Among the other indices of civilizational erosion in Louisiana is the decline in the quality of the state’s political crooks. Even corruption isn’t done well there anymore. Louisiana pols once prided themselves on the efficient, stylish, and subtle performance of graft. Historians note as an example of this the advice of Earl Long, Huey’s brother: “Don’t write anything you can phone. Don’t phone anything you can talk. Don’t talk anything you can whisper. Don’t whisper anything you can smile. Don’t smile anything you can nod. Don’t nod anything you can wink.”
Now the corruption is performed rather clumsily. Obvious looting occurs not just amongst the criminal class but amongst the political class that mirrors it. New Orleans Congressman William Jefferson, underscoring that the city is home to a prodigious number of thieves, is under investigation as an artless crook himself. In August, the Washington Post reported that the FBI, as part of an investigation into possible bribe-taking by Jefferson, raided his homes and found money in his freezer.
Keeping money in a freezer falls a bit short of Earl Long’s standards of circumspect corruption. But then Jefferson had won election several times with the public knowing of his checkered record. He had been sued for loan defaults and for being a slum lord (Jefferson Parish filed suits against him, according to the Washington Post, for letting his apartment buildings go to seed and threatened to demolish them). And Jefferson is confident apparently that he can get out of his various jams by playing the race card. His lawyer has already implied racism is driving the FBI investigation by telling the Washington Post that the FBI chose to pursue its case in “white” Virginia instead of in New Orleans.
This is the new Jesse Jackson-style twist on Louisiana’s tradition of crooked populism: if pols get caught out helping themselves to money through misuse of office while claiming to help the downtrodden, they blame their troubles on racism. Huey Long played the socialist card, saying the powerful didn’t want him to help the poor; now the William Jeffersons play the race card, saying the powerful don’t want them to help the black. Yet William Jefferson’s blatant use of public resources intended for the distressed underclass to fish a laptop out of his posh house, which was reported this week, is one more illustration of malfeasance by local pols that gives the lie to their accusations against the federal government for its supposed indifference to the fate of New Orleans blacks.
There is nothing particularly sophisticated or crafty about the new Louisiana corruption. Eddie Jordan, New Orleans’ district attorney, whose office has one of the most anemic conviction rates in the country, is another bumbling practitioner of the state’s tradition of spoils and patronage. He thought, even after campaigning on aggressive affirmative action, that he could win a discrimination lawsuit against canned white employees after firing 42 of them. He lost. Another transparent gaffe was his hiring of a deadbeat dad to serve as his office’s enforcer of payments by deadbeat dads.
Nor are the old Louisiana arts of corruption observed in the New Orleans school district. In recent years the school district has gotten so sloppy it has been known to send checks to people not on staff, in some cases not even alive. The school district is bankrupt, and parents are suing it for malpractice (demanding money to send their children to private schools). Meanwhile, the district’s idea of reform is to offer tickets to New Orleans Saints games to children and parents who show up for the first day of classes. According to the Associated Press, 30 percent of the 70,000 students in the system don’t appear on day one of the school year.
Into this pit of corruption will now go billions of federal monies. The same pols who wasted or pocketed government money before will get a new gusher to exploit. But in the history of Louisiana corruption it will rank as one of the more crude eras of graft. Even the Long brothers would have winced at William Jefferson’s setting up a legal defense fund for his impending graft trial in the midst of a natural disaster.
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