- Associated Press - Friday, March 6, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A New Orleans school board member and Southern University police chief who ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 2014, has been charged with bribery in an alleged scheme involving a school system contract, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite said Friday.

In a case evocative of the corruption that plagued the school system prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Ira Thomas is alleged to have taken a $5,000 bribe, disguised as a campaign contribution, to help an unidentified person get a school system janitorial services contract.

The allegations date back to the fall of 2013. The case includes conversations secretly recorded by a witness in the case with the help of the FBI. Polite said the investigation involved an Orleans Parish School Board employee and others. He said the investigation continues but it was unclear whether more arrests are expected.

Attempts to reach Thomas by telephone and email were unsuccessful. Stan Smith, the interim superintendent for the Orleans Parish School System, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. However, late Friday, a school system spokeswoman said Thomas was stepping down from the board. Southern University at New Orleans confirmed that Thomas resigned as police chief Friday but declined to comment further.

Thomas was charged in a bill of information, which typically signals the defendant is cooperating with prosecutors. The formal charge is “conspiracy to commit bribery and honest services wire fraud.” Conviction could result in a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The Orleans Parish School Board now is in charge of fewer than two dozen schools. Because of corruption, including the conviction of a former president, financial problems and poor student performance, the state moved to take over most schools from the troubled system shortly after levee failures during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shut down the city. The state Recovery School District oversees close to 60 schools, all of which are operated by independent charter organizations.

The School Board charters most of its schools as well.

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