Waiting for an Exit Strategy
New Orleans Police Chief Warren Riley is asking Gov. Kathleen Blanco to let 300 National Guard troops stay in the city through the end of the summer. He made that request after asking for $6.9 million to offset the departure of the state cops, according to Blanco press secretary Marie Centanni. Riley's request for money did not include a timetable for withdrawing the troopers. The chief suggested earlier this month that he might unveil a withdrawal plan by May 11, but that date has come and gone with no plan. "The Governor has given the National Guard and State Police the mission of supporting the NOPD with law enforcement needs through the end of June," says Centanni. "With this input from Chief Riley, she will evaluate the continuing need for that support as the end of the current mission draws near." Riley told a congressional panel on April 10 that it is "very difficult" for NOPD to set "benchmarks" for sending the troopers home and suggested internal factors as one reason why. He said then that the NOPD expects to hire up to 120 officers by year's end, which would not offset projected losses of up to 210 officers as a result of retirements and resignations. More than 200 officers have 25 years of experience or more and are eligible for "immediate" retirement. "Any additional significant negative impact on their working environment could cause a massive loss of these experienced members," the chief said. -- Johnson
Can NOPD Go It Alone?
The yearlong deployment of National Guard and State Police troopers to New Orleans is expected to cost the state more than $30 million by June 30, the end of the state fiscal year. UNO criminologist Peter Scharf says there is little evidence that NOPD is prepared to "go it alone." He suggests that both the city and the state (which has a projected budget surplus of at least $2 billion between last year and this year) will be better off extending the stay of the state-funded crime fighters. "The basic question is why are they here and why are they leaving?" Scharf says. "What is it that has changed? The murder rate hasn't changed one iota. ... We have said [the worst of crime] is over before it's over five different times. Why hasn't it turned around? You have to look real hard at the capacity of this organization, because the more you stare at the numbers, the less it makes sense. Poverty alone doesn't explain it." Property crimes are taking a toll, too, even with the National Guard patrolling depopulated neighborhoods. State Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek said last week that copper theft is delaying the renovation of school buildings for some of the 13,000 students expected this fall in the state-run Recovery School District. On May 7, Riley told the House Appropriations Committee: "Things are slowly getting better." But last month, Riley told visiting congressmen: "The NOPD is at a crossroads. We will never abandon our mission to serve and protect the citizens of New Orleans, but we are faced with the daily reality of an imminent collapse of our criminal justice institutions." -- Johnson
Crime Kills Prediction
In the face of stubborn violence, UNO criminologist Peter Scharf has abandoned a prediction he made only two months ago -- that New Orleans' murder rate would drop sharply by the end of the year. "I clearly lost my bet," Scharf told us on May 11. Typically skeptical, Scharf raised eyebrows on March 16 when he declared New Orleans' murder rate would fall from 163 last year to 120 by the end of 2007 -- a 37 percent drop. The professor based his optimistic projection on a new initiative that puts 35 federal agents on the street with NOPD cops, the stabilization of some neighborhoods, and the tendency of violent criminals to "kill each other off." But the latter factor has proved more vigorous than Scharf anticipated. John Gagliano, chief investigator of the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office, reported 74 homicides in the city so far this year as of May 15 -- nearly double the 39 killings recorded at the time of Scharf's prediction. In testimony before a congressional field hearing here April 10, the professor appeared to return to form as an affable purveyor of grim statistics. Since July 1, 2006, Scharf testified, the city has experienced a nation-leading murder rate of 94 murders per 100,000 residents. "New Orleans stands alone in terms of risks of homicide among U.S. cities," he said. -- Johnson
C.B.'s Death Watch
Internet activist C.B. Forgotston, an attorney and lobbyist, has been extra busy this year trying to keep up with New Orleans' nation-leading murder rate. He posts the latest figures on his Web site and sends them to a growing list of email recipients requesting the grim updates, including out-of-state media. "I started doing it in January because nobody else was," Forgotston says. "I thought it would help keep the focus on crime in New Orleans after the big (Jan. 11) march on City Hall." NOPD officials and others have questioned the accuracy of his figures, Forgotston says, but they have never provided any evidence of errors. When we called the coroner's office last week, a spokesperson gave us the same year-to-date homicide total that Forgotston had posted in an earlier email -- 74. "Frankly, by now I thought someone in the local media would have taken on the job and I could stop," he says. -- Johnson
Practically all the major contenders for president have hit the Bayou State over the past year -- one Democrat even announced his candidacy in New Orleans. Most of the attention has come as a result of the ongoing recovery, but a black mayor's conference earlier this month in Baton Rouge also brought candidates southward. In what may be proof that an earlier presidential primary in the state is actually drawing political stars, the competing candidates just keep on coming. U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner from New York, held a fundraiser last Friday afternoon at the New Orleans home of Calvin and Frances Fayard. Host committee slots went for $2,300. On the GOP side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the first Mormon to make a serious run for the White House, leads all other Republican candidates in Louisiana fundraising, having collected more than $95,000 in the first quarter of this year -- nearly twice what the others combined have raised. -- Alford
