Former Louisiana state legislator Karen Carter Peterson has been sentenced to 22 months in federal prison for wire fraud, following admission of using campaign and state Democratic Party funds to cover up her gambling addiction.
The sentencing was announced by Judge Sarah Vance on Wednesday in New Orleans, following an impassioned plea to the court from Peterson concerning her remorse and mental health struggles. The judge rejected her request for probation.
“I am truly sorry for my criminal conduct. I am truly sorry,” Peterson said in tears.
“People trusted me and I breached that trust. I failed my constituents, my family and my friends.”
The sentencing brings to an end more than three and a half years of uncertainty in her political career, following a steady rise for more than two decades in public office. The federal probe against Peterson, 53, was first announced in April 2022.
“In the course of soliciting campaign donations, Peterson failed to disclose to potential contributors that she had already used prior contributions for her personal benefit,” the Department of Justice said in a statement that August, shortly after Peterson pled guilty.
Peterson admitted to diverting more than $140,000 over seven years during her time in the state senate, in a complex scheme involving her friends and family as part of various fraudulent activities.
A New Orleans native born to a politically connected family, Peterson worked as an attorney before entering the Louisiana legislature in 1999, when she was elected to the state house for District 93, representing part of Uptown New Orleans. She won a special election to the state senate in 2010, and ascended to the chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party two years later.
Her legal troubles began in May 2019, when it was revealed that she had violated a self-imposed casino ban in the state of Louisiana, which is a misdemeanor offense. She did not face charges for the incident, but admitted she had a gambling addiction. In the summer of 2020, she stepped down as head of the state’s Democrats.
Before her wire fraud became public knowledge, Peterson waged an unsuccessful bid for the US House of Representatives in Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district, losing in a runoff to fellow state senator Troy Carter in April 2021.
Almost exactly a year later, Peterson resigned abruptly from her state senate seat, citing depression and her gambling addiction. Two days later, it was revealed that she was under federal investigation for related criminal activity.
A devout Black Catholic, Peterson gave an opening prayer for the state senate upon her resignation and said that she had not gambled in “a long time.” On social media, she retweeted Pope Francis, who had recently spoken of those who “try to walk, but keep failing.”
Upon pleading guilty to the wire fraud charge in July 2022, Peterson was disbarred in the state of Louisiana and said she had made “full repayment” of the diverted funds.
Earlier this week, before sentencing, Peterson touted her faith and said was “making amends” by mentoring other addicted persons and continuing her participation in Gamblers Anonymous.
“There’s light at the end of this darkness,” she told Gambit in December.
“There are criminals who gamble, and there are gamblers who commit crimes. I’m the latter.”
Peterson has been ordered to report to federal prison by March 6, and her sentence will be followed by three years of supervised release and 600 hours of unpaid community service.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).