Gov. Kathleen Blanco will lead a trade mission next month to the Pacific Rim countries of Japan, China and South Korea. Meanwhile, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Congressman William Jefferson returned over the weekend from a one-week trade trip to Brazil with local business leaders, as well as federal, state and city officials. Louisiana ranks seventh among U.S. states exporting goods to Brazil, says Jefferson, who led a similar mission there in 2002. New trade opportunities cannot come soon enough for jobs-starved Louisiana. "We are continuing to capitalize on New Orleans' natural strengths by expanding into international markets," Nagin said just before leaving for Brazil on Aug. 6.
Unfortunately, Louisiana's notorious "weakness" in the economic development arena -- a decades-old reputation for widespread public corruption -- continues to undercut our efforts in competitive markets. Recent federal corruption investigations only reinforce that image.
Congressman Jefferson, for example, now finds himself at the center of the most sensational federal probe of a Louisiana official since former Gov. Edwin Edwards was convicted of corruption charges in 2000. Days before Jefferson left for Brazil, FBI agents in New Orleans and Washington executed search warrants on his vehicle, residences and offices. The focus of the investigation is not yet clear. Jefferson is entitled to the presumption of innocence and his day in court, if it comes to that.
The Jefferson raids coincide with, but are apparently unrelated to, the recent federal corruption conviction of the congressman's brother-in-law, Judge Alan Green of Jefferson Parish. Green's conviction capped a six-year federal investigation of the parish courthouse that sent others to prison, including former Judge Ronald Bodenheimer.
In New Orleans, ongoing federal investigations of city government have shone a spotlight on family members and associates of former Mayor Marc Morial. Morial's uncle Glenn Haydel, a former manager of the Regional Transit Authority, is accused of diverting $550,000 in RTA funds into his personal accounts. Haydel denies any wrongdoing.
In another federal case, 10 people have been charged in an alleged scheme to skim hundreds of thousands of dollars from an $81 million energy management contract that Morial signed with Johnson Controls of Milwaukee while in office. Among the indicted are Morial associates Stan "Pampy" Barre, a restaurateur, and Kerry DeCay, who served as Morial's property management director.
As of this writing, the feds have taken no action against Morial's brother, Jacques Morial, since crashing through his front door with a battering ram more than a year ago. Jacques Morial, who assumed the chair of the LIFE political organization from his brother late last year, has not been accused of any wrongdoing. The former mayor, now national president of the National Urban League, has declined comment on the ongoing investigations, which also include the Orleans Parish School Board and Traffic Court.
Local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten says the investigations are far from over. And New Orleans is not alone. U.S. Attorney David Dugas of Baton Rouge says a probe of corruption in Livingston Parish has led to the federal prosecution of the parish president and a guilty plea by a parish councilman.
In an apparently unrelated case, both Dugas and Letten are prosecuting media consultant Ray Reggie on bank fraud charges. Reggie reportedly is cooperating with federal investigators in a political corruption probe of top Democratic Party officials.
The FBI says Louisiana last year ranked third in the nation in public corruption cases. Since the FBI sent in extra agents last October, Louisiana is one of only five FBI jurisdictions with two public corruption squads. The feds also hope to establish a presence in North Louisiana in the future. Visit the "inmate locater" link of the federal Bureau of Prisons Web site (www.bop.gov), and you can find former Louisiana officials dating to 1982 -- blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, from across the state.
All of these developments -- old as well as recent -- give our state the image of a Third World country where bribes and kickbacks grease the wheels of government for a select few. It's not just an image problem; it is rooted in reality. Louisiana traditionally ranks among the most corrupt states in the nation, according to a 2004 report by the Corporate Crime Reporter for the National Press Club.
Our dubious reputation extends overseas, too. For example, the Japanese relocated much of their business from New Orleans to Houston long ago, citing Louisiana corruption as a factor, according to Benjamin Wren, a professor of Japanese history at Loyola University.
Cleaning up our image starts with cleaning up our act. It's encouraging that the feds are leading the charge on that front. But the truth is Louisiana must pull itself up by its own bootstraps -- and be squeaky clean for at least 10 years -- to change its image. We can start by recognizing that our image of corruption costs us jobs. If we don't change things, we will continue to get what we deserve -- corruption, cronyism and a lousy economy.