Friday, Aug. 23, 2002, might be remembered as a day of reckoning, the beginning of the end of an era in Louisiana politics. Or, depending on what kind of "reform" candidates we elect, it may be just be another sad day in our state's history.
On that morning, Louisiana residents awoke to headlines that a state grand jury in Baton Rouge had indicted state Agriculture & Forestry Commissioner Bob Odom on 21 criminal charges ranging from bribery to obstruction of justice; Odom maintains his innocence.
By late afternoon, a federal appeals court here -- ruling in two separate cases -- cleared the way for former Gov. Edwin Edwards and suspended state Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown to begin serving prison sentences stemming from their respective corruption convictions in 2000.
Meanwhile, by the end of that Friday --qualifying day for local, state and national elections -- dozens of candidates across the state had qualified for public office, ranging from the United States Senate to parish constable.
The events of Aug. 23 led to eulogies for Louisiana's legacy of public corruption. Such pronouncements are premature. Consider the words of political scientist V.O. Key Jr., from his classic study Southern Politics: "Few would contest the proposition that among its professional politicians of the past two decades, Louisiana has had more men who have been in jail, or who should have been, than any other American state." Those words were published in 1949; more than 50 years later, in 2000, Louisiana led the nation in federal public corruption cases with 32 convictions, according to a survey cited last year by Charles Mathews III, then director of the local FBI office.
"Public corruption in Louisiana is epidemic, endemic and entrenched," Mathews said, echoing Key. "No branch of government is exempt. No position is too high or too low to be affected."
True reform thus means more than just sending a few dishonest politicians to jail, although that certainly helps. It also means approaching reformers themselves with healthy skepticism. Edwin Edwards used the "reform" mantle to get elected governor in 1971. And in 1991, after three terms, two federal trials and a bundle of investigations, Edwards promised Louisiana he would "change" after beating white supremacist David Duke to win an unprecedented fourth term as governor. "You selected me as your instrument of renewed commitment," Edwards told a cheering election night crowd on Nov. 16, 1991.
Instead, Edwards turned the governor's office into an instrument of profit. As the FBI's Mathews said after the riverboat corruption convictions of Edwards and his cronies: "The [FBI] tapes from the listening devices that recorded meetings between Edwards and his gang of crooks are more reminiscent of 'overhears' from mob meeting rooms over restaurants in New York or Boston than conversations you expect to hear in a governor's office. Conversation after conversation was concocted around schemes to steal and hide profits." Edwards has finally gotten what he deserves. Meanwhile, Louisiana still deserves better.
Jim Brown, now the third consecutive insurance commissioner sentenced to federal prison, is perhaps our biggest disappointment. A poster boy of reform, Brown had a former federal judge swear him into office on Dec. 4, 1991 -- ahead of the January inauguration ceremonies -- so he could immediately tackle the state's "insurance crisis" left by corrupt predecessors Doug Green and Sherman Bernard. Now, Brown will serve a six-month sentence, two years probation and pay a $50,000 fine for lying to FBI investigators.
Brown was convicted of five counts of lying to the FBI about his involvement in an alleged "sham settlement" designed to derail a $27 million lawsuit threatened by the state against the failed Cascade Insurance Company. Brown protests that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers because he was not given access to an FBI agent's handwritten notes taken during Brown's extensive interview. However, both the trial judge and the appellate judges reviewed the agent's "rough notes" and determined that they match almost exactly the typewritten notes given to Brown's attorneys. Moreover, Brown had an attorney with him during the FBI interview -- but failed to produce that witness (or his notes) during his trial. Brown also failed to persuade the courts to suppress taped conversations between Brown and Edwards, which prosecutors used to prove the falsity of Brown's statements to the FBI.
In the third case, Odom was elected in 1979 -- as a reform candidate -- to replace convicted Agriculture Commissioner Gilbert "Gil" Dozier, who followed the scandal-tainted administration of Dave L. Pearce (1960-1976). Odom is certainly innocent until proven guilty. Nonetheless, legislative audit reports that contributed to his indictment likewise cast a shadow over his administration by painting a picture of arrogance and abuse, if not outright corruption.
It will take a lot to reform Louisiana -- politically, economically, environmentally, educationally and socially. We need determined prosecutors, but we also need a competitive political process, an aggressive media, and tenacious good-government activists. Hopefully, Aug. 23 will be remembered as a true day of reckoning -- a good start.