News

New Orleans, Pre-Katrina

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BACK TO SCHOOL
As always, public education in New Orleans made news throughout the year. The newly elected Orleans Parish School Board (five of seven members replaced incumbents) took office in January, sounding an optimistic note and promising to work together. That lasted about two months. Less than 90 days into its terms, the board ran off reform Superintendent Anthony Amato, claiming he had failed to recognize the size and scope of the system's financial mess. Ironically, the new board got elected by pledging to keep Amato -- after a majority of the previous board tried for almost six months to get rid of him. The board named Dr. Ora Watson, who had joined the system as an administrator about a year earlier, as interim schools superintendent -- and then nearly ousted her a few weeks later. Watson retained the job, but appeared on shaky ground.

After years of frustration at the system's failure to improve, lawmakers called for a state takeover of the board's finances. A team of fiscal turnaround specialists from the New York firm of Alvarez & Marsal was brought in, but only after weeks of board in-fighting over just how much control the firm would have. Put another way, the real issue was how much control the elected board could retain. Alvarez & Marsal spent the rest of the year (before and after Katrina) working to get its arms around the system's massive payroll and accounting problems, which appeared to go back decades.

Meanwhile, closer to the classrooms, Lusher School parents hoped to build upon that school's exceptional programs and successes by founding a high school version of the Uptown elementary and middle school. That discussion, unfortunately, touched off a heated debate about race and class, and the idea failed to win board approval.

Then came Katrina, which effectively washed away all the board's past sins as state lawmakers authorized the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) to take over all New Orleans public schools that were performing below the state average. The net result was 102 public schools transferred to BESE control, and only eight remaining under the local board's control. As the calendar year wound to a close, only one public school on the East Bank was open, and a growing movement toward charter schools for the rest -- including Lusher -- had taken hold.

In that sense, the year ended as it began: on an optimistic note.

LOW-HANGING FRUIT
Louisiana always seems to represent the low-hanging fruit for federal investigators, and this year was no exception. In fact, the pace of federal probes intensified as the year wore on.

Feds raided the French Quarter home of Jacques Morial, brother of former Mayor Marc Morial, at 7 a.m. on Valentine's Day, battering down his front door and carting off armloads of records. So far, nothing has come of the raid except headlines.

Morial's friends and other relatives have not been so lucky. In June, Morial allies Stan "Pampy" Barre, Kerry DeCay, and Reginald Walker were charged with skimming hundreds of thousands of dollars from an $81 million city energy management contract that Morial signed during his final days in office. Morial's uncle, Glenn Haydel, was charged in August with theft, wire fraud and money laundering in connection with operations at the Regional Transit Authority during his nephew's tenure. All have pleaded innocent. The probe into Morial-era dealings continues, and a number of Morial insiders are said to be worrying -- or talking.

Meanwhile, in Jefferson Parish, the "Wrinkled Robe" investigation continued, as Judge Alan Green was convicted of one count of mail fraud in June. He quickly agreed not to appeal in exchange for the feds dropping six other charges on which jurors were deadlocked. Green is a brother-in-law of Congressman Bill Jefferson of New Orleans, whose own dealings brought him into the feds' crosshairs in early August. Federal agents in New Orleans and Washington raided Jefferson's homes, offices and the offices of his campaign treasurer as part of a multi-state investigation into Jefferson's personal business dealings -- which reportedly extend to Nigeria. The congressman has been mum on the exact nature of the probe, but word has it the raids followed a "sting" operation. Jefferson again raised eyebrows when he asked a military helicopter to land at his Uptown New Orleans home during Katrina rescue operations so that he could retrieve some personal papers.

Back in New Orleans, the feds handed down a series of indictments at New Orleans Traffic Court, charging several staffers and attorneys in a ticket-fixing scandal. Most of those charged had pleaded guilty and were cooperating with investigators by year's end. A federal probe into the Orleans Parish School Board continues as well.

Post-Katrina, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten announced one investigation into the failed levees -- including whether corruption may have caused inferior design or construction methods -- and one indictment of a St. Tammany police juror for allegedly trying to shake down a contractor.



NOPD BLUES

The week before Katrina, Police Chief Eddie Compass announced the separate arrests of two cops; one for rape, the other for forgery. Compass said NOPD could be trusted to discipline its own.

Skeptics, such as civil rights lawyer Mary Howell, warned of a correlation between rebounding crime and police misconduct. For example, the two arrested officers worked in the impoverished Fifth Police District, which owned the city's highest homicide rate for 10 consecutive years. Supporters of beefing up the understaffed NOPD by repealing the city's residency requirement suffered, too. Top cops were found living outside New Orleans, in apparent violation of the law. (The City Council has since repealed the rule for three years.)

