August 14, 2007…Each day brings a new revelation about a disgraced Louisiana politician. In June, Congressman Bill Jefferson (D-New Orleans) was hit with a 16-count indictment on charges including bribery, racketeering and money laundering. In July, U.S. Senator David Vitter (R-La.) admitted involvement with the D.C. Madam and is going to be called as a witness in the upcoming federal trial. He was also linked to a prostitution ring being operated by the Canal Street Madam in New Orleans, a charge he denies. However, the embarrassments are not confined to the state’s congressional delegation, for today, the longest serving member of the New Orleans City Council, at-large representative Oliver Thomas, pleaded guilty on federal bribery charges for demanding payments from a vendor that was hired to operate three parking lots in New Orleans. The charge carries a jail sentence of 10 years, although Thomas has been cooperating with federal prosecutors and will likely receive a lighter sentence. Due to this guilty plea, Thomas will resign his council position in shame, bringing another unfortunate spotlight on our political scene.
As Thomas divulges more information about local political corruption, it is quite possible that more politicians become ensnared in this criminal case. As more corrupt politicians are identified, it will help clean up the rotten political arena, which is certainly a positive development. However, in the long recovery process, the image of the city and state will continue to suffer.
No other state has so many prominent politicians in trouble with the law. The lawbreakers are not confined to New Orleans, it is a statewide epidemic. The former Governor of Louisiana is still in jail serving a ten year sentence; the former Elections Commissioner was convicted of crimes including money laundering; three Insurance Commissioners in a row were sent to jail; the Agriculture Commissioner has been indicted on bribery charges and the former President of the State Senate is still in jail on charges including insurance fraud and money laundering. In addition, numerous state legislators have been sent to jail on a variety of charges, including former gubernatorial candidate and KKK leader David Duke on tax fraud charges.
In the New Orleans area, in recent years, a very successful Wrinkled Robe investigation has netted the conviction of two Jefferson Parish judges. There has been an active investigation into the activities of the Orleans Parish School Board and several convictions have been received, including former board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms who pleaded guilty to accepting $100,000 in bribes from a consultant working for a vendor. The consultant was reported to be none other than Mose Jefferson, the brother of the indicted congressman. Another scandal involved the girlfriend of Mose Jefferson, former Councilwoman Renee Gill-Pratt, who improperly used donated vehicles that were sent to the city post-Katrina for her own personal benefit.
Of all the local investigations, the one that has netted the most prominent convictions involves the administration of former Mayor Marc Morial. Several administration allies, including Morial’s uncle, his good friend Stan “Pampy” Barre and his administration’s property manager have all been admitted to crimes. It was this case that resulted in the discovery of bribery by Thomas, when Barre started talking to the federal government in the hopes of earning a lesser jail sentence.
This development has shocked the New Orleans political community. Thomas was seen as the heir apparent to Ray Nagin as Mayor. In contrast to Nagin, Thomas was viewed as a bridge builder and a more responsible elected official who did not “shoot from the hip” or embarrass the city he represented. Of course, today, with his guilty plea, Thomas has not only embarrassed himself, but his family and all of his constituents in New Orleans. Now, he becomes just another in a long line of Louisiana politicians who have run afoul of the law.
It is time for voters to demand more from politicians and seek out those who are reputable and trustworthy. Voters must insist that tougher ethics laws are passed on both the local and statewide levels. For many years, it has been apparent that the deals at City Hall have been questionable and possibly illegal. It is common knowledge that insiders and politicians profit from the city contracts and that smelly practice must end immediately. It should be mandatory that no council member be allowed to receive “consulting fees” from any companies doing business with City of New Orleans or have an ownership role in those entities. On the state level, no legislator should be allowed to do business with state government or profit from their public service. In most states, these are elementary ethics requirements, but in Louisiana, they involve a whole new way of thinking.
For politicians, public service should be a sacrifice, not a way to line their pockets. Everyone in Louisiana has seen too many politicians supposedly receiving only a minimal salary driving around in fancy cars and wearing expensive clothes. Where do they get the money since it certainly does not come from their minimal salaries? Tragically, all too often, the lucrative perks come from underhanded dealings.
Just as the state is asking for more federal assistance, another one of our supposedly pro-reform politicians is nabbed in a corruption probe. This does not give the rest of the nation any confidence that hurricane recovery dollars will be spent wisely and not squandered on politicians looking for payoffs.
It is no longer entertaining to see so many politicians in trouble. It is disheartening and very disturbing and, of course, damaging to the state’s already tarnished reputation.