A Troubling Bayou Tradition
Louisiana's history of corruption bodes ill for the relief money headed its way
Retired Congressman Billy Tauzin once issued this description of his home state: "Half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment." He was kidding, but right now no one is laughing. Louisiana's swollen waters are delivering fresh worries about the state's famously colorful political system.
Louisiana stands to gain billions in federal dollars for reconstruction and relief after the twin hits by Katrina and Rita. But with the cash comes attendant worries about bloated contracts, kickbacks, and fraud. And for good reason. Perhaps no state has a greater track record of political hucksters and hijinks.
That history goes back to the early 1800s, when pirate Jean Lafitte attacked Spanish and French ships from his mini-kingdom deep in the bayou. To curry local favor, he distributed pilfered goods to the poor. Lafitte may have been among the most honorable of Louisiana's lovable rogues.
The most notorious was the "Kingfish," populist Democratic Gov. Huey Long, who lorded over the state from 1927 until his death in 1935. Long delivered on his campaign promises of free textbooks for children, paved roads, and new schools--almost all of it financed by taxes on the rich and on oil companies. But Long also created a secret police force and consolidated state employees under his control, typically taking a portion of their earnings as "contributions" to his war chest. At an LSU faculty dinner, Long bragged, "I steal money. But a lot of what I stole has spilled over in no-toll bridges, hospitals, and to build this university." After being elected to the U.S. Senate and ensuring the election of a stooge to succeed him in the governor's office, Long prepared for a presidential run against an incumbent, fellow Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, who called Long one of the most dangerous men in America. On Sept. 8, 1935, Carl Weiss, the son-in-law of a political opponent, shot Long to death in the state capitol.
" Elect the Crook. " But corruption did not die with him. In 1939, the "Louisiana Scandals" erupted when James Monroe Smith, appointed by Long as president of LSU, was charged with embezzling a half-million dollars. In the ensuing investigation, at least 20 state officials were indicted, and two committed suicide as the scandal enveloped Gov. Richard Leche, who received a 10-year federal prison sentence in a kickback scheme.
The legacy of free-spirited scoundrels was inherited by Gov. Edwin Edwards, a populist charmer who served four terms over the period of 1972 to 1996. The dapper womanizer beat two dozen corruption investigations and once said the only way he could lose a race was by being "found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy." Edwards produced campaign bumper stickers proclaiming, "Elect the Crook." Voters did. In 2000, the good times stopped rolling; Edwards received a 10-year federal prison sentence for extorting money from casino boat owners seeking licenses.
Under subsequent Govs. Mike Foster and Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, Louisiana has tried to clean up its act. But since 2004, two state judges have been convicted of accepting bribes. Federal officials are also investigating the administration of former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, whose associates are accused of skimming hundreds of thousands of dollars from city contracts. And, in August, the feds raided the homes of U.S. Rep. William Jefferson because of suspected illegal activity with African business interests.
Nevertheless, attitudes may be changing. "Louisiana politicians have thrived on bad-boy images and populist appeal," says Pearson Cross, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana Lafayette. "But [voters] are realizing while corruption may be colorful, it's not helping Louisiana." And right now, Louisiana can use all the help it can get.
This story appears in the October 10, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.