Feb 24, 2012 6:27 AM by AP

2 plead guilty in probe of Katrina grant program

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Two New Orleans women who worked as analysts on Louisiana's home elevation grant program pleaded guilty Thursday to plotting to sell the names of residents eligible for Hurricane Katrina grants.
Wanda Acker Williams, 32, and Brianna LaFrance, 30, face maximum sentences of five years in prison and $250,000 fines following their guilty pleas to conspiracy charges. U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo is scheduled to sentence them on May 24.
A court filing Thursday says Williams was paid to supply the names of people eligible for grants from the state's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to Rickey Davis, who helped secure contracts with homeowners for general contractors and subcontractors.
Homeowners living in flood-prone areas can receive grants of up to $100,000 to elevate their homes. Contractors and homeowners can be advanced up to 80 percent of a grant's total value before any elevation work is performed.
LaFrance worked with Williams as an analyst on the program before leaving the job last year to work for Davis. LaFrance took a list of eligible homeowners with her as a "base" to solicit contracts for Davis.
When her list was exhausted, LaFrance asked Williams to get a new list of names from the program's computer system. Williams agreed and provided a list of 100 names in exchange for a $1,000 payment from Davis, according to federal prosecutors.
Williams allegedly provided Davis with six more lists of names over the next few months.
"On each occasion, Rickey Davis bribed Williams by corruptly giving her up to $1,000 in cash," Thursday's court filing says.
LaFrance assisted in two of the seven transactions between Williams and Davis, but prosecutors said Davis didn't pay LaFrance anything beyond her "bona fide salary" for participating in the plot.
Prosecutors also claim Davis tried to sell one of the lists for $80,000 to an unidentified contractor. Davis isn't charged in the federal case, but a state grand jury has indicted him on charges he paid several program employees for homeowners' names.
The state Office of Community Development, which administers the $750 million grant program, launched an internal probe of the program's policies and procedures last summer after two self-described whistleblowers filed a lawsuit. Their suit accused state officials of selling confidential information about homeowners and steering work to contractors in exchange for meals and gifts.
Williams was hired by The Shaw Group Inc., a state contractor, to work on the program. A company spokeswoman has said Williams was suspended without pay after she was charged in the case in January. LaFrance worked for a Shaw subcontractor before she left to work for Davis.


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