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Louisiana sees shift in cleaning out corruption

The state ranks third in corruption convictions per capita, but since Hurricane Katrina, people don't want to tolerate it anymore, officials say. 'It's no longer a spectator sport.'

March 30, 2009|Howard Witt

NEW ORLEANS — A couple of months ago, an obscure New Orleans tax assessor was ticketed for allegedly using flashing police lights on his car to weave his way through a traffic jam.

As public corruption allegations in Louisiana go, it was strictly penny ante.

This is, after all, a state where a former governor has been keeping a federal prison cell warm for more than six years for extortion, racketeering and fraud; where a former congressman is about to go on trial for allegedly stashing $90,000 in his kitchen freezer; and where a suburban New Orleans mayor is under scrutiny for receiving gift cards, a hunting bow and a gun cabinet purchased with donations to a Toys for Tots Christmas fund.

Yet the story of the tax assessor with the police lights was major news here. And that, local corruption fighters hope, is a measure of progress.

"We used to say that in Louisiana we like our food spicy and our politicians colorful," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a corruption watchdog group. "But lately we have noticed a shift in the public's attitude toward corruption. It's no longer a spectator sport. People don't want to tolerate it anymore."

Other states have endured corruption scandals -- think Illinois, home to recently deposed Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich. But for genuine, savory, infused-in-the-gumbo style public venality, Louisiana has most of America beat.

Ranked according to corruption convictions per capita from 1998 to 2007, Louisiana is No. 3. (Washington, D.C., and North Dakota ranked higher -- and those results were skewed because of their small populations.)

The jobbery here seems so ubiquitous and inevitable that the Legislature declined to pass a law in the last session that would have cut off state pensions for public officials convicted of corruption. Why, the legislators reasoned, should they have to pay twice if they get caught stealing from the public purse?

In the last six years, the U.S. attorney for the New Orleans district has issued 236 corruption indictments, and many more may be on the way.

Prominent scandals under investigation by the FBI include a federally financed New Orleans housing agency set up to rehabilitate houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina that allegedly spent millions but did little or no work, and a City Hall contract to install a network of crime surveillance cameras that the New Orleans inspector general says resulted in $4 million in mysterious overpayments for a system that mostly doesn't function.

"I am absolutely certain we have increased the paranoia level on the part of those who would abuse the public trust," said U.S. Atty. Jim Letten, who cemented his reputation as a corruption fighter as the prosecutor who sent former Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards to prison.

"If you're a corrupt public official, we want you to be nervous. You will never know if the businessman or -woman you are trying to shake down is wearing a wire."

Law enforcement officials think the devastation wrought by Katrina in 2005, when 80% of New Orleans flooded after the city's levees failed, was a turning point.

Residents and businesses returned to New Orleans determined to cleanse their hobbled city of the mildew of decades of public corruption.

Suddenly victims started picking up their phones to report attempted shakedowns or sliding incriminating documents to authorities, officials say.

And in 2007, Louisiana voters elected Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal on a reformist anti-corruption platform -- and Jindal promptly pushed through a package of reforms including expanded whistle-blower protections, new limits on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and prohibitions against state officials taking state contracts.

"The average person out there understands now that public corruption has adversely affected his or her quality of life, whether it's the crumbling streets they drive on, the dismal state of the public school system, the crime rate or the lack of jobs," Letten said.

"The tolerance of corruption was partly a belief that it was a way of life, that it was so entrenched and endemic that it was untouchable and unreachable. Now the average citizen believes that something can be done about it."

Of course, not everything has changed.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who campaigned for office seven years ago as a reformer, has resisted news media requests to release his official city e-mails and refused City Council demands to fire the official who oversaw the surveillance camera contract that is under investigation. Nagin's office also put up administrative and financial roadblocks as the city's first inspector general tried to set up his office in 2007.

But the current inspector general, Leonard Odom, has not been deterred.

On a wall in his office is a sprawling work in progress: an attempt to diagram, with scores of yellow Post-it notes, every arcane, off-the-books board, commission and agency in New Orleans' tangled city bureaucracy. So far, investigators have found more than 140 agencies that are not included in any city audit.

"Here's one, something called the Delgado-Albania Plantation Commission," Odom said, pointing at a random sticky note. "They get about $37,000 a year, but we don't know what they do. But we're going to find out."


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