A politician once confided to me that elected officials get very nervous when they are called by a reporter, particularly when they don't know what prompts the call. When I heard that, I reflexively asked, "What do y'all do when Richard Angelico calls?"
His answer suggested that they typically had to change their underwear right away.
Having worked for almost a decade with Angelico, New Orleans' iconic television investigative reporter, I understood that response. For four decades, Angelico hounded mobsters and miscreants with his muckraking reports, first at WVUE-TV and then at WDSU. Over the years, his stories triggered high-profile federal investigations and sent dozens of crooks to jail.
After this week, the pols can rest a little easier — Angelico will retire on Friday. His body of work is a testament to the kind of dogged determination that was the hallmark of Angelico's reporting style.
Upon graduating from Loyola University, he took a job at Continental Grain Elevator and later worked on the riverfront. "That's where I got my education as to how the real world works," he recalled last week. "Later on, during the grain scandals, I drew upon my years out there to get the story."
While working on the riverfront in the late 1960s, Angelico began watching local TV newscasts. "They looked like they were having fun," he said, adding that he and then-WVUE news director Alec Gifford attended the same church. "So I went to Channel 12 and asked to see Alec. I knew nothing about TV, but I could write."
Gifford took a chance on Angelico, hiring him to produce the 11 p.m. weeknight newscast. He worked for free on weekends to gain more experience. "I was always interested in doing stories about crooked politicians," he recalls. "At that time, 'investigative reporting' had not yet been invented as a term."
Gifford initially discouraged him from investigative reporting, saying such work required a law degree. That only made Angelico more determined. He began producing reports about political corruption, which his weekend supervisor jokingly dubbed "The Slander Slot."
His first big story was a series of reports about a preacher who illegally sold bonds across state lines in a local Ponzi scheme. The preacher wound up in jail, and Angelico's career took off. He broke the infamous Family Health Foundation scandals of the early 1970s, which made Sherman Copelin a household name after Copelin admitted taking $50,000 in bribes while working at City Hall. He went on to expose political corruption at every level of government. He later took on street-level drug dealers, crooked contractors, shady lawyers and other bums.
Asked to name the biggest political crooks he had ever encountered, Angelico didn't mince words: "Michael O'Keefe was an absolutely, totally unprincipled sociopath," he said of the former state senator who's now doing a second stretch in the federal pen. "And Edwin Edwards." No explanation needed.
Did he ever meet a politician he thought was honorable?
"Jimmy Fitzmorris," he said. "He always put public service above self-interest. You don't see a lot of that."
Had it not been for Angelico and "The Slander Slot," we'd have seen even less of that in the past four decades. The politicians may not miss his work, but the rest of us will.