Mayor Ray Nagin, meanwhile, continued to ignore calls for an independent monitor of the NOPD and outside audits of its statistics.



ON TRACK
We called this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival "the best Jazz Fest in recent memory" ("Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon," May 10). The weather was remarkable, and the lineup retained the festival's character while giving it a more contemporary feel. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the nature of the 2006 Jazz Fest became a matter for speculation. Would it exist, and if so, in what form? Churchill Downs has announced its intention to have the Fair Grounds ready for the annual festival. Rather than put on the scaled-down Jazz Fest that many expected, the Jazz & Heritage Foundation plans on making this year's event a big one to help restart the tourism industry. As usual, there's a lot of speculation as to who will perform, though this year's guessing includes bigger names that might be willing to perform in the spirit of hurricane relief. Festival Productions plans to announce the lineup in late January or early February.



LIGHTS, CAMERA ... ?

Quite simply, Louisiana had become a major player in the motion-picture industry, joining the elite group of bustling filmmaking states that included California, New York, North Carolina and Florida. In 2004, the film industry in Louisiana generated production of more than two dozen movies and TV programs that created 3,000 jobs and $375 million in economic impact. Nowhere was that success more evident than in New Orleans, in which such popular films as 2004's Runaway Jury and Ray and this year's Dukes of Hazzard and The Skeleton Key were made. Steven Zaillian's much-anticipated remake of All the King's Men, based on the Robert Penn Warren novel and starring Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and New Orleans' own Patricia Clarkson, saw its December release pushed back to an unspecified date in 2006. Currently, no New Orleans productions are scheduled.



CRIME WATCH
Pre-Katrina, New Orleans was on pace to finish 2005 with more than 300 murders. The city also threatened to at least repeat its record as the city with the nation's second worst homicide rate. Meanwhile, other cities were reporting double-digit declines in homicides. Criminologist Peter Scharf noted that if our city had the same homicide rate as Cleveland, which has a higher poverty rate, we would finish 2005 with 62 murders. The violence was worst in poor neighborhoods. However, drug gangs in SUVs engaged in random, rolling gun battles citywide. Fear spread, undermining reported drops in robberies and other major crimes. One weary resident, speaking on a WWL-TV call-in show, pleaded for NOPD to call in the National Guard -- weeks before Katrina.



FORESHADOWING AT THE STOMP

In "Rock of Ages" ("Opening Act," May 10), we wrote of Jazz Fest and the Ponderosa Stomp, "This year, both events brought fans face to face with mortality. Gatemouth Brown performed while battling lung cancer, and at the Ponderosa Stomp, a frail Link Wray -- his head looking like a skull wrapped in rice paper with his wispy remaining hair pulled back into a ponytail -- had to be helped to walk anywhere. Even though he still sounded like a bike gang, you had the sense this was that gang's last ride." The line proved sadly prophetic; Brown died Sept. 10, and guitar legend Wray died Nov. 5 at his home in Copenhagen.



CLASSIC NEW ORLEANS MOVIES ON DVD

Fox Home Entertainment's decision to catch up with Warner Home Entertainment and Universal Home Video in the film-noir release wars led to the March release of the classic 1950 New Orleans film, Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets. The movie, which many cite along with Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire and Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law as one of the best movies set and/or filmed here, starred Richard Widmark, Barbara Bel Geddes, Paul Douglas and, in his screen debut, Jack Palance. The movie featured tons of New Orleanians as extras or in minor roles, and concludes with a chase along the French Quarter area of the riverfront -- an ominous hint of one of Kazan's masterpieces, 1954's On the Waterfront. "[Panic in the Streets] was the first picture I truly enjoyed making in the sense that I was in control," Kazan would later say. The year also saw the DVD release of two other popular New Orleans-set films, 1965's The Cincinnati Kid (starring Steve McQueen) and 1975's Hard Times (starring Charles Bronson).



CANNON FODDER

"Night of the Hunter," (March 1), our eulogy for writer Hunter S. Thompson, ended with illustrator Ralph Steadman recalling Thompson telling a funeral director that he wanted his remains shot out of a cannon mounted in a gonzo, two-thumbed fist 100 feet tall. "The funeral director was taking it all seriously," Steadman said, and well he should have. As was often the case in Thompson's writing, he was more serious than people realized, and his will reiterated his desire to have his remains shot out of the fist cannon. On Aug. 20, it happened, and can be seen in When I Die, an hour-long documentary on Thompson's last gonzo statement.

Plenty of other things occurred or developed during the past year that were important and poignant to those whose interests lie in the local music, art, theater and m ovie and cultural scenes. For Gambit Weekly writers' insights on how those areas fared during 2005, see their regular columns.

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