Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2005 / 22 Elul 5765
John H. Fund
A Swamp of Corruption: In Katrina's wake, Louisiana's political culture needs a cleanup too
Perhaps no footage from Hurricane Katrina was replayed more often than the "Meet the Press" clip of Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, La., telling Tim Russert that bureaucrats had "committed murder" in the storm's aftermath. He sobbed as he told about a colleague's mother drowning in her nursing home after begging her son on the phone for four days to save her from the rising waters. Talk show host Don Imus said he had never seen such gripping testimony on TV in his life.
But MSNBC.com later found the story didn't hold up. Eva Rodrigue, the 92-year-old mother of Thomas Rodrique, the parish's emergency services director, did drown but not because federal or state officials failed to rescue her. Mr. Rodrique said his mother died the day of the hurricane because the nursing home's owners ignored commands to evacuate. The owners are now under indictment for negligent homicide. Mr. Rodrique says his mother never spoke with him, and he can't explain why his boss, Mr. Broussard, got it so wrong.
Mr. Broussard returned to "Meet the Press" yesterday to punch back at critics of his obviously embellished statement. "What kind of sick mind, what kind of black-hearted people want to nitpick a man's mother's death?" he roared. When Mr. Russert continued to point out the discrepancies in his account, Mr. Broussard told him "Man, get out of my face" and then said the bureaucrats and officials who failed his region "should be strung up. Those people should be burned at the stake."
No state turns out better demagogues than Louisiana the state that Huey Long ruled with an near-fascistic fist and that inspired the new Sean Penn version of "All the King's Men" that hits movie theaters this November. While the Bush administration and Congress aren't in danger of being fried as witches, they 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.
More will be coming. Last week, 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."
Even if the total ends up far short of that figure, the opportunity for fraud and waste will be unprecedented. "We're getting a lot of calls" on emergency aid abuses, reports Gen. Richard Skinner, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general. Last week, police officers found a treasure trove of food, drinks, chainsaws and roof tarps in the home of Cedric Floyd, chief administrative officer for the Jefferson Parish suburb of Kenner. Mr. Floyd is one of several city workers who will likely be charged with pilfering.
Despite assurances from President Bush, "the government is fighting this war [on waste] with Civil War weapons, and we're just overwhelmed," Joshua Schwartz, co-director of the George Washington University Law School's procurement law program, told Knight Ridder. Democrats are already scoring political points. Rep. David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, is lamenting the lack of accountability in the aid package. He is calling for "the beginning of some new thinking" on how to handle disaster relief.
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. 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, the Pelican State 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. Last year, three top officials at Louisiana's Office of Emergency Preparedness were indicted on charges they obstructed a probe into how federal money bought out flood-prone homes. Last March the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered Louisiana to repay $30 million in flood-control grants it had awarded to 23 parishes.
Much of the region has long had a relaxed attitude towards corruption. ABC's Cokie Roberts, whose parents, Hale and Lindy Boggs, both represented New Orleans in Congress, was only half-joking when her first suggestion for speeding reconstruction was releasing convicted former governor Edwin Edwards from prison because he "knows how to get things done."
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 poststorm "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."
Indeed, many local officials are quick to attack any outsiders who question the local way of doing things. Sen. Landrieu is especially sensitive since politics is her family's business. Her father was mayor of New Orleans, her aunt sits on the city's school board, and her brother is the state's lieutenant governor. She did a passable imitation of the overwrought Aaron Brossard when she told ABC News that if President Bush utters any criticism of how local officials responded to the disaster "I might have to punch him literally."
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."
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
Comment on this column by clicking here.
©2001, John H. Fund