This past year the feds continued to cast a wide net in their ever-widening investigations into political corruption in southeast Louisiana. The GOP captured both houses of the Louisiana Legislature. Gov. Bobby Jindal coasted to re-election while helping to orchestrate a purge on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Lawmakers struggled with redistricting and a tight budget.
And those were just the headlines. The stories behind those headlines made this another year to remember. Herewith our Top 10 Political Stories of 2011.
1. Federal Corruption Investigations — The indictments and convictions can’t come fast enough for citizens who are sick and tired of corrupt politicians, but the feds move at their own deliberate pace. Given the track record of U.S. Attorney Jim Letten & Co., you can’t fault the feds for taking their time. This year saw the convictions of some major political kingpins, and the indictments of several more:
• Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle and post-Katrina contractor (and political hustler) Aaron Bennett pleaded guilty to a bribery scheme in connection with a Plaquemines jail. Ultimately, both men may wind up providing information about corruption cases in other parishes, which will makes their case worth watching in 2012.
• Former New Orleans City Council member Renee Gill Pratt was convicted of conspiring to rip off more than $1 million from taxpayer-funded charities. She got a seven-year sentence while her co-conspirator-turned-government-witness, former Assessor Betty Jefferson, got house arrest. Gill Pratt’s conviction was the final nail in the political coffin of former Congressman “Dollar Bill” Jefferson, kingpin of the Jefferson Political/Crime Family. (Dollar Bill, meanwhile, remains free on bond while he appeals his conviction and 13-year sentence for racketeering and other crimes in Virginia.)
• Former City Hall tech contractor Mark St. Pierre was convicted of all 53 counts of bribery and conspiracy — and later sentenced to more than 17 years in jail.
• In Jefferson Parish, former parish prez Aaron Broussard and his ex-wife, along with former parish attorney Tom Wilkinson, now face payroll fraud charges — and that’s the low-hanging fruit.
• In other Jefferson Parish news, former Wildlife Commissioner Henry Mouton pleaded guilty to one count of accepting bribes from an unnamed (read: River Birch) landfill company. Mouton’s plea, along with Broussard’s indictment, are probably just the first steps toward a possible indictment of River Birch owner Fred Heebe.
Other investigations are thought to be focused on former Mayor Ray Nagin and various officials in St. Bernard Parish. As you can see, federal corruption cases could have accounted for most of the Top 10 stories. For Letten, southeast Louisiana is truly a target-rich environment.
2. GOP Gains — Republicans now hold all seven statewide elected offices and a majority in the House and Senate. For the Louisiana GOP, these are the days of miracle and wonder. Now comes the really hard part: governing. The big question that 2012 will answer is whether the party can handle success — or will Republicans, as Caroline Fayard famously gaffed, eat their young?
3. NOPD Scandals — From a paid-detail scandal that tainted Chief Ronal Serpas to the city’s runaway violent crime rate, NOPD continued to be mired in scandal in 2011. And then, of course, there was the Danziger Bridge case, which saw five former officers convicted in connection with the shooting of unarmed civilians in the days after Katrina (and conspiring to cover up the shootings afterward). The feds continued to investigate a number of cops while negotiating a potential consent decree with Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The decree, which is still being hammered out, is expected to set the stage of a sweeping set of reforms at NOPD. It can’t come soon enough.
4. The 2011 Elections — Incumbents fared very well in the October primary, but most of those who remained on the ballot for the November runoffs (especially in St. Bernard and St. Tammany) got doused. The exceptions: legislative Democrats. While the Party of Jefferson (Thomas, not Bill) failed to field a viable candidate for any statewide office, Democratic incumbents in the Legislature fended off multi-million-dollar assaults from Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter. In fact, every Democratic legislative incumbent that the GOP targeted won re-election, even though each was outspent three-to-one or more. Speaking of Vitter, his bid to build a statewide right-wing base for a possible governor’s race in 2015 fizzled as nearly every candidate he supported lost. Meanwhile, the local elections in St. Bernard Parish provided enough fireworks to light up the sky for a year. HBO could mine several seasons’ worth of material for a hit series on just the races for sheriff and parish president.
5. Big Changes at BESE — While Vitter focused on legislative races, Gov. Bobby Jindal looked ahead to the big push of his second term — education reform — and helped shake up the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). In past years, BESE races were largely ignored, which allowed teacher unions to stack the state’s education board. No longer. Jindal and Baton Rouge contractor Lane Grigsby teamed up to sweep all but one of the contested BESE seats. Now the governor has 10 of the 11 BESE members in his corner (he appoints three of them) — a big change from the 6-5 majority he previously enjoyed.
6. Legislative Redistricting — It’s always a bloody, ugly process, and this year saw its share of cross-parish fighting, especially between Orleans and Jefferson. Metro New Orleans lost at least six legislative seats to reapportionment in the last vestige of Hurricane Katrina’s huge impact on local and state politics.
7. Jindal Re-elected in Yawn-slide — Normally, a governor’s re-election would automatically make the Top 3, but Jindal didn’t make much of a splash in defeating a large field of nobodies. Team Jindal’s post-election spin failed to snuff out the glaring truth that the governor’s 65 percent “landslide” reflected a collective political yawn by Louisiana voters. The bigger story was the anemic turnout of just 31 percent. In hard numbers, Gov. Talking Points actually got only 23 percent of the total electorate to go to the polls and vote for him. His 673,000-vote total on Oct. 22 was less than 676,000-plus he got in his losing effort to Kathleen Blanco in the 2003 runoff — and less than the 699,000 he got in his 2007 open primary victory. And Team Talking Points calls that a mandate?
8. Arnie Fielkow Resigns — The most likeable politician in town called it quits when offered the chance to get back into the sports arena. Fielkow, who previously worked for the New Orleans Saints, now heads up the National Basketball Retired Players Association. His resignation sets up a March 24 special election — and renews an ongoing examination of racial and cross-racial voting patterns in New Orleans.
9. The State Budget “Cliff” — Okay, it turned out to be just a speed bump, but it was still news. The fact that a projected $1.6 billion shortfall wound up being covered so easily was largely a tribute to state Sen. John Alario’s working knowledge of the state budget (and his mastery of the legislative process). Alario’s central role in reducing the fear factor associated with the budget shortfall probably made him a lock to become Jindal’s choice as Senate President.
10. UNO’s Move — The year began with Jindal proposing to merge UNO with SUNO. It was uncharacteristically bold of Jindal, and in the end the merger died on the vine without so much as a floor vote. But the merger talks put enough of a spotlight on UNO’s historic troubles in the LSU System that the idea of shifting the lakefront campus to the friendlier University of Louisiana System sailed through both legislative chambers. The move became official earlier this month — on the same day that Dr. Peter Fos, a UNO alum, was named UNO’s new president.
In Other News — Other big stories vied for attention, including the Occupy NOLA movement, Bobby Jindal’s withering national ambitions (picking Rick Perry for president was almost as big a gaffe as his dreadful speech on national TV in 2009), and former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ release from jail.
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