By Drew Broach, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

For all of Chris Roberts’ political wheeling and dealing – plenty of it over 20 years in elected office – it wasn’t public corruption that the federal government ultimately alleged in the 29-count indictment against him. The defendant here is not so much Roberts the politician as Roberts the private citizen hustling for money.

Politics pervade the indictment, to be sure. It runs 32 pages, with 13 paragraphs establishing that he won elections to Jefferson’s School Board and Parish Council and filed financial disclosure forms with the Louisiana Ethics Administration. But nowhere does it suggest Roberts committed the kind of crimes typically associated with crooked politicians: extortion, bribery or outright theft of public money.

Instead, the federal grand jury in New Orleans charged Roberts with tax evasion and wire fraud, for allegedly under-reporting his income to the Internal Revenue Service by as much as $1.1 million over seven years and embezzling more than $67,000 from a landscaping company that he once managed.

After an investigation that lasted more than two years and involved the Metropolitan Crime Commission, the IRS, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office, is that all they’ve got?

“The FBI public corruption aspect of it does not appear to have jelled, which I’m sure was their primary focus,” Mike Magner, a former federal prosecutor and now white-collar criminal defense attorney, said Friday (May 10).

The charges are serious, nonetheless. If convicted of all, Roberts could by law be imprisoned for 475 years and fined $6.2 million fine. That’s highly unlikely, however, as maximum penalties for first-time offenders are rare in federal court.

Guidelines that federal judges use to inform their sentencing decisions suggest 18 to 24 months in prison if Roberts pleads guilty, Magner said. If convicted at trial, that rises to 27 to 33 months.

That calculus – fight the charges or fold his tent – probably weighs heavily on Roberts, who in his political career seldom shied from a confrontation. Neither Roberts, 41, who has four dependent children, nor his attorney have responded to requests for comment. But Magner said, “I think he would have to look very seriously at cutting his losses and negotiating a plea.”

Roberts was elected to the School Board in 1998 at age 21. In 2003, he won a seat on the Parish Council. On April 29, he resigned the council without explanation.

As a parishwide council member, Roberts’ public salary in 2018 was $115,415, according to public records. Over the years, he also had business interests in a Mardi Gras merchandise company, a Baskin-Robbins ice cream franchise, a Quizno’s sandwich shop, fireworks and snowball stands, a photography business, consulting business and The West Bank Beacon, a monthly community newspaper.

And Roberts was a casino gambler, one who didn’t fully report his winnings to the IRS, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Nor did he always fulfill his financial obligations. Five creditors have sued him in recent years, four of them winning judgments declaring he owned them a total of $267,713. One of them obtained a court order to garnish his Parish Council salary.

Roberts and his first wife separated on April 11, 2011, according to court records. She filed for divorce almost a year later, and Roberts has said the property settlement took three years. The divorce was final July 12, 2015.

During that period, Roberts took a $5,500-a-month job in 2013 as general manager for Dan’s Landscaping in Terrytown. The owner had died, and his widow, a Roberts acquaintance inexperienced at running the business, asked for help.

Yet Roberts also helped himself to $67,874 of the company’s money, according to the indictment. He wrote company checks to himself and his other business entities, paid for personal goods and services with the company’s debit card and lied about the spending to the owner, the grand jury said. He was fired in 2017.

Among the illegal purchases, the indictment says, were three aerial drone camera systems that collectively cost $3,433 and a $16,000 engagement ring that he presented on Independence Day 2015 to his soon-to-be second wife. He paid for the ring with a personal check, although he lacked enough money in the account to cover it. Five days after the sale, he deposited sufficient funds, but $1,750 came from Dan’s Landscaping and $10,200 came from his campaign finance account, according to the indictment.

Roberts also is charged with evading income taxes. For the tax years 2010 through 2016, he initially reported joint income with his first wife, or his own income after their divorce, of almost $2.4 million. That’s an annual average of $340,723.

He reported a tax obligation totaling $291,978, for an annual average of $41,711.

But after the government subpoenaed his tax records on Jan. 12, 2017, he amended five of the returns. That resulted in him reporting a new, seven-year total income of $3.5 million, for an average of $503,925. The tax obligation he reported rose to $443,790, an average of $63,399.

Even then he was hiding income, federal prosecutors say.

Magner said amending tax returns after learning of a tax investigation was a risky move. Roberts might have been trying to demonstrate to authorities that he was coming clean with the government.

But at trial, Magner said, “It’s certainly going to look to most jurors like an admission of guilt.”