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Louisiana Tires of Its Rogues

Now that Katrina has spawned its first graft case, angry residents see the state's reputation for corruption corroding its ability to get federal aid.

January 27, 2006|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Joseph Impastato conceded he took the two cashier's checks worth $85,000. The whole thing was captured on tape by the FBI, so it would have been difficult to deny.

But it was no kickback, the councilman from St. Tammany Parish said. It was business.

When he cut a deal to receive half the money from a government contract to haul away hurricane debris, Impastato said, he was acting as a private businessman, not a public official.

Federal prosecutors are not buying it -- and neither apparently is the Louisiana public. After a federal grand jury indicted Impastato on felony extortion charges last month, making him the first Louisiana politician accused of Hurricane Katrina corruption, citizens condemned him in newspapers and on talk radio and the Internet as an embarrassment to his home state.

"He's got to be a real lowlife to do something like that at a time like this," Frank White, a 62-year-old retired fire captain from the suburb of Chalmette, said in an interview. "It's the Louisiana way of doing business, I guess. But there is a quiet majority now that's sick and tired of this. People are fed up with these crooks."

In Louisiana, which has a history of political shenanigans so rich and colorful that it has become a part of American folklore, people long have laughed off misbehaving politicians as a fact of life, every bit as inevitable as death and taxes.

But as the state lobbies Washington for more money to rebuild ravaged towns and cities, citizens are realizing that Louisiana's well-earned penchant for dirty politics has exacted a steep price: It has badly damaged the credibility of the recovery effort.

"Frankly, the reputation in Washington is, if we send money down there, it will just get stolen," said political handicapper Charles E. Cook, a Louisiana native who has worked in the nation's capital for more than three decades. "It is a caricature of Louisiana politics that is not entirely undeserved but is grossly exaggerated. No one cared about it much before Katrina. But right now, it's hurting the state enormously."

A major turning point in public attitude came in 2001 when Edwin Edwards, the former four-term Democratic governor, received a 10-year sentence for taking bribes for riverboat gambling licenses. In the last governor's race, both candidates -- Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco beat Republican Bobby Jindal -- were considered squeaky clean, and promised government reforms. The distaste for dirty government has really picked up momentum since last summer.

"What was tolerated before Katrina is not necessarily tolerated now," said pollster Silas Lee III, a professor at Xavier University here. "Nerves are raw. People have lost their sense of security and direction. They are living a day-to-day existence, and they have little patience for any politician who is perceived as being corrupt."

In addition to Edwards, in the last decade Louisiana has seen an attorney general, a congressman, a state Senate president, a federal judge and countless local officials convicted of corruption. Louisiana's last three state insurance commissioners wound up in prison for offenses that include lying to the FBI, accepting $2 million in illegal campaign contributions and taking bribes -- prompting jokes that future candidates should make sure they look good in stripes.

Jim Letten, the U.S. attorney for eastern Louisiana and the lead prosecutor in the Edwards case, sees the convictions as a sign of progress. Wherever he goes, he said, he is greeted by people -- black, white, Latino, Asian -- who tell him Louisiana needs to clean up its act.

"I am not sure that Louisiana has measurably more corruption than other [regions], but surely we have a reputation for being tolerant of it," said Letten, a member of the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force, a team of federal, state and local law enforcement officials investigating scams and corruption.

Until recently, Louisiana politicians proved that charisma trumped scruples. Their repeated election victories, despite corruption allegations in many instances, showed that Louisiana voters viewed the ethical transgressions of their elected officials as an amusing spectacle.

T. Wayne Parent, a political science professor at Louisiana State University and author of "Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics," said citizens accepted corrupt politicians because they were effective in providing government services, and the cash they were pocketing was not believed to be taxpayer money.

"Maybe some politician was making a deal with the devil, but that was money from some oil and gas company, or so people thought. By the late 1980s, people realized, maybe it was our money," said Parent, who believes the change in attitude has been slowly building over the last quarter-century.

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