Until last week, former New Orleans City Council At-Large member Oliver Thomas personified much of what is good about New Orleans and her people. As the dean of the City Council, Thomas' generous spirit, gentle humor and infectious passion for New Orleans helped cement his reputation as one of the few local leaders who could unite our racially divided city. His signature commitment of concern and care for local disadvantaged youth remains indelible, even now. Thomas' stunning guilty plea to a federal bribery charge last week did more than derail the promising career of a serious contender for mayor. His confession also forced us to acknowledge that he likewise embodied the worst of our city's flaws: cynical self-dealing and secret fatalism shared by too many politicians, a flaw that renders the notion of reform incompatible with Louisiana's political culture.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance seemed to anticipate the devastating impact of Thomas' confession on the public psyche as he stood before her and pleaded guilty. "This plea is a body blow to a community that is already reeling under a wave of public corruption," Judge Vance said. "This is demoralizing. If this city is ever to recover, we have to have an end to this type of venality. We need honest public officials."
Indeed, New Orleans has already been pummeled by months of what Jim Bernazzani, head of the local FBI, called "many, many, many" ongoing federal investigations. Add to that the Washington-based criminal investigation of U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson and the sordid scandal involving U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the convictions of former Orleans Parish Public School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms, various employees of the school system and Traffic Court, and New Orleans seems to be stewing in corruption. Bernazzani, a native of Massachusetts, notes that political corruption is not unique to Louisiana: "It's just brazen down here. Machine politics in the North will skim the cream. Here in Louisiana, they skim the cream, they steal the milk, hijack the bottles and look for the cow."
In fact, Louisiana leads all 56 FBI field offices nationwide in indictments obtained under the federal RICO, or racketeering, statute. We rank second in public corruption cases, Bernazzani says. In times such as these, it's easy to give in to despair. Ironically, we found consolation in Thomas' words during his heartfelt apology, which began with a sincere admission of his own guilt -- unlike most who have been caught up in the unfolding scandals. Thomas admitted to taking $19,000 in bribes in 2002 and now faces up to 10 years in prison, $250,000 in fines and three years of supervised probation. In exchange for the money, Thomas helped politically connected businessman Stanford "Pampy" Barre retain his interest in a French Quarter parking contract and a place at the public trough after a change of mayoral administrations. "It was wrong, and I accept full responsibility for this action and for using incredibly poor judgment," Thomas said. "I acknowledge my guilt today and stand prepared to pay the consequences of my mistake."
Skeptics rightly doubt that Thomas' transgressions were limited to one incident five years ago, but critics should be satisfied that any "downward adjustment" from his 10-year maximum sentence is contingent upon his full cooperation with ongoing investigations. We also are encouraged that Thomas immediately resigned from the council after admitting his guilt. "My greatest hope is that this won't become a distraction to the recovery and rebuilding of our great city," he said. We agree. His sudden departure at least showed that he remembered how to put the city ahead of the personal politics that got him in trouble in the first place. "I cannot begin to describe the anguish I feel for disappointing you," Thomas said in issuing his public apology, his voice cracking. "You trusted me, and I have placed that trust in question. You have every right to be angry and suspicious. I am deeply sorry. ... To all of you, please know that wherever I am, I am always working to help New Orleans come back."
Later that day, Thomas took obvious pains to calm racial tensions arising from the political imbalance of council power caused by his departure. He rejected theories of a government conspiracy to remove himself and other black leaders from power. "This is not about black or white -- this is about wrong and right," he told WDSU-TV anchor Norman Robinson. That's the Oliver Thomas we thought we knew -- a healer, a uniter. We would add that the first public official prosecuted on corruption charges after Hurricane Katrina was a white Republican councilman in St. Tammany Parish, and that most of the 17 defendants convicted in the Jefferson Parish courthouse corruption scandals are white.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, whose office prosecuted Thomas, admitted he was impressed by Thomas' "dignified acceptance of responsibility." He added that Thomas' acceptance of guilt stands in "stark contrast" to the bitter, defiant arrogance displayed by Kerry DeCay, an appointee of former Mayor Marc Morial, who has been sentenced to nine years in prison on corruption charges. It's reassuring to know that, even in his darkest hour, Thomas summoned the courage and integrity to try to set things right. That's the man we thought we knew. Like the city we all love, Thomas now faces a long journey toward recovery and rehabilitation.