We applaud -- enthusiastically -- Mayor Ray Nagin's quick and decisive moves to expose and eliminate corruption in city government. The fact that the new administration could launch and conclude a "sting" operation against the city Utilities Department in its first 75 days shows how committed Nagin is to keeping his campaign promise of meaningful reform -- and how blatant and widespread corruption had become under the prior administration. As the mayor himself put it last week, "it wasn't that difficult" to catch some city workers taking bribes or committing malfeasance.
By late last week, more than 80 arrest warrants had been issued in connection with bribery schemes at the Taxicab Bureau and at all three of the city's vehicle inspection stations. Most of those arrested or sought for arrest are cabbies, but the eight busted city employees include Utilities Director Lilliam Regan and Assistant Utilities Director Brian Cain -- both of whom are holdovers from former Mayor Marc Morial's administration.
The story was the talk of the town last week. Daily newspaper headlines and nightly news reports trumpeted every new development, and the unfolding scandal has monopolized local talk radio shows. In fact, Nagin has been criticized in some quarters -- mostly by persons connected to Morial -- for making the investigation a media event. We disagree with that criticism.
Yes, television news crews videotaped the arrests of taxicab drivers and lowly city workers -- as well as the firing of the utilities director. Those events made for "good TV," in the parlance of the trade. But the dramatic coverage also sent some long-overdue messages. To a long-suffering public came word that help is finally here. To those who have violated the public trust, the message was equally clear: you are about to get your comeuppance. Equally important, shining bright lights on shady operators serves as a deterrent to others in government who might be tempted to break the law. Most of all, the intense media coverage triggered a flood of new complaints to the Metropolitan Crime Commission. Honest city workers, long afraid to come forward with information about wrongdoing, are now emboldened by the specter of a mayor who's serious about ferreting out corruption.
In the immediate afterglow of the initial arrests, people across the region were proclaiming the dawn of a new era in New Orleans. We certainly share everyone's excitement at that prospect. At the same time, we hasten to caution that initial arrests are only the first step in what will be a long and arduous process. We also have some concerns about how far the investigation will go.
Our skeptical nature calls to mind the famous ending to the film classic, Casablanca, in which Humphrey Bogart guns down a German official right in front of the local police commander (who always won at Bogart's casino). Mindful that Bogart still holds a gun in his pocket, the commander coolly informs his minions of the Nazi officer's murder -- and instructs them to "round up the usual suspects."
We do not at all suggest that Nagin and police are simply rounding up "usual suspects." However, arresting a handful of city employees and dozens of cab drivers hardly amounts to a thorough housecleaning at City Hall. By all accounts, the mayor, Police Chief Eddie Compass and Capt. Louis Dabdoub (who is supervising the investigation) are determined to follow every lead and root out corruption at every level. We urge the City Council to give them all the resources they need to finish the job -- no matter where the investigation leads.
Nagin said early on that he believes corruption goes much higher than just a few underlings in one department, and by week's end came news that investigators want to talk with Morial and former Chief Administrative Officer Marlin Gusman, who is now a city councilman. Police made it clear that neither man is suspected of wrongdoing. Morial and Gusman negotiated with investigators through their attorneys, which is their right. At the same time, both men may have information that could aid the investigation -- and both may have some explaining to do.
On another level, we urge District Attorney Harry Connick, a long-time Morial ally, to handle these cases with a fervor that matches Nagin's -- to follow every lead no matter where it ends. Politically, Connick owes no more favors to Morial. The veteran DA is retiring in less than six months, and we can think of no finer capstone to his 28 years as the city's top prosecutor -- and no greater legacy to leave his constituents -- than taking these cases as far as they can go.
What does that mean?
It means not being satisfied with guilty pleas from cab drivers and entry-level city employees. It means, instead, using plea bargains to secure testimony against higher-ups. It means, quite possibly, stepping on the toes of some of his old allies.
It means doing a lot more than just rounding up the usual suspects.