by Anitra D. Brown
Quick! Name at least six Black, elected officials from Orleans or Jefferson Parish that have been convicted of or pled guilty to corruption charges in the last decade after being the subject of a criminal investigation. Oliver Thomas. Derrick Shepard. Jon Johnson. Bill Jefferson. Betty Jefferson. Renee Gill Pratt. Alan Green. Ellenese Brooks Simms . . .
Hold on, stop . . . just need six.
Okay, now think of six White elected officials that fit the same description. Ronald Bodenheimer . . . Aaron Broussard . . . ummmm, wait does Edwin Edwards count?
This little exercise might suggest that the two neighboring parishes are just chock full of Black elected officials or at least that Black elected officials are four times as likely to be corrupt when compared to their White counterparts.
Not hardly the case. There are more than 500,000 elected officials across this nation, And only about 10,500 (barely two percent) are African American.
But there is a phrase to describe the phenomenon. George Derek Musgrove, author of “Rumor, Repression and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America”, says it’s called “harassment ideology.”
“Harassment ideology is a set of ideas that Black elected officials and some of their defenders created in the mid-1970s to . . . figure out what in the world was happening to their ranks,” Musgrove said in a July 2012 interview with NPR. “Large numbers of them were being investigated and when I say large numbers, I mean, in 1971, every single member of the Congressional Black Caucus was under investigation by the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service. Plus the IRS or the Nixon White House. And so, when they tried to figure out what in the world was happening, they came up with this idea of harassment ideology. And it’s basically the notion that the government and the news media have an adversarial relationship toward Black elected officials.”
A look at what has happened right here in New Orleans seems to suggest that Black elected officials, at the very least, are held to another standard than any applied to their White counterparts. Even when they are both caught in wrong doing, everything from the rigorousness of the investigation to the severity of the sentences and even the media handling of their cases seem to differ. And even when there is no criminal wrong doing involved, easy to spot are the duplicitous double standards.
•Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman is subject to venomous attacks from local mainstream media along with criticism on the part of other elected officials because of problems at the Orleans Parish Prison.
Yet, his problems are certainly no different and arguably less extreme than those encountered by his predecessor, former sheriff Charles Foti, who ran OPP for three decades with the same meager resources, rundown facilities and inbuilt issues that naturally emerge from running an urban jail that at one time was one of the largest in the country with hardly a whimper or wail—no one calling for his resignation, calling him incompetent or asking to place the local jail under receivership.
Anyone who really thinks Gusman is running the worst jail, must not remember OPP under Foti’s leadership. The prison was plagued with chronic problems, including poor medical treatment, not to mention Foti’s failure to comply with a series of federal court orders, including one that made strip searching individuals arrested on traffic warrants and other minor violations illegal. There was open and pervasive drug use and beatings by both prisoners and guards. And there were deaths, suicides and sexual assaults. In 2001, Shawn Duncan, who was being held on traffic charges, died by dehydration after being held in restraints for 42 hours. By 2004, on the heels of Foti’s 30-year reign as sheriff, OPP was one of the top five prisons in the nation with regard to substantiated cases of sexual violence. Moreover, it was under Foti that OPP went from a prison population of about 800 to more than 8,000. By contrast, under Gusman, OPP’s population has been reduced from around 6,000 to a little more than 2,000.
•Former Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr., who is White, ran a district attorney’s office with a largely White staff in a city that was and remains majority Black. And while he employed some Black assistant district attorneys, it was not nearly at a ratio that reflected the make-up of the city. However, his successor and former U.S. Attorney and former DA Eddie Jordan was not even free to pick his own staff and was essentially run out of office after serving one term. He resigned in 2007 after he
was found liable in a civil suit lodged by the former employees of the DA’s office who alleged racial discrimination because when he took office in 2003, Jordan fired Connick holdovers to make way for a his own staff—one that was mostly Black, one that better reflected the racial demographics of the city and, with high hopes, one that could have offered a much-needed change from what had become commonplace in Connick’s office, which is now infamous for its notorious practice of withholding key evidence in dozens of cases resulting in the granting of new trials for several defendants and even in the exoneration of former death row inmate John Thompson who served 18 years in prison until evidence withheld in his case by district attorneys working under Connick came to light.
