As public corruption cases go, this one had the lifespan of a gnat. It had been over a year since Jim Letten’s days as the local U.S. attorney when word spread last week that an indictment was about to come down. Such announcements often came on a Friday, uncovering another political scandal suitable for weekend conversation.
When Letten’s replacement, Kenneth Polite, addressed the audience, however, he spoke not about an indictment or a grand jury investigation but rather a “bill of information,” which is usually legal talk to say, “We’ve nailed this person, he knows it and a plea will be coming soon.”
Ira Thomas, an Orleans Parish School Board member who recently ran for sheriff ranting about the perceived corruption in that office, was apparently caught on so-called “visual surveillance" taking a $5,000 bribe to influence a janitorial contract.
Soon after Politie’s announcement it was reported that Thomas had resigned from the School Board as well as his position as head of security for Southern University.
Still to come, we assume, is the plea and the sentencing.
Meanwhile, we're left to wonder if there are many more Friday press conferences ahead. Polite mentioned ongoing investigations into political crime, so we might expect follow-up. Or, could it be that we have entered a new era when political corruption is on the wane? We know that there are still cases under investigation involving the former North Shore D.A. and the current St. Bernard Parish President; nevertheless, though I know it sounds naïve to think so, here are some reasons why there might be fewer scandals in our future:
1.) We no longer have the Jeffersons around. Former Congressman Bill Jefferson, who currently has eight years left in the pokey, ran what could have been considered to be a political organized crime gang. Jefferson’s chief operative was his brother, Mose, who would die in prison. The Jefferson tentacles reached the Orleans Parish School Board, where former School Board member Ellenese Brooks-Simms went to jail, after offering a plea, for taking a bribe from Mose Jefferson who was pushing a software program. Brooks-Sims was released in 2011; still in prison is Renee Gill Pratt, a former companion of Mose Jefferson, who was elected to the City Council as a Jefferson organization candidate. She is serving a four-year sentence for racketeering. And the list goes on including Betty Jefferson, Mose’s and Bill’s sister who died while under house arrest. (Curiously Ira Thomas, a former police officer, worked at Southern University. Pratt once served on the university’s executive cabinet.)
With the Jefferson’s out of the picture; an era of machine-like control is gone.
2.) Less corruption at the top. Going back to the end of Edwin Edwards’ last term as governor in 1996, we have now had 19 years of governors who are not associated with scandal: Mike Foster, Kathleen Blanco and Bobby Jindal. Sure we might not like some or any of them, but their governorships have not centered around the courtroom as in Edwards’ day. An occasional lower level functionary may have strayed but, as far as we know, the person in the big office has been straight, and that has set a tone for all government.
3.) Katrina fraud winding down. With recovery came contractor fraud, but now, as the 10th anniversary of the disaster nears, most of those cases have been resolved or are in process. There will come a day when the Katrina frauds will be done.
4.) Feds have the toys and the power. When it comes to slamming someone, the feds have the advantage of including the surveillance equipment, the laws and the power to make deals. (Remember the image of Bill Jefferson opening an automobile trunk to take a stash of cash? The picture of what appeared to be a very greedy Jefferson was taken by a hidden camera inside the trunk.)
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For those who had hoped that the School Board might one day regain public acceptance, that might have been lost forever for the price of mopping the floor.
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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