Within days of my return to New Orleans in August 2007, after a long residence in France, the popular City councilman Oliver Thomas pled guilty to taking $20,000 in bribes and kickbacks. Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson was then under investigation—and has since been convicted—for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in connection with various business deals in Africa. The papers were full of stories about corruption. Which prompted the following thoughts, written in September 2007 and updated as warranted:
One thing that seems all-too familiar to this returning native is Louisiana’s celebrated penchant for political corruption. This part of the local culture has long roots. Huey Long famously boasted that he had “the best legislature money can buy.” His brother Earl once said that “the governor of Louisiana doesn’t have to steal money. As soon as he’s elected, a million dollars is going to fall into his pocket all by itself.” From the Longs to our jailbird ex-governor Edwin Edwards, to the current crop of pilfering politicians—Oliver Thomas, William Jefferson, among others—our state has produced an unbroken string of ethically challenged public servants.
Is this unique to Louisiana? Certainly not. Lord Acton’s famous “power corrupts” aphorism sadly applies to the entire human race. My experience as a journalist in France for 10 years bears that out. When it comes to corruption, French politicians can make our boys look like amateurs. None of this penny-ante $20,000 under the table and $90,000 in the deepfreeze stuff. The French play for higher stakes--and at the highest levels of power.
Here are just a few cases I covered as a Paris-based correspondent for TIME Magazine:
•Former Communication Minister Alain Carrignon was sentenced in 1996 to five years in prison for pocketing nearly $3 million in bribes and kickbacks while serving as Mayor of Grenoble--then tampering with trial witnesses for good measure.
•Former Interior Minister and Senator Charles Pasqua was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to three years in prison for his involvement in a $790 million black market arms sale to Angola. He was earlier indicted (but not convicted) for illegally trafficking in Iraqi oil during the Saddam Hussein regime.
•Roland Dumas, the wavy-haired, silver-tongued ex-Defense Minister, was accused of setting up his mistress with a cushy job at a state-owned oil company, then sharing in the multi-million dollar kickback she got for lobbying his own ministry to okay a controversial $2.8 billion warship sale to Taiwan. (She spent five months in prison over the caper; Dumas himself was acquitted but forced to resign from his seat on France’s highest court.)
•In 2004, Former Prime Minister Alain Juppé was convicted for his role in an illegal party-financing operation while serving as an aide to then Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac. His 18-month suspended sentence sidelined him from electoral politics and paved the way for his rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, to win the presidency in May 2007.
•Finally, there is the case of former President Jacques Chirac. Forget about the accusations that he used government employees to maintain and staff his private country home, the Château de Bity, or that he and his family enjoyed thousands of dollars’ worth of free vacation flights on a private airline owned by a friend. No, the real rap on Chirac is that, as Mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, he allegedly oversaw an elaborate scheme of public works kickbacks and fictitious city jobs that poured millions of dollars into the coffers of his Gaullist party, and ultimately helped finance his run for the presidency in 1995. Though Chirac enjoyed immunity from prosecution while president, his lawyers have been working overtime ever since he left office in May 2007. In December 2009, he was formally indicted for his role in the false jobs scheme. It is possible—though unlikely--that the former President could go to jail over the affair.
So the next time we are tempted to tout the historic bonds between Louisiana and France, let’s not forget the bail bonds.
© 2010 by Thomas A. Sancton