Most other names that have surfaced in the ongoing federal corruption investigations at City Hall and elsewhere likewise didn't surprise anyone who had been on or near the local political scene. Some folks' reputations precede them, and deservedly so.
But Oliver Thomas was different. No, he never pretended to be a Boy Scout a la David Vitter. At the same time, he never had the reputation as a shakedown artist, either.
So, when Thomas' name suddenly surfaced in the unfolding corruption scandal at City Hall -- and when he just as suddenly pleaded guilty to taking almost $20,000 in bribes and immediately resigned his at-large City Council seat -- it was one of those "Say it ain't so, Joe" moments. In accepting Thomas' guilty plea, U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance put it well: "This plea is a body blow to a community that is already reeling under a wave of public corruption."
On one level, Thomas' downfall is a modern-day morality play. Only this time, a good man has gone bad.
On another level, it's ironic but instructional that the bribes he admitted taking came during 2002, long before Katrina thrust him into the national spotlight as one of the city's few level-headed leaders and made him a local hero. Before and after the storm, Thomas was seen as a unifying force on New Orleans' fractious political landscape. When he ran for his at-large council seat, his support was wide and deep; whites and blacks alike rallied behind him. He seemed undaunted by unpopular truths, and he spoke them with courage and conviction. To no one's surprise, he was the early front-runner to be New Orleans' next mayor.
Now, like many heroes, he has been found to have feet of clay.
For his sins, he will pay dearly. He not only will disappear from the city's political scene but also will likely do time in jail -- and lose the affection of a city that desperately needs a leader it can trust and admire. He recognized this much in his public mea culpa last Monday, and his words as well as his demeanor evoked the images of the man we all thought we knew.
"It was wrong," he said of his crime, holding back tears. "And I accept full responsibility for this action and for using incredibly poor judgment. I acknowledge my guilt today and stand prepared to pay the consequences of my mistake. ... You trusted me, and I have placed that trust in question. You have every right to be angry and suspicious. I am deeply sorry, and I ask you for your forgiveness."
As I watched Thomas issue his apology and resignation, I was struck by the fact that so few politicians ever admit to making a mistake, let alone committing a crime. To this day, Edwin Edwards hasn't apologized to the people of Louisiana. David Vitter says his whoremongering is between him and God. And "Dollar Bill" Jefferson still owes us that "honorable explanation" for the $90K in his freezer.
What those hypocrites and charlatans fail to see, and apparently what Thomas sees very clearly, is that most people are forgiving by nature. Deep down, in fact, most of us want to forgive, perhaps because we realize our own need for forgiveness. But, being the mortals that we are, we do better at that forgiveness thing if the crooks at least admit they did wrong and say they're sorry.
Thomas has a long road ahead of him. But, unlike many others in public life, he has owned the consequences of his actions with sincerity, contrition and humility. He has asked to be judged not by the few acts that triggered his fall from grace, but rather by the totality of his actions as a public man. We should all seek to be judged that way, because Thomas has shown us that sometimes even good men go bad.