Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Swamp of Corruption ...

John Fund (2005) reminds us that "No state turns out better demagogues than Louisiana" and that the Bush administration and Congress "better figure out that they and the taxpayers are about to be fleeced like sheep as they ship south $62 billion in emergency aid with few controls or safeguards."

Fund adds that "Louisiana's two senators didn't even blink when they asked the feds for an ultimate total of $250 billion in assistance just for their state." "We recognize that it's a very high number," Sen. Mary Landrieu admitted. "But this is an unprecedented national tragedy and needs an unprecedented national response."

"Put bluntly, the local political cultures don't engender confidence that aid won't be diverted from the people who truly need and deserve it. While the feds can try to ride herd on the money, here's hoping folks in the region take the opportunity to finally demand their own political housecleaning" says Fund. Change is past due. Last year, Lou Riegel, the agent in charge of the FBI's New Orleans office, described Louisiana's public corruption as "epidemic, endemic, and entrenched. No branch of government is exempt."

Louisiana ranks third in the nation in the number of elected officials per capita convicted of crimes (Mississippi takes top prize). In just the past generation, Louisiana has had a governor, an attorney general, three successive insurance commissioners, a congressman, a federal judge, a state Senate president and a swarm of local officials convicted. Fund says that much of the region "has long had a relaxed attitude towards corruption."

But there is room for optimism. "The hurricane was so big and traumatic it could jolt the relaxed political culture," says Ron Faucheux, a Democratic former state legislator from New Orleans. He also notes that 2007 will inject new blood into Louisiana's Legislature when term limits kick in for the first time and force almost half its old-boy members to step down.

As for New Orleans, no city in America would better serve its most vulnerable residents with a clean sweep of its institutions. Just this summer, associates of former mayor Marc Morial were indicted for alleged kickbacks involving public contracts. Last month the FBI raided the home and car of Rep. William Jefferson as part of a probe into allegations he had misused his office.

It is the city's dysfunctional police force that needs immediate attention. Lt. Gen. Steven Baum, chief of the Pentagon's National Guard bureau, lamented the post-storm "disintegration" of the force. City residents have long endured men in blue who not only fail to fight crime but sometimes engage in it, with more than 50 officers going to prison in the past dozen years, two of them to death row. When one police district was caught altering its data, Chief Eddie Compass said, "I don't need an outside agency coming in. I think we have proven that we are capable of taking care of our own house."

But some questions must be asked before city residents decide whether to return. "We can't go back to the way we've done things," says former congressman Bob Livingston, a Republican. He notes that the Orleans Parish Levee Board allowed money to be diverted from levees into many other projects. Those included a local casino, a convention center and a Mardi Gras fountain. "We were trying to be good neighbors," former board member Jim Livingston (no relation to Bob) explained to me.

Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who grew up in New Orleans, says the area must leave behind an economy and political culture that belongs to the last century. He notes that Houston has become the South's energy capital, Atlanta its commercial capital and Charlotte its financial center. "Katrina provides a chance to give up populism and embrace reform," he says. The area has given the country so much--in music, in cuisine, in style. But it has also bred a fatalistic attitude which has left too many people with little belief that things can be better. As William Faulkner put it, people too often endure rather than hope.

The massive federal aid now flowing to the region should give victims of Katrina and Rita some hope--along with the knowledge the country has embraced them. It is up to them to seize the opportunity and make a fresh start. If that means abandoning some of the comfortable practices of the past and electing fewer demagogues, the next generation will appreciate that Katrina's survivors chose not just to rebuild their homes but to begin "some new thinking."

Fund, John "A Swamp of Corruption" September 26, 2005


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