By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Two years after Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers had completed much of the cleanup in New Orleans. As projects dwindled, pressure rose from City Hall for the Corps to get out of town.
Why? In multiple off-the-record conversations at the time, Corps managers pointed to a big bucket of unspent federal money and a provision Congress put into the hurricane relief legislation. It said control of any remaining cash would pass to the locals when the federal engineers left. “Ray Nagin wants that money,” was the sentiment.
Nagin was then in his first term as mayor of New Orleans. Fast forward six years, and Nagin, now a resident of Texas, faces a 21-count indictment alleging corruption that, if true, would be brazen even by Louisiana standards. Nagin has pleaded innocent to accepting $200,000 in bribes, lavish travel and such related to the Katrina cash. Two City Hall insiders have pleaded guilty to similar charges.
In response, New Orleans souvenir shops modified those “Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women” T-shirts they’ve sold for years. The new imprint reads, “Beware Pickpockets, Ray Nagin and Loose Women.”
Clever. Even funny.
Apparently the public expects some of the people they elect will betray their trust, that the good old FBI will step in with a sting operation and that bandits who once lived large will pay their debt in a federal prison.
It’s a script seen time and again. We shrug it off.
Certainly taking payoffs is not new. It is a crime that transcends time, race and age.
Stealing also transcends wealth. Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Chicago was financially secure, yet has admitted knowingly and illegally living off $750,000 in campaign donations and gifts.
About the same time Rep. Jackson was in court in Chicago, Vicksburg Mayor Paul Winfield followed in the footsteps of Southaven Mayor Greg Davis, who was arrested and posted bond in December on embezzlement charges.
Winfield, standing in an orange jumpsuit and shackles in front of a federal magistrate, is accused of accepting cash to steer a debris contract. The time has not come for him to enter a plea to the criminal charge, but for many months Winfield has faced a civil suit just as embarrassing. A former top aide accuses him of, among other things, trying use city funds to buy her silence about a sexual relationship.
Rep. Jackson wept and apologized while entering his guilty plea. At the other end of the shame spectrum, Winfield bounced back to City Hall, made at least one public appearance and proclaimed to his hometown newspaper, The Vicksburg Post, “I’m staying put. I’m going to do the job I was elected to do.”
Speaking of elections, Southaven’s Davis said he’s through, but Winfield has filed for a second term. Voters are known to return some to office after being charged, some even after they were convicted. So who knows?
But what about the mental state of those accused of corruption? It has always been a mystery.
When is the decision made to be corrupt?
Is it while shaking hands, kissing babies and making promises for a better day?
As they ask people, young and old, to trust them, do they already know that they will prove unworthy?
Or is it incremental? Do they get elected planning to be honest and then become jaded and frustrated, take a little at first and more and more later?
Do they go on the take because everyone is doing it?
Do they feel entitled, superior – above the law? Do they feel justified in taking kickbacks or engaging in bid-rigging because, after all, they’ve done some good things, too?
Or are they pathological liars who truly believe they can do no wrong?
It’s a decent question: What do they see when they look in the mirror? Arrogance? Confidence? Innocence? Do they lie to themselves as effectively as they lie to others?
There are million-dollar scams that last years. There are hapless county supervisors who get pinched for putting $50 worth of gravel on a voter’s driveway.
What are they thinking?
Doubtless the rationales are as diverse as the array of defendants.
The public, on the other hand, has become pretty consistent. People rarely show surprise or outrage. Those Corps guys in New Orleans expected problems, calmly foreshadowed what might happen.
It’s a shame, though. Corruption doesn’t shock us, even though it should.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.