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Race at Issue in Corruption Inquiry

March 06, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — This city, which over the years has seen its share of corruption, did not get terribly worked up when word first leaked that investigators were looking into whether shady deals and cronyism had plagued the former mayor's administration.

But everything changed last month, when federal agents donning flak jackets drew their guns and used a battering ram to burst into a French Quarter home. They were not searching for drugs or weapons, but computer files and documents. And the home was not that of a violent criminal, but a political operative: Jacques Morial, former Mayor Marc H. Morial's brother and a member of one of New Orleans' most prominent black families.

In the weeks since, the city has become enmeshed in a debate over the politics of race and the definition of progress. A coalition of 30 black pastors denounced the early morning raid, asserting that authorities had treated white defendants like Martha Stewart and former Enron Corp. Chief Executive Jeffrey K. Skilling with more restraint and respect. And they have used the corruption investigation as a springboard for a wide-ranging dialogue on race.

Such heavy-handed tactics, in the religious leaders' view, are proof that African Americans remain second-class citizens, even in a city where they represent about two-thirds of the population. Political gains made by New Orleans' black community have not been accompanied by parallel economic gains, they said.

"I look at this as more than one investigation," said the Rev. Tom Watson, pastor of a nondenominational New Orleans church. "This is a spiritual assault, an assault across America, an assault on black men."

Their criticism has been aimed with particular fervor at current New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, an African American who was elected in 2002 following the eight-year reign of the charismatic Morial.

Nagin swept into office on a pledge to rid City Hall of corruption. But the pastors allege that since his election, he has turned his back on New Orleans' black citizens, failing to provide adequate support for community policing, for instance, and curtailing operations at the city's African American museum.

A spokesman for the mayor denied the allegations. He said that the only thing under "assault" is the notion that one must be a member of a back-room, good-old-boys' network to get a share of city business. Officials argue that those protesting the efforts to root out corruption are not representing the black community as a whole, but a small slice that historically has been first in line for government contracts.

"In order to build ... the city and have a true black middle class, you have to provide opportunity for everyone," spokesman Patrick Evans said.

"We are trying to dispel the image that you have to be politically connected to get business. We should spend less time defending this mayor's 'blackness' and more time as a community finding ways to fix our ailing public school system, reduce the murder rate, teach proper conflict resolution to our youth and fill vacant city jobs," he added.

U.S. Atty. Jim Letten, who helps run federal law enforcement activities in the region, would not confirm the investigation. But City Hall and law enforcement sources said that investigators have cast a wide net to gauge the integrity of numerous public contracts enacted in recent years.

The investigation is focused largely, the sources said, on business executives and attorneys with close ties to the Morial administration.

The executives reportedly had a hand in municipal business during Morial's tenure, from food and beverage concessions at Louis Armstrong International Airport to the city's negotiations to lease land for a casino. All of the subjects of the investigation, the sources said, are black.

It is unclear why Jacques Morial, a longtime confidant to his brother, was among those subjected to a search warrant. He did not return calls seeking comment.

Marc Morial, now president of the New York-based National Urban League, a community-based organization designed to empower African Americans, also declined to comment.

The criminal division of the Internal Revenue Service in New Orleans led the raid. Michael Nelson, the special agent in charge of the division, also would not comment. However, Letten said that it was "certainly our belief that under the circumstances, the agents acted within the standards set for them by law and policy."

The raid was conducted Feb. 14. Federal agents pounded on Jacques Morial's door at 7:30 a.m. An estimated 70 seconds later, he had not come to the door, and they broke inside with a battering ram. They spent eight hours "ransacking" the house, according to a prepared statement by the Morial brothers' mother, Sybil Morial. Sybil Morial's husband, the late Ernest "Dutch" Morial, served two terms as the city's first black mayor in the 1970s and 1980s.

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