Kennedy: Get Outta Debt
Standard and Poor's, an independent credit rating service, recently reported that Louisiana's total debt and "unfunded accrued liability" -- or UAL -- is looking as shabby as ever with regard to the state's main pension funds. S&P reviewed the retirement systems for teachers and public employees and found the total UAL as of last year was roughly $10.8 billion, or about $2,385 for every person in the state. The nationwide per capita average is considerably less -- $1,378. "To put things into perspective, the S&P report shows that per capita state debt was $732 last year," says state Treasurer John Kennedy. "The per capita UAL for these retirement systems was more than three times that amount." Another measure of financial health is the "funded ratio," which is calculated by dividing assets by liabilities. The higher the number the better, and Louisiana is 18.3 points below the national average. Decreased employee contributions, increased retirement benefits and investment losses have all contributed to the monstrous UAL. Kennedy says the state should tap its anticipated surplus to pay the UAL down and improve its credit rating. In the end, it's middle-school math. "Simply put, these retirement systems have more money going out than there is coming in," Kennedy says. -- Alford
AG Targets Booze Companies
After convincing a handful of Hollywood movie studios to run disclaimers on DVDs depicting scenes of gratuitous smoking, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti has set his sights on how booze peddlers target young people. In particular, Foti has lashed out at Anheuser-Busch for pushing alcohol-laced energy drinks that contain caffeine and other stimulants. He wants "readable warning labels" that can alert consumers about the health risks posed by the drinks. "These alcoholic energy drinks are promoted and packaged in a way that is highly attractive to underage youth," Foti says. "Drinks such as Spykes plainly and perniciously appeal to children in both taste and appearance -- and their caffeine content dangerously masks the effects of the alcohol." Foti has made some headway. Beam Global Spirits, the fourth largest alcohol company in the world and home to Jim Beam bourbon, has adopted a new set of policies designed to reduce exposure of its alcohol-related advertising to underage persons. That means no more free T-shirts on college campuses, buying advertising only in markets with older consumers and other steps. -- Alford
This Week on the Web
A new right-leaning political blog is up and running -- with anonymous Web masters, of course -- at www.operationrednovember.blogspot.com. The Operation Red November site promises to "investigate, expose and eliminate pundits, posers and political scumbags." So far, though, it's just your usual links to political stories and slanted commentary, bolstered by comical diatribes. It also services an email list, most recently railing against allegedly "corrupt" legislation that the blogger links to state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom. "House Bill 399 is actually attempting to exempt soil and water conservation districts by the Dept. of Agriculture from having a licensed CPA conduct audits," a recent posting states. "It also exempts these districts from further audit by the legislative auditor." -- Alford
Where are the Levees?
If the state's proposed annual design and construction plan for south Louisiana seems to focus more on restoration than protection, that's because it was intentionally designed that way. It's not an oversight or a slight, officials say, but rather a balancing act. Louisiana's construction and design plans for the next 12 months can be found in Senate Concurrent Resolution 12. A total of 63 coastal projects are in the plan, of which 57 are related to restoration efforts. Only six are identified as "protection" (read: levees). Predictably, the fiscal allocations are lopsided as well. About $193 million, or 86 percent of the total budget, is dedicated to coastal restoration, compared to the $30 million for levees and other forms of flood protection. Johnny B. Bradberry, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, says not to worry, because federal work planned for next year focuses largely on hurricane protection, thus evening things out. The federal government will soon be pumping billions into Louisiana's flood protection system, including 210 contracts that should yield about 350 miles of new levees. "You really need to consider that when looking at these numbers," Bradberry says. "And we need to catch up on our restoration work." -- Alford
Gambit Correspondent Wins APME Award
Gambit Weekly correspondent Taylor Henry recently won first place in the Interpretive Story category of the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) competition. Henry, a former CNN correspondent who currently is news director at KNOE-TV in Monroe, received the award for "Name, Rank and Serial Plunder," (News & Views, Sept. 26, 2006), an investigation that exposed that Louisiana National Guardsmen were looting stores in the New Orleans area that they were supposed to protect in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Henry has won numerous awards during his journalism career -- during which he worked as a reporter at WWL-TV from 1981 to 1986 -- including the Radio and Television News Directors Association's prestigious national Edward R. Murrow award for overall excellence.