by Elliott Stonecipher
What I do know is what was going on in New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. I devoted a significant amount of time, pro bono, in helping sort through the resulting population and demographic and political detritus. For people like me, hope springs eternal in such matters. The incalculable losses suffered by so many Louisianans was a would-be genesis for our long-sought political and governmental rebirth.
Constantly nagging at such perhaps silly notions was the New Orleans mayor. At times it seemed as if Higher Powers worked to remind me of our history … of our state’s devotion to public and governmental corruption, nearly three centuries worth of it in the case of New Orleans. I dealt almost daily with news media and others from around the country, even some in other countries, all wanting to understand the dimension and meaning of the losses, and wanting to help.
Many of those I met and/or talked with, did not know us, but none of them cared if we were perfect strangers. They were moved by the unholy pictures they were seeing, and the too long unmitigated suffering of oh so many. They heard the pleas, and responded.
Many pleas came from Ray Nagin, who at times was unhinged. He played every known card to chastise and warn and threaten if “his” city was not helped. He did so for months and months and months, far after such was appropriate, much less effective. His mere presence always reminded me, “Elliott, don’t forget everything you have learned about public corruption here.” This latest chapter in that history was more or less wrapped-up in yesterday’s sentencing of Nagin by a federal judge.
What is now official is of real consequence: even in the midst of the costliest natural disaster in American history, the mayor of our New Orleans was selling the rest of us out. Even the deaths of over a thousand of “his” constituents was not sufficient to ward off the devils of self-service at the expense of those he swore an Oath to serve.
I agree with the Advocate editorial, the sentence he drew denies justice where it was badly needed. A ten-year sentence for Ray Nagin in this instance is itself an outrage. We “got” him, but then more or less released him, it somehow seems. At a minimum, he deserved every waking moment of the maximum sentence allowable. Instead, he – he! – was given a break by the Court.
I am among those few. I have been in and around Louisiana politics and government since the early 1970s. Let me run through what I have learned.
Using the least offensive description, public corruption in Louisiana is systemic. Putting is more honestly, it is Louisiana’s way of life. It is far more serious than most of us – even most of us living right here within its clutches – would believe.
When a person argues corruption is “everywhere” – by which the person means its incidence here is not unusual – I always believe that person is in on the lousy, stinking deal. Even by the objective measure of the number of public corruption cases prosecuted, Louisiana routinely tops the list of states. The count of totally unsanctioned public corruption cases is many, many, many times higher.
I long ago lost count of how many people I know who have tried to get public dollars by illegal means. Those means always and must include a corrupt official, elected or otherwise. Much of the time spent by elected officials and their closest staff members is invested in pursuit of such rottenness.
Louisiana remains stuck in the ditch of American life, unable to grow and prosper. Much of the reason for that condition is how devoted so many of our people are to “making a living” from pilfered public money.
There is precious little downside risk here for corrupt public officials and those they seek to enrich – for a piece of the action. Precious little. This word is out, too. The corrupt are drawn here by our history and practice of every kind of political and governmental cheating and stealing. That, put simply, is our problem. Corruption is an industry here, just like manufacturing or oil and gas extraction is in some other state. It is what we do in Louisiana.
When we want to “grow,” we give away not only our farm, but our house and some members of our family. By the time we “attract” a business with 500 jobs, we have paid for those jobs times two or three or ten or twenty. That is what we are known for. That is the price we pay for the word being out.
If, based on my experience, we want to deal corruption a real and lasting blow, we will convict a high-profile elected official of criminal malfeasance under our excellent state statute, and the judge in his or her case will sentence that official to a minimum of five years in Angola.
I probably should not borrow a line from a typical corrupt official, but here goes, Trust me: if Ray Nagin was going to start a 5-10 year sentence in Angola rather than Oakdale in September, things would change in Louisiana, for the better.
Anything and everything else in such cases is just Louisiana business as usual.
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.