Jordan even faced more criticism for the personnel decisions he made as district attorney than his successor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office Jim Letten has faced in the wake of the shocking scandal that recently rocked his office. Letten was the head of the office when at least two assistant U.S. attorneys, Sal Perricone and Jan Mann, who was known to be vicious, almost terroristic in her prosecution of individuals, took to the Internet with their anonymous online rants and information leaks via nola.com. Their actions certainly affected the meting out of justice. However, despite the scandal’s far-reaching repercussions, Letten, who the local media declared early on would likely remain in the office regardless of who would win the 2012 Presidential election and who has now settled into a cushy spot at Tulane University, emerged essentially unscathed and still appears to be a media darling.
•Former U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson has barely logged one year of his 13-year sentence. And he will have to serve at least 10 more before he is eligible for release. Jefferson’s sentence began nearly three years after he was found guilty on corruption charges and even longer after he became the target of what could only be described as relentless dogging by local mainstream media and criminal investigators all too happy to remind us that Jefferson, who is African-American, and others in his political and social circles were likely headed for a big fall.
His brother Mose, sister Betty, and political ally Renee Gill Pratt were all targets of investigation. Mose Jefferson would die in prison while serving a 10-year sentence. Pratt ha been sentenced to seven years. Betty Jefferson and her daughter were given probation—a fact mostly attributed to the failing health of the daughter and her mother’s role as caretaker. Jefferson will be 76 when he is released from prison.
And while no attempts could ever be made to suggest that the former congressman should not have been punished for wrongdoing, we at The Tribune did a double take when former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard was sentenced. Though the recommended sentence for Broussard’s guilty plea to charges of payroll fraud and theft that took taxpayers fro well over $300,000 ranged from six-and-a-half to a little more than eight years, a federal judge sentenced Broussard to less than four.
Others caught in the sting surrounding Broussard – former Jefferson Parish attorney Tom Wilkinson, former Jefferson Parish CAO Tim Whitmer, and Broussard’s ex-wife Karen Parker – received probation for their parts in the corruption. As local media has reported no lectures or scolding from the bench were delivered as was the case when former city Councilman Oliver Thomas, whose name was widely circulated as a top contender for mayor, pled guilty and was sentenced to 37 months in prison for taking a $20,000 bribe.
•A difference in media treatment of Aaron Broussard and former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was evident during both men’s departure from office. Broussard, who resigned in early 2010 as scuttlebutt regarding a scandal surrounding CAO Tim Whitmer grew, was still treated with kid gloves by the daily newspaper. It would be more than a year before Broussard would receive a target letter from federal investigators that made it clear that the feds had their eyes on him. And until then, Times-Picayune stories about Broussard read more like love letters. One story declared that “Broussard parlayed a tireless work ethic, personal touch and gift for gab into a career that spanned parts of five decades.”
Another, with a headline that read “Aaron Broussard practicing law, keeping low profile” waxed on with upbeat quotes about Broussard from friends and colleagues.
In stark contrast, Nagin was the target of venom and ire from the daily newspaper before and after his departure from City Hall. Some headlines read:
“Mayor Ray Nagin leaves office without fulfilling his promises: to rid City Hall of corruption and launch recovery zones.”
“Ray Nagin’s claims about NOPD crumble under investigation.”
The media outlet also devoted multiple pages to criticizing, if not vilifying Nagin’s post-Katrina offering “Katrina’s Secrets: Storms after the Storm”.
Interestingly enough, Nagin, now indicted on 21 counts of corruption nearly three years after leaving office, was swept into City Hall in 2002 with overwhelming support of the White business elite. His first year or so in office and his so-called efforts to “clean” City Hall were met with great delight by the local daily. Tables turned sharply on Nagin, it seemed, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
First, on Jan. 16, 2006, Nagin openly expressed his desire for New Orleans’ displaced, mostly Black residents to return to the city to take part in the rebuilding process by referring to New Orleans as a “chocolate city.” What’s more, Nagin said “I don’t care what people are saying Uptown (possibly a dig at the “shadow government” busy at work trying to reduce the footprint of New Orleans with plans to turn parts of the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East into green space). This city will be chocolate at the end of the day.”
