Louisiana A Swamp of Corruption
John Fund articulates a view held quietly by many now that the immediate horror of Katrina is behind us: Louisiana’s corrupt political system can not be trusted with tens of billions of dollars in federal disaster funds.
A Swamp of Corruption (OpinionJournal)
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.
Sadly, Fund is right. The late Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard joked that corrupt former Governor Edwin Edwards escaped punishment so often because they couldn’t find twelve people from Louisiana that thought stealing was a crime. Indeed, Edwards was re-elected in 1991 in a tight race against Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke under the banner “vote for the crook.”
Turning billions over to the Powers that Be in Louisiana is almost certainly a disaster waiting to happen. I have no reason to think Governor Kathleen Blanco or Mayor Ray Nagle are crooks. On the other hand, I have no reason to think they’re competent, either.