Federal corruption trial targets north La. lawmaker’s brother

Published 8:41 am Saturday, January 5, 2008

DELHI, La. (AP) — Since it opened in 2003, a state-financed park in this north Louisiana town has attracted thousands of visitors, but it has also drawn the attention of federal investigators.

Two corruption cases have tarnished the image of Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, which otherwise has proved to be an economic boost, bringing boaters, fishermen and golfers to the depressed Delta.

Kathy Cleveland, 55, of Epps, a former employee of the park’s governing district, pleaded guilty last March to embezzling more than $150,000 from the district.

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Mike Thompson, former chief of the Poverty Point Reservoir District and brother of a veteran state legislator, is accused of using a district worker as a personal handyman, paying him with public money to fix tractors and install satellite dishes on Thompson’s private property.

The Thompson case has sparked plenty of attention in northeast Louisiana, partly because it involves such a prominent family.

Thompson, 58, is the former mayor of Delhi, a town of 3,000 residents about 35 miles east of Monroe. His brother, state Rep. Francis Thompson, dreamed up the idea of creating a lake and a state park in rural Richland Parish, paid for by millions of taxpayer dollars.

Mike Thompson has pleaded not guilty to one count of violating the federal Hobbs Act by taking public money to which he was not entitled, a charge often used in public corruption cases. The maximum penalty would be 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His lawyer said the charges are unfounded.

“I am absolutely confident that we are going to be able to show that the allegations are 100 percent false,” lawyer J. Michael Small said.

Prosecutors say Mike Thompson used the district’s money to pay for construction of fences, pouring of concrete, fixing a tractor and other chores on his property, Turkey Creek Farms, in Richland Parish.

Thompson is accused of paying the worker more than $9,100, in addition to paying him with public money to travel around the state on personal errands, according to court documents.

Small said the prosecutors’ case is based on a tainted witness — Joe Cleveland, husband of Kathy Cleveland. Small said Joe Cleveland is feeding the government false information about Thompson, in an attempt to get a lighter sentence for his wife.

“He has abundant motivation to lie,” Small said.

Thompson’s trial is set to begin April 14 in Monroe.

Prosecutors say the alleged crimes took place between 1997 and 2002, while Mike Thompson was the reservoir district’s executive director and thousands of gallons of water were being pumped from a Richland Parish bayou onto what had been low-grade farmland. The result was the Poverty Point Reservoir — a 3,000-acre manmade lake named after a nearby plantation.

Today, the park is a picturesque hub of activity in otherwise slow-moving Richland Parish, with waterfowl flitting past the cypress trees that dot the lake. Children play on the beach, bass fishermen launch boats in the marina and golfers tee off at what Golf Digest has called one of the best new courses in the country.

Francis Thompson, 66, thought up the project and started introducing Poverty Point-related bills in 1977. Since then the project has been funded — at his urging — with more than $49 million in state taxpayer money.

Using his own money, Francis Thompson also joined scores of others who bought plots of private land along the lake. In 2003 he bought 10 acres for about $110,000. He has since sold lots on the property, and built a home for himself and his wife that was assessed last year at $198,000, according to parish assessment records.

Critics have accused Thompson of personally profiting on the state project because of his public role as a prominent House member.

But he insists he made the investment as a show of confidence in the district he’s represented in the Legislature since 1974. Making money was not his goal, he said.

“I’ll make some profit, but I’m not in it for that purpose. I’m not in development,” said Thompson, a Democrat who last year won a four-year term in the Senate after being barred by term limits from re-election to the House.

In the Capitol, Francis Thompson’s land deals — and the role he played in creating the park — are a common topic of jokes from other lawmakers, who are amused and impressed by his success at sending state money to his district.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco joked about Thompson’s fiscal finesse in a 2006 speech to the Legislature, while explaining that she wanted to use $4 million in state money to buy land in Richland Parish.

“Before you jump to conclusions, let me quickly tell you that Francis Thompson does not own the land,” Blanco said.

Lawmakers roared with laughter.

Thompson, sitting near Blanco on the House floor, did not laugh.

He’s nothing but serious about Poverty Point, insisting the project is the best thing to happen to northeast Louisiana in years.

“It’s the best investment the state could have ever made,” he said.