett could be released in four to five months - he could be out of prison in July or August.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Hingle will be released in January 2017.

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