Lee Zurik’s Fox 8 report on allegedly fraudulent oil leases owned by Gov. Huey Long’s “Win or Lose” corporation, worth hundreds of millions in royalties over the years, and passed down to Long’s friends and descendants, is a fascinating investigation. Remember that Long, the Kingfish, rose to fame campaigning against Big Oil. But once in office, he covertly siphoned off a cut of “black gold” profits for his kin and loyalists, in perpetuity.
Then in today’s Times-Picayune, Bruce Alpert writes about former Rep. Bill Jefferson’s “near-death experience” a decade ago. After receiving quintuple bypass heart surgery, Jefferson realized he had little inheritance to leave his family. (Unlike Long, Jefferson grew up dirt poor.)
But in the first days after the heart surgery, his plan was to quit Congress and take a job with a wealthy businessman in which, as he told friends, he would help find potentially lucrative investments and then share in the profits. Instead, Jefferson decided to stay in Congress while he tried to help businesses win contracts in western Africa, where he had considerable influence. In return, he demanded payments be made to businesses controlled by his family.
It turned out to be the worst mistake of his life.
It’s fascinating to read how Jefferson believed God intervened to “save his life” and then decided to repay this divine gift by adopting … an accelerated approach to graft while in office! Why not just go the traditional route – retire to the private sector and become a highly-paid lobbyist or consultant?
Alpert’s article reminds us that on Friday Jefferson will begin serving a 13-year sentence for public corruption and bribery. His brother Mose died last year while serving time for bribery, and his sister Betty confessed to “looting $1 million in taxpayer funds from sham charities that purported to help the poor and disadvantaged.”
After Richard Leche was elected Governor of Louisiana in 1936 he said, “When I took the oath of office I didn’t take any vow of poverty.” Four years later he was sentenced to prison for mail fraud. (Lesser known fact: while serving his time, he was known as “Con Leche.” Rimshot!)
But maybe Gov. Leche unwittingly had the right idea. Perhaps politicians should take a vow of poverty along with their oath of office. Because these days, if pols aren’t brazenly corrupt during their time in office, it’s only because they arrange to enrich themselves as soon as they’re out of office. (See, for example, former Rep. Billy Tauzin’s posturing to line up his future health care lobbying gig, or former Sen. John Breaux’s lobbying for Big Pharma.) In short, they spend their time in office auditioning for the lobbyist gig they dream of. The flip side to these maneuvers by avaricious pols are, of course, the rich who think they are qualified for political office simply because they’ve already made (or inherited) a lot of dough. (See, for example, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, or current GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.)
Yeah, I know. At this point, it seems ridiculous to think we can remove the influence and allure of money from politics. (See, for example, presidential candidate Buddy Roemer.) One thing is for sure, though, the prosecutions of recent “poster boys” of political corruption like Bill Jefferson and former Rep. Duke Cunningham of California haven’t satisfied voters. In recent years, Congressional leadership has switched back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, yet voter approval of Congress is still miserably low. The electorate remains restless and dissatisfied. Is it too utopian to think that, perhaps one day soon, voters might figure out that the problem isn’t the criminal officeholders, per se, so much as the corrupt system that allows them represent corporate donors while in office and then go to work for them afterwards?
In other words, Jefferson’s “mistake” was to bend a system (Huey Long-style) that was already perfectly bent to suit his financial needs! Instead of taking the quick bribes, he should’ve got out, and cashed in as a lobbyist/businessman. The current revolving door is just as good. It’s bribery on lay-away plan, with much less legal risk – so long as frustrated voters don’t figure out the game and find a way to vent their fury.