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Louisiana former Senate President Michael O'Keefe dies at 89

2 months 4 days 19 hours ago Thursday, February 04 2021 Feb 4, 2021 February 04, 2021 6:37 AM February 04, 2021 in News
Source: Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Former Louisiana Senate President Michael O’Keefe, a powerful political figure in the 1970s and 1980s whose career ended when he was convicted of defrauding his business partners, has died. He was 89.

O’Keefe died from cancer at his New Orleans home on Sunday, according to an obituary and statements released by his family.

O’Keefe represented Orleans Parish in the state Senate from 1960 until 1984, the last eight years as president — the first state Senate president in Louisiana as allowed under a new state constitution. He served as the chamber’s leader under former Govs. Edwin Edwards and Dave Treen.

“He was one of the dominant figures in the state Legislature during his time,” Jim Brown, a former state lawmaker, insurance commissioner and secretary of state, told WWL-TV.

As a senator, O’Keefe helped deliver the Superdome and a convention center for New Orleans and an arena for the University of New Orleans. In the early 1960s, he was one of the few state lawmakers who voted against efforts to maintain segregated schools.

But a series of scandals led to his downfall, and O’Keefe spent nearly 20 years in federal prison. He lost his political career, went to prison, was freed and went to prison again.

“His downfall was one of the most spectacular, in the sense of how big it was, how powerful he was, and how far he fell,” said Clancy Dubos, who covered O’Keefe as a young reporter.

Throughout his political career, O’Keefe was known for being tough, wily and ruthless. John Maginnis in his 1984 book, “The Last Hayride,” described O’Keefe as “immensely liked but also feared.”

“He was a very good chess player,” Sidney Barthelemy, who served in the Senate with O’Keefe from 1974-78 and later served two terms as New Orleans’ mayor, told The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. “He understood the political nature of everybody.”

O’Keefe obtained his undergraduate and law degrees from Loyola University in New Orleans. He grew up in politics, his grandfather having served as New Orleans’ mayor from 1926-29 and his father having served a term in the state Senate before spending years as a New Orleans judge.

O’Keefe was first elected to the Senate at age 29.

He “always had a game plan,” E.L. “Bubba” Henry, House speaker during O’Keefe’s tenure as Senate president, told The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. “He had thought out very well how he would accomplish what he wanted to do.”

But his political career was derailed by corruption charges.

A federal jury convicted O’Keefe in 1982 of cheating his business partners out of $900,000 in a real estate deal, but a judge threw out the verdict. O’Keefe repeatedly told everyone he was innocent. At a 1983 retrial, O’Keefe was convicted and sentenced to 16 months in prison.

He stepped down as Senate president and lost his reelection bid. O’Keefe began his sentence in April 1984 and was released from prison the following year. Edwards pardoned him in 1986.

But O’Keefe returned to prison more than a decade later.

He was convicted in 1996, along with his son-in-law and two business partners, of siphoning millions of dollars from a failed insurance company. After a court fight over the verdict, a federal judge in 1999 sentenced him to nearly 20 years in prison.

He reported to jail maintaining his innocence, telling reporters: “I believe in the system, and even when it is wrong, if it is my fate, I will spend 20 years in jail.”

He was released in 2016.

O’Keefe is survived by two children and three grandchildren. A funeral visitation will be held Saturday in New Orleans, followed by a Mass for the family.

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