A couple of months ago, an obscure New Orleans tax assessor was ticketed for allegedly using flashing blue police lights illegally mounted on his car to weave his way through a traffic jam.
As public corruption allegations in Louisiana go, it was strictly penny-ante stuff. This is, after all, a legendarily crooked state where a former governor has been keeping a federal prison cell warm for more than six years for extortion, racketeering and fraud; a recently defeated congressman is about to go on trial on allegations he stashed $90,000 in loot in his kitchen freezer; and a suburban New Orleans mayor is under scrutiny for receiving gift cards, a hunting bow and a gun cabinet bought with donations to a Toys for Tots Christmas fund.
Yet the minor story of the tax assessor with the police emergency lights was major news here in the newspapers and on radio, television and Internet message boards. And that, local corruption fighters are daring to 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."
The beleaguered residents of Illinois may be squirming over their newfound visibility in the pantheon of corrupt states, thanks to the extravagant malefaction allegedly committed by the recently ousted governor, Rod Blagojevich.
But for genuine, savory, infused-in-the-gumbo style public venality, Louisiana still has Illinois, and most of America, beat. Ranked according to corruption convictions per capita from 1998-2007, Louisiana is No. 3, well ahead of Illinois at No. 19. (Only Washington, D.C., and North Dakota ranked higher—and in North Dakota's case, the results were skewed because of its extremely small population.)
The jobbery here is so much like elevator music—ubiquitous, inevitable and part of the background of daily life—that the state 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 prudent legislators reasoned, should they have to pay twice if they get caught stealing from the public purse?
Consider just a few of the more spectacular recent corruption cases:
•The former president of the New Orleans City Council is serving a 3-year federal prison sentence for taking $15,000 in bribes and kickbacks for a parking garage contract.
•The former chief executive of the state's property insurance corporation was indicted in December on charges he stole up to $100,000 in public money.
•The former head of the Louisiana Film Commission is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to accepting $60,000 in bribes.
•A former state senator is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering.
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 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 believe that the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when 80 percent of New Orleans flooded after the city's crumbling levees failed, was a turning point. Residents and businesspeople 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 over law-enforcement transoms, 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 legislative 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 Ray Nagin, who campaigned for office seven years ago as a reformer, has lately been resisting news media requests to release his official city e-mails and refused City Council demands to fire the official who oversaw the crime-camera contract that is now under investigation. Nagin's office also put up numerous administrative and financial roadblocks as the city's first inspector general tried to set up his newly created office in 2007.
But the current inspector general, Leonard Odom—who worked as the inspector general for the Chicago Housing Authority from 1996-2002—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."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun