In Louisiana, the nation's most corrupt state, fraud is just good entertainment.
The challenge for my home state of Louisiana is not how to prove its mettle in the corruption stakes, but how to compress, into a few homely paragraphs, a raft of evidence that would crash your browser. Begin with the numbers: based on numbers from a Justice Department report, it is the most corrupt state, with 7.67 convictions per 100,000 residents over nine years. Another study calls the Bayou State the third-most corrupt state—well above Illinois (a middling number 19), and just behind Washington, D.C., and North Dakota, a couple of wannabes whose combined populations are 28 percent of Louisiana's. How much fraud can their crooks really commit?
Ever since the rise of Huey Long, machines have dominated the Bayou State. (The Long machine itself occasioned Pulitzer-worthy tributes from Robert Penn Warren and T. Harry Williams, not to mention a gorgeous homage by A.J. Liebling.) Their legacy lives on not only in today’s machines but also in an enduring belief that the government pot is up for grabs. For the sake of brevity, I'll confine this study to the last two decades. In my favorite example, both candidates from the 1991 gubernatorial election eventually landed in federal prisons: Edwin Edwards had left office after spending much of his third term (which he said he'd lose only if he were "caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy") on trial for mail fraud and bribery; a journalist pronounced that his only hope for a comeback was to run against Adolf Hitler. That's almost what he got when David Duke, the KKK grand wizard, decided he wanted the job. Their contest spawned a bumper-sticker campaign exhorting voters to VOTE FOR THE CROOK (meaning Edwards). Victory for Edwards (who once said he wanted to unseat an incumbent because, if he didn't, "there won't be anything left to steal") eventually landed him and his son in prison for selling casino licenses and prison contracts—drawing 17 convictions. Duke was later locked up for a mail-fraud scheme that duped thousands of followers into giving him money.
Downticket posts are keeping the dream alive. U.S. Rep. William Jefferson was famously busted in a 2005 influence-peddling scheme with, according to an affidavit, "$90,000…in the freezer, in $10,000 increments wrapped in aluminum foil and stuffed inside frozen-food containers." (His brother, sister, and niece were indicted, too.) In November, he received a 13-year prison sentence, the longest ever handed to a congressman for bribery.
Although this isn't exactly corruption, per se, U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston—who harangued President Clinton for immoral sex with an intern—had just been elected Speaker of the House when it emerged he'd had his own affairs. The successor in his House seat, David Vitter, availed himself occasionally of prostitutes run by the famous D.C. Madam; today, he is a U.S. senator. Another statewide office with a history of sleaze is the insurance commissioner, whose three consecutive occupants got, in turn, 25 years in 1991 for influence-peddling; 41 months in 1993 for selling $80,000 worth of insurance licenses; and six months in 2001 for lying to an FBI agent. The head of the Louisiana Film Commission took $60,000 in bribes. In the Statehouse, where congressmen voted to more than double their salary in 2008, the Senate Ethics Committee chairman himself will stand trial shortly for income-tax evasion; the sponsor of a new ethics bill is accused of taking legal fees from companies doing business with a state university (on whose board his mother sits). A recent state senate president will be in jail until 2016 for an insurance scam; his son was later indicted for defrauding the federal government of $600,000 in a house-flipping operation.
Hurricane-related graft merits its own dissertation, but here are a few highlights: 70 percent of Katrina contracts—$7.4 billion worth—were awarded without bids. The FBI is investigating a New Orleans housing agency that spent millions in federal dollars to rehabilitate almost no homes. And government fraud cases increased 243 percent during the two years after the storm, compared with the two years before it, centered around New Orleans.
Katrina was hardly the beginning of corruption in the greater New Orleans area. The U.S. attorney working downstate has issued more than 240 corruption indictments since he officially got the job in 2005, with more on the way. The former city council president is doing three years in federal lockup for a bribe-and-kickback scheme behind parking garage contracts. Outgoing Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who ran in his first term as a reformist, is leaving under a cloud after his family vacations to Hawaii and Chicago were paid for by a campaign contributor whose police security-camera system (which mostly doesn't work) was overpaid by $4 million. The Orleans Parish School Board president went to prison in 2007 for taking $140,000 in bribes (another contract award, this one for a software system). Police investigators are charged with covering up a shooting of six unarmed civilians after Hurricane Katrina. Even the tax assessors are in on the act. And that's just the accusations we know about: Investigators last year discovered 140 city agencies not included on any city audit. 140!
In neighboring Jefferson Parish (where several judges were busted in a 2004 probe for reducing bonds in exchange for cash), the chief administrative officer drew so many investigations that he even brought down the powerful, long-serving parish president. And the Mandeville mayor waited two months after his perjury indictment to resign. Blah blah blah—we could do this forever. Is there really any doubt that the culture of corruption in Louisiana (whose residents sometimes consider it more like an autonomy of the Caribbean) runs broader and deeper than anywhere else in the United States? The populist governor Earl Long once said that his constituents "don't want good government, they want good entertainment." For a man whose last term included confinement in a mental hospital, he obviously knew his electorate well.