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Lewis resigns, pleads guilty

Author(s): BILL LODGE and KORAN ADDO Date: June 29, 2011 Section: News

Port Allen Mayor Derek A. Lewis resigned his post Tuesday and pleaded guilty in Baton Rouge to a federal charge of racketeering. Lewis, 50, admitted he accepted bribes from officials of a garbage-can-cleaning business known as Cifer 5000 and promised the firm a city contract.

The corrupt businessmen actually were undercover FBI agents running a sting operation.

“1 am pleased that the defendant has accepted responsibility for his actions,” U.S. Attorney Donald J. Cazayoux Jr. said after U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson received Lewis’ guilty plea.

Lewis’ conviction, Cazayoux said, “allows his community to move forward and past this dark period in its history.”

Thomas C. Damico, one of Lewis’ attorneys, said: “Mr. Lewis accepted responsibility for his actions. He resigned as mayor of Port Allen today.”

Damico added that Lewis regrets his mistakes and “apologizes to the residents of his city.”

In Port Allen, City Attorney Victor Woods said he notarized Lewis’ resignation papers Monday night.

Woods said he advised the former mayor to remove his personal property from City Hall and return his city-supplied sport utility vehicle.

Lewis did not return several calls seeking comment.

But Lewis met with city staff and council members early Tuesday.

Lewis began those conversations in “high spirits but broke down” before leaving, City Councilwoman Ray Helen Lawrence said.

“At the end, people told him they loved him and respected what he’s done for the city,” Lawrence said.

Port Allen Mayor Pro Tern R.J. Loupe took over as acting mayor Tuesday.

“1 was told everything is good. Derek left it OK.,” Loupe said.

Loupe did not always agree with Lewis, but the former mayor’s

City Councilman Ralph Bergeron agreed with Loupe that Lewis’ second term was “disappointing.”

“He (Lewis) had the confidence of the people,” Bergeron said. “We expected more of him.”

The City Council will hold a special meeting Wednesday night to address the vacant mayoral position.

Louisiana law gives council members 10 calendar days – in this case until July 8 – to choose an interim mayor.

The interim mayor will serve until the governor calls a special election to fill the vacancy.

The investigation

Lewis was snared in an FBI sting known as Operation Blighted Officials.

The former mayor signed a plea agreement in which he promised to cooperate with federal prosecutors and investigators. He also agreed to testify if called as a prosecution witness against other people.

In return, prosecutors agreed to dismiss additional felony charges from Lewis’ indictment. They also agreed with Damico that it would be appropriate for Lewis to receive a prison term of no more than five years.

Jackson, the judge, then questioned Lewis about that plea agreement.

Jackson wanted to know whether Lewis understood the judge holds the power to decide what sentence to impose.

Did Lewis understand he could be sentenced to as many as 20 years in federal prison, ordered to repay bribes totaling $18,990 and fined $250,000, the judge asked.

“Yes, sir,” Lewis replied.

“Are you pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty,” Jackson asked.

“Yes, sir,” Lewis answered.

“Did you sign that plea agreement,” Jackson asked.

“Yes, I did,” Lewis replied.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Corey R. Amundson then read a statement signed by Lewis. The former mayor admitted accepting cash and other bribes worth more than $15,000 from ‘officials’ of the garbage-can-cleaning business.

!n addition, Lewis admitted, he promised a Port Allen city contract to the business and agreed to accept 10 percent of the profits from that contract.

Finally, Lewis admitted in the signed statement, that he asked Port Allen Police Chief Fred Smith to accept cash and other valuable gifts in return for providing Cifer 5000 company officials access to information in confidential law enforcement databases.

“Do you agree that is what you did?” Jackson asked. “Yes, sir,” Lewis said.

Jackson then scheduled Lewis’ sentencing for Oct. 5. Others charged

The FBI investigation earlier produced a guilty plea from former Port Allen City Councilman Johnny L. Johnson Sr. to a charge of using telephones in aid of racketeering.

And Assistant U.S. Attorneys Amundson, Michael J. Jefferson and M. Patricia Jones have won racketeering convictions injury trials against former New Roads Mayor Tommy Nelson and former White Castle Mayor Maurice Brown.

Brown is scheduled for sentencing Aug. 10. Nelson does not yet have a sentencing date.

White Castle Police Chief Mario Brown was acquitted on all charges in the same trial that his older brother, Maurice Brown, was convicted.

Charges remain pending against Smith, the Port Allen police chief, with trial scheduled for July 25.

St. Gabriel Mayor George Grace, who leaves office at midnight Thursday, is scheduled for trial Jan. 23.

Operation Blighted Officials actually began with complaints to federal prosecutors and investigators by Baton Rouge and Houston businessmen who alleged that Grace had attempted to extract bribes from them, court records show.

Undercover FBI agents posed as executives of the garbage-can-cleaning business, known as Cifer 5000. The ‘businessmen asked Grace to help Cifer obtain city business. The agents also asked Grace for the names of other Baton Rouge-area mayors who might provide municipal business in return for bribes.

FBI agents testified in the Browns’ trial in February and Nelson’s trial earlier this month that meetings with Grace led to introductions to Nelson, Maurice Brown and Lewis.

Operation Blighted Officials is a continuing investigation, Amundson said last week after Nelson’s conviction.