Public Corruption

Those who had hoped that the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) might one day return to its pre-Katrina power and control got a setback last month, and it was for only $5,000.

Since the hurricane-induced flooding, public education in New Orleans has been governed by a patchwork of the Recovery School District, charter schools and a few by the remains of the OPSB.

In one of his first major public corruption announcements since replacing Jim Letten as U.S. Attorney, Kenneth Polite Jr. 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, a former Orleans Parish School Board member who once ran for sheriff ranting about the perceived corruption in that office, was apparently caught by FBI visual surveillance taking a $5,000 bribe to influence a janitorial contract.

Soon after Polite’s announcement it was reported that Thomas had resigned from the OPSB as well as his position as head of security for Southern University.

(He has not yet formally entered a guilty plea but, given his resignations, is expected to later this month.)

Meanwhile, we’re left to wonder about the status of public corruption. Are we returning to the Letten days when the office copy machine seemed endangered of breakdown from churning out indictments? 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 it sounds naïve to think so, but here are some reasons why that might be the case.

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 OPSB, where former 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-Simms 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. (Curiously Ira Thomas, a former police officer, worked at Southern University. Pratt once served on the university’s executive cabinet.) The list goes on, including Betty Jefferson, Mose’s and Bill’s sister, who died while under house arrest.

With the Jeffersons out of the picture, an era of machine-like control is gone.

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. 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.

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 with.

Feds have the toys and the power. When it comes to slamming someone, the Feds have the advantage, 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.

Anyone with the inclination or the vulnerability to be corrupt might want to take a hard look at the Federal Court House during recent times. For those who had hoped that the Orleans Parish School Board might one day regain public acceptance, that might have been lost forever for the price of mopping the floor.



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