As Ray Nagin begins his second week in prison and as former prisoner Edwin Edwards seems to be heading for a runoff in his congressional race, I was wondering about the first high profile office holder from Louisiana to face the slammer. Like Edwards, he was a former governor of Louisiana. The Feds were after him and some of his cronies. And he would go to jail.
His name was Richard Leche.
Officially Leche was elected governor in 1936. Realistically, he was anointed governor by insiders close to the recently martyred Huey Long. Several Long lieutenants claimed to have been Huey’s choice for the top job, but Leche, an obscure state appeals court judge, got the blessing. In that election, with the public still feeling the emotion from the assassination in 1935, just about anyone designated as the Long organization candidate would have won. Proof of the Long name’s strength was that Leche carried the unforgivable stigma of being from New Orleans, a curse to the rest of the state, yet was still elected easily.
As governor, Leche sat on top of a political machine with so much unchecked power that the potential for corruption was enormous. It would be more than he could control.
Were it not for the events that collapsed around him, Leche might have been remembered as a peace-keeper who tried to smooth over the stormy relationship that Huey Long had with Washington and the Franklin Roosevelt administration. By what critics called “The Second Louisiana Purchase,” he was even able to regain some federal patronage in Louisiana, and suddenly Louisiana Democrats were endorsing Roosevelt for a third term. But, Leche would also learn that even within an administration, the federal government is not a monolith. The Justice department was watching.
Troubles began with Dr. James Monroe Smith, the minor academic that Huey Long has elevated to the presidency of LSU. Smith is known to his many critics as “Jingle Money," according to journalist George W. Healy Jr. Healy's book, A Lifetime on Deadline, had, “two characteristics that commended him to the type of leadership Louisiana was tolerating: he kowtowed to anyone he thought possessed authority, and he had a taste for high living.” When the New Orleans States published a photograph, taken by a hidden camera of an identifiable LSU truck being used to haul building material to the Metairie home of a Smith colleague, the button was pushed. Smith went into hiding. The state’s newspapers started digging deeper.
One of the unsung characters in Louisiana history is O. John Rogge, at that time the new head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal division. Described by Allan P. Sindler in his classic book Huey Long’s Louisiana as, “an idealistic reformer who never ceased to be morally dismayed as the evidence of corruption mounted,” Rogge set up shop in New Orleans. Thus began the period forever known as “The Louisiana Scandals.”
“Before he left Washington, the young, aggressive prosecutor carefully studied information that we (contacts in New Orleans) had sent him, and leads that had reached him from other sources,” Healy wrote. “He came to New Orleans prepared to prosecute more than a dozen cases in which office holders and private citizens who had conspired with them were involved.” Aided by Rene Viosca, the local U.S. Attorney, “Rogge soon had indictments coming out of the grand jury room with the speed of automobiles rolling off a Detroit assembly line.” Healy described Rogge’s raid as, “the most sensational cleanup of political corruption in the history of the South – if not the nation.”
On June 26, 1939 Richard Leche resigned as governor claiming illness. What might have gotten him sick was the events the day before when LSU President Smith resigned and fled to Canada in the wake of charges that he had embezzled more than $500,000 in state funds.
Succeeding Leche was Lt. Governor Earl Long. His ascension began the saga of the man who, prior to Edwin Edwards, would serve the most years as governor. With a straight face Long promised full investigations of the scandals and to “let the chips fall where they may.” Later that year Leche was indicted on several charges, the most damaging having to do with kickbacks.
In 1940 the former governor was convicted to defrauding the state’s highway department of $31,000 of excess profits on a truck purchasing agreement. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was not alone, other administration cronies were sent to jail, too, including Smith, who received two separate sentences: one for 24 years, another for 30 months. (He served six years of the first and 10 months of the second before being paroled.)
Sindler notes that some Louisianians at the time thought that Leche’s sentence was too harsh, especially since some of his cohorts had merely received fines. The author adds, however, that because of the stiff sentence, the prosecutors did not push for other charges they had against the governor. His actual time served was much less: Leche was paroled in 1945 and pardoned in '52 by President Harry Truman.
But history had taken its licks. Leche might have been remembered as the healer, instead he was the one who didn’t get away. Boosters of Longism did all they could to blame the scandals on Leche as a way of deflecting the blame from the politics from which he came. As Sindler argued, however, the "seeds of Huey Long bore bitter fruit in the Scandals of Dick Leche … Yet the scandals were, in reality, not a betrayal of Huey but a natural and logical fulfillment of the mass acceptance of the amoral politics induced by the kingdom of the Kingfish.”
In 1927 Huey Long had been busy campaigning for the governor's office he would soon secure. In that same year in the Avoyelles parish town of Marksville, Edwin Edwards was born. He and Longism, blessed by its populism and crushed by its corruption, would grow up together. His life’s experiences were nurtured in the kingdom the Kingfish. Edwards would learn much from what he saw.
And all along, the Feds would still be watching.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
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