Louisiana's reputation for political corruption goes back a long way -- way past Edwin Edwards, even way past Huey Long.
As far back as the early 1700s, the original French settlers of Louisiana bought public positions along with the right to exploit the riches of the Louisiana territory. That early French practice continued under Spanish rule between 1762 and 1803, and under the American flag as well. During the 1844 presidential election, U.S. Sen. John Slidell of Louisiana engaged in fraud to help get Henry Clay the Louisiana vote. James Polk won the election anyway.
After the Civil War, corruption was institutionalized in the Louisiana Lottery Corporation. Called the largest gambling organization in the United States before the 20th century, the lottery sold more than $20 million in tickets annually, less that 50 percent of which went out in prizes. The corporation used Confederate war heroes to prop up the lottery's image; Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard appeared in his old uniform to pick winners out of a barrel.
Among our corrupt governors, Republican Henry Clay Warmoth (1868-72) used his office to increase profits from his investments and rewarded himself with substantial state printing contracts. He was impeached in December 1872 and was succeeded by Louisiana's only African-American governor, P.B.S. Pinchback, who served for 35 days.
The tradition of personally profiting from public office in Louisiana continued through the "Share Our Wealth" politics of Huey Long, who created the Win Or Lose Oil Company (insiders snickered that it could never really lose) and used it to obtain lucrative state mineral leases. In addition, every state employee who depended on Long for a job had to pay a portion of his or her salary to Long's political war-chest, or "deduct box," to be used at The Kingfish's discretion for political purposes.
Following the Kingfish's assassination in 1935, the Long machine tapped an obscure New Orleans judge, Richard W. Leche, who was elected governor in 1936. Shortly after his swearing-in, Leche reportedly remarked: "When I took the oath of office, I didn't take any vow of poverty." Leche siphoned off New Deal money and went to jail before finishing his term. Dozens of other officials were indicted in what has become known as the "Louisiana Scandals of 1939" or the "Louisiana Hayride."
After Earl Long, Huey's younger brother, became governor in 1939, and again in 1948 and 1956, he was reputed to have an arrangement with local mob kingpin Carlos Marcello and other organized crime figures, who reportedly contributed freely to Long's campaigns. In return, their gambling and vice empire flourished.
In 1951, U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, in his investigation of organized crime in America, exposed widespread illegal gambling in Jefferson Parish. Prompted by Kefauver, Jefferson Sheriff Frank Clancy promised to shut down the mob's gambling operations -- a common practice among those who let illegal activities flourish right under their noses.
Louisiana's history of political corruption is certainly colorful -- and very much a work in progress. Among our state's historical curiosities are the following tidbits:
• As the new U.S. governor of the Louisiana Territory, William C.C. Claiborne was responsible for turning Louisiana's eye to Gulf of Mexico pirates. Historical texts recount how Claiborne was obsessed with crushing the network of the brothers Lafitte. He also was jealous of the Lafitte brothers' popularity in New Orleans. Claiborne posted notices throughout New Orleans on Nov. 24, 1813, offering $500 for the capture of Jean Lafitte. Historian Lyle Saxon writes that Lafitte visited the city the following day, but was harassed by no one. Two days later, the pirate posted his own proclamations offering $1,500 to anyone who would deliver Claiborne to Grand Terre.
• One of Acadiana's favorite sons, "Coozan" Dudley LeBlanc, never could turn his famed Hadacol elixir into a successful bid for governor, but he was able to help elect others. When asked about LeBlanc's support of his gubernatorial bid in 1956, Earl Long reportedly said, "Hell, you can't buy LeBlanc. You can only rent him."
• Even though it's been more than three years since Billy Tauzin served in Congress, questions keep cropping up about his handling of a landmark prescription drug bill that passed in 2004, just months before he was hired by the pharmaceutical lobby. Specifically, reports have centered on the passage of the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill, which Tauzin guided through Congress. The vote on the controversial bill took place about 3 a.m. one morning, and machines were left open while lawmakers twisted arms on the House floor to get the required "yea" votes. It became the longest roll call in congressional history; at least one member was reduced to tears. "I've been in politics for 22 years, and it was the ugliest night I have ever seen," remarked Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican. Tauzin responded in his trademark wit: "Well, he's a young member. Had he been around for 25 years, he'd have seen some uglier nights."
- In 1985, Gov. Edwin Edwards was a fixture at the federal courthouse in New Orleans after his indictment on racketeering charges. After two trials, but he beat the rap. Fifteen years later, the Feds nailed him for selling riverboat casino licenses.