by Elliott Stonecipher
Readers of the Shreveport Times awoke Sunday morning to a bold headline, “DA: BESE Member Walter Lee to Face Theft Charge,” which again raises an issue equally sore and important to many Louisianans: public corruption. More to the point, why there seems to be so much of it, but with so few related investigations, much less prosecutions.
In my neck of the woods, the Walter Lee story is actual news to those of us who agree about what qualifies as such. The Times reporter who has played the key role in making the underlying facts public over the past many months, Vickie Welborn, is one of only a handful of reporters left in Louisiana who do this crucially important work. As her story details, however, prosecuting Mr. Lee for “one count of felony theft” is, at this point, only the stated intention of the DeSoto Parish District Attorney Richard Johnson.
Regardless, the matter reached this point in the criminal justice process in an old-fashioned, bedrock of justice, way: aware of questionable uses of public money by a public official, other stewards of the public trust, as we used to refer to them, reported facts of the matter to investigators and at least one reporter. Investigators in turn brought it to appropriate possible prosectuors, parish, state and federal, with Ms. Welborn keeping the public informed. All public officials involved therefore knew that readers of the newspaper were waiting to see how they would respond. So, the downside risk of being seen to condone public corruption by inaction was greater than any political advantage in officially sweeping the facts under the rug.
For any reader who is unaware, the process just described was for many, many decades at the heart of public corruption policing. That process was, in fact, the policing mechanism: a honest public official (or other person) as the complainant, a committed journalist, a willing news organization for whom that journalist worked, an informed public, and investigators / prosecutors doing what we elect or otherwise employ them to do. Only when the public knew that corruption was awaiting action by investigators and prosecutors were most such cases actually brought. Today, such processes and events in opposition to public corruption are, in many places, my home area specifically included, as rare as candidates on the stump who ever speak the words “public” and “corruption,” in that order.
Particularly in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, parts of Louisiana have aggressively attacked corrupt acts by elected officials, though they did so thanks to federal prosecutors, not parish or state officials. Such rates of prosecution are sometimes used to calculate which places in America are the “most corrupt.” Recently, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported the details of such an analysis by news website Business Insider, which concluded:
Between 2002 and 2011, Louisiana convicted 403 government officials of crimes “involving abuses of the public trust,” according to the DOJ data. This amounts to 8.76 convictions per 100,000 people, the highest rate in the country.
It is indeed ironic that prosecutions, far disproportionately in New Orleans during the studied period, are the heart of this determination, since so many of us in Louisiana virtually never see such prosecutions. As I have met and/or worked with investigators and prosecutors in Louisiana – parish, state and federal – I learned that we are, in fact, well-armed to respond given our underlying laws. Our state’s criminal malfeasance statute is more than adequate should investigators and prosecutors care to apply it, and if any parish district attorney is unwilling for any reason to prosecute any given case, he or she need only ask the Louisiana Attorney General to step in to perform that duty. (In fact, a public corruption prosecution by the State Attorney General is possible only at the discretion and request of the parish district attorney.) As to federal authorities, on whom Louisiana counts for a very large percentage of public corruption prosecutions, we know only that there is no explanation for when they do or do not step in. I can personally attest, however, that some of them specifically cite the strength of our state (and, therefore, parish and city) criminal malfeasance statute for such prosecutions.
The Heart of the Matter
Now we arrive at the point.
Discretion is not only the better part of valor, it is the worst kind of devil lurking within the details of public corruption’s unmitigated damage to so many places. No less than public utilities, education, jobs and other such building blocks, healthy towns depend on a community consensus that public corruption is, and will always be, rooted out and punished. When it is not, as is the case in many stagnant and dying cities, the word gets out, much more quickly and broadly than ever in our information age. In places where the rule of law evokes little more than an occasional chuckle from the sizable community of the corrupt, newcomers stay away and natives ride it down. Put more directly, it cannot be coincidental that Louisiana leads the nation in both public corruption prosecutions and net population outmigration over three-plus decades.
Public corruption prosecutions are at the sole discretion of investigators and prosecutors, not law. When responsible agencies and officials prove over time that they see no need to prosecute such acts, that word also gets out, and to all the wrong people. Aided and abetted by a lot of “good” people who in truth benefit from public corruption, it then becomes the lifeblood of that place, a growth-industry among those on the wrong side of every single thing it takes for a place to grow and prosper.
Having learned what I have in and around government and politics for decades, I – some say foolishly – take it personally when an elected official steals our money, especially more or less openly. I actually feel like the corrupt pol is stealing my money, no differently than a robber on the street would. That I hold a grudging respect, in context, for the robber – at least he runs a real risk of being caught and punished – is neither here nor there, though. The point is this: where honest people care, and constitute the majority, corrupt public officials are just another kind of criminal, treated no differently than the rest of them.
Elliott Stonecipher’s reports and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest, with no compensation of any kind solicited or accepted. Appropriate credit to Mr. Stonecipher in the sharing – unedited only, please – of his work is requested and appreciated.