BEAM: Corruption Title Is Hard For Louisiana To Shake

Mention political corruption, and Illinois and Louisiana immediately come to mind. That is no surprise because the two states have been leaders in that field for more years than we like to count.

A recent study by political scientists at the University of Illinois in Chicago determined that Louisiana was the most corrupt state per capita from 1976 to the present. However, per capita is the key phrase there. Louisiana was in 10th place with 906 federal public corruption convictions during that time, which comes to 2 per 10,000 population.

New York had 2,522 convictions during that same time period to put it in the No. 1 position in total cases. It was followed by California with 2,345 convictions and Illinois with 1,828. All three had lower corruption cases than Louisiana per 10,000 residents. Others in the top 10 are Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, the District of Columbia and New Jersey.

The Northern Judicial District of Illinois, which contains the entire Chicago metropolitan area, is the federal district that has had the most public corruption convictions in the country since 1976. It had 1,531 of that state’s 1,828 corruption cases, or 84 percent of the total.

The real story as far as Louisiana is concerned is the fact the federal Eastern Judicial District that is centered around the Greater New Orleans area is where the major public corruption in this state takes place. It had 238 federal public conviction cases from 2001 to 2010.

Louisiana has two other federal judicial districts — the Middle and Western. The Western District includes most of the state west of the Mississippi River. The Middle District is centered in the Baton Rouge area. The largest Western District had 92 public corruption convictions from 2001-2010. The Middle District had 54 during that same period.

For some strange reason, a number of public officials in the Eastern District seem to think election to public office entitles them to special benefits that are clearly illegal in the minds of most officials elsewhere. A brief look at some of the more recent cases in that district gives us a sample of the kinds of charges that lead to federal convictions.

Aaron Broussard, the former president of Jefferson Parish, was sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison last week. Broussard pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks from a businessman and getting a public job for his then-girlfriend and now ex-wife. He got the former parish attorney to hire his ex-wife as a paralegal supervisor in the attorney’s office although she wasn’t qualified for that position and rarely showed up for work.

The former parish attorney and Broussard’s ex-wife were each sentenced to three years’ probation for their part in the bogus hiring scheme.

Dana Boente, the interim U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, summed up the case well when he said, “This sad end to Aaron Broussard’s career is a self-inflicted wound resulting from his venality, corruption and deceit. The citizens of Jefferson Parish deserved honest, effective government, and Mr. Broussard made the decision to line his own pockets…”

Two former New Orleans city councilmen went to prison for their crimes. Oliver Thomas got a threeyear prison sentence after pleading guilty to accepting bribes. He had been considered at the time of his crime as a potential mayor of the Crescent City. Jon Johnson got a six-month prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge for siphoning off FEMA grant money for his unsuccessful run for the state Senate in 2007. Johnson had previously served in the state Senate.

Betty Jefferson, a former New Orleans assessor, pleaded guilty last year to being involved in a criminal conspiracy to siphon public money away from city-supported charities. She was sentenced to five years’ probation that included 15 months of home detention. Jefferson was required to pay $604,000 in restitution to the city of New Orleans.

Renee Pratt, another former city council member and ex-state representative, was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for her role in a scheme that skimmed more than $1 million in taxpayer dollars for bogus city charities.

Bill Hubbard, former president of St. John Parish, was sentenced in 2011 to nearly four years in prison for taking $20,000 in bribes from three parish contractors in order to buy his girlfriend a car. The judge told him he abused his position “because of your own arrogance.”

One of the biggest federal cases still pending involves former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. He was indicted on 21 federal charges involving bribery, wire fraud, filing false tax returns, conspiracy and money laundering. Nagin’s trial has been set for April 29.

We can thank former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten for the convictions listed here. He had a stellar record while serving Louisiana’s Eastern District. The New York Times summed up his tenure well when Letten retired recently.

“Mr. Letten’s office successfully prosecuted parish presidents for bribery, sheriffs for mail fraud, mayors for tax evasion, housing agency officials for embezzlement and contractors for all kinds of things,” the newspaper said.

The citizens of Louisiana hope his successor will be just as diligent. Maybe, just maybe, the state will be able some day to shed its image as one of the most corrupt states in the nation. We have held that dubious title long enough.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].

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