Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Letter From Louisiana

N.B. This posting appeared in the British News magazine Private Eye, in their "From Our Own Correspondent" column, issue No. 1165, 18th to 31st of August 2006, (p. 15). The column was authored by the CP.

After the chaos, renewal. That, at least, was the promise when scenes of Third World incompetence and disarray flooded across TV screens around the world in the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina a year ago.

But in this part of the US, we believe in continuity as much as innovation and cherish our commitment to old-fashioned values like corruption, betrayal and contempt for the little people.

Take the help we have received from the federal government, which has fallen over itself to provide programmes apparently designed to help reconstruction. The recently passed Gulf Opportunity Zone Act is a case in point. The act provides a 50 percent bonus depreciation fore new building projects in the designated hurricane-afflicted areas. What this means is that developers get a large tax credit to off-set the cost of their projects. But instead of stimulating genuine post-hurricane reconstruction to benefit devastated poorer neighborhoods, there is a boom in speculative top-end building projects around Louisiana.

In the small town of Lafayette, which lies between the areas directly impacted by the two hurricanes, an Alabama company intends to build an unneeded 600-plus bed student housing complex. This proposal was strongly resisted by residents, but it was controversially approved after a series of secret meetings between councilors and developers.

Despite the attention from the outside world, this is still Louisiana and politics remains a back room affair. Out is pretty much the only state where campaign contributions are not subject to ethical oversight on the basis that this would, er, hamper economic development.

Not that our elected representatives are in any way under-employed. Indeed, despite the mess that surrounds us, we can be proud that our state legislature found time to argue -- at some length -- the merits of crucial issues of the day, like cockfighting (still legal in Louisiana due to a legal oddity under which chickens are not technically regarded as animals). Ultimately, the proposed ban was defeated on the grounds that to do so would have too negative an impact on the rural economy. Such debates are so much more fun that trying to fix shattered economies, school systems and coastal defences.

The colourful nature of Louisiana politics reaches the heart of our great American democracy. Recently, William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, Democratic congressmen for our state, became the subject of an investigation for allegedly taking bribes in connection with multimillion dollar contracts in West Africa. An FBI raid on Jefferson's New Orleans home netted $90,000 in cash, tucked away in his freezer. He is alleged to have received this money from an FBI informant.

"Dollar Bill" was also heard on a wiretap apparently improperly soliciting funds for his daughter, who is a state legislator. In New Orleans Jefferson is fondly remembered for his display of public service immediately after Katrina, when he had the National Guard help recover possessions from his house.

Jefferson supporters claim he is a victim of a Washington fix to distract attention from the many corruption scandals that envelop leading Republicans ahead of elections this autumn. Sadly, he has enemies closer to home. Our former four-term Democratic governor, Edwin Edwards currently serving a 10-stretch in a federal institution for racketeering, still has many supporters in the state. They are now arguing that if Jefferson avoids jail, Edwards should be released.

It's the kind of logic that might perplex even some of the congressman's more earthy Nigerian friends, but one that fits in a state where good ol' boys have always ruled and money changing hands has been an accepted part of our politics. How long that remains, with communities still destroyed and people still sleeping in tents, is another matter.

The CP

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