Secondly, and more damaging for Nagin in the eyes of those that had once supported him than his “chocolate city” comments was the awarding of two multi-million dollar city contracts for sanitation service post-Katrina to two Black-owned firms. And with that, Nagin became dispensable. Without any hard evidence to indicate why they were such a sore spot for some, the details of those contracts would be at the center of both a media storm and appeared to be a target for some members of the City Council intent on deriding the work of the two firms as well as the Nagin administration’s decision to award the contracts to the two Black businessmen, Jimmie Woods of Metro Disposal and Alvin Richard of Richard’s Disposal.
Much was also made of Nagin brother-in-law Cedric Smith being a “top-earner” in the New Orleans Affordable Home Ownership program. As a principal in Smith & Associates Consulting, Smith worked on about a half dozen houses under the NOAH program and billed the city just under $17,800, according to reports.
With that, it wouldn’t be long before the insidious word “patronage” began to slip into The Times Picayune regarding Mayor Nagin. The local paper had already grown accustomed to using it during the terms of the African-American mayors that preceded him, particularly during the tenure of former Mayor Marc Morial, who despite incessant effort of the part of federal investigators as well as constant scrutiny by the media, was never indicted on any charges. Meanwhile, close relatives of the current mayor have been hired to work in City Hall with hardly a mention of impropriety from the mainstream media let alone any reference to so-called “patronage”.
Nothing new . . .
At the height of Reconstruction, more than 2,000 Blacks held political office from the local level all the way to the United States Senate. Soon, vigilante Whites used violence and intimidation to suppress the Black vote. Southern Democrats made unmerited allegations of widespread corruption to disparage Black leadership, and the Republican Party grew tired of protecting the rights of newly freedmen at the risk of their own political success.
By the mid to late 1870s Reconstruction was coming to an end, Blacks were disenfranchised politically, socially and economically. And it would take nearly a century and a civil rights movement before the United States government would dare to fully enforce its own laws protecting the citizenship of African Americans
Black political leadership began to grow across the country on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. And in 1974, 13 Black mayors who had recently been elected to lead southern cities met to form the National Conference of Black Mayors, a group on a mission to enhance the leadership capacity of its member mayors.
However, five years later, the goal of enriching the management skills of Black mayors was overshadowed by another objective—figuring out why so many Black elected officials were being harassed, harangued and investigated. So in 1979, the NCBM met with the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to talk about the harassment of Black elected officials.
It was an issue that continued to concern the NCBM and other Black organizations through the seventies well into the 1980s and beyond, and it was a matter for which there would be a number of examples.
•U.S. Senator Edward Brooke was the subject of prolonged and intense media scrutiny regarding allegations surrounding statements he made about his finances in a divorce deposition. The media coverage of the matter abruptly ended as soon as he lost his re-election bid for a third term.
•In 1978, former U.S. Rep. Charles Diggs, the highest ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the first African-American to be elected to Congress from Michigan and a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, was convicted of kickback and mail fraud charges, re-elected to his seat while awaiting sentencing and then censured. He resigned in 1980. Diggs denied any wrong doing, and many of his supporters contended that his actions were not much different than those of his White colleagues only that he was subject to more intense scrutiny.
•The first African-American to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Congress, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford, Sr. of Tennessee was indicted in 1987 on 19 counts of mail and bank fraud. Ford maintained his innocence, declaring that the $1.5 million in loans he obtained were legitimate business transactions for his family’s funeral home business – not bribes. He was tried and acquitted in 1993, but only after years-long investigations and battling with the U.S. Attorney’s offices in both Memphis and Knoxville. The indictments would come from the Knoxville-based U.S. Attorney’s office. Despite the acquittal, many argued that Ford’s effectiveness in Congress was diminished. He resigned in 1996.
•In 1987, Georgia state Sen. Julian Bond became the target of a federal grand jury investigation after his estranged wife made allegations of drug use by Bond. The issue was pursued hotly by the media and investigated with enthusiasm by law enforcement. Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young was even the subject of a grand jury investigation for so-called obstruction of justice in the case when he initiated a conversation with Bond’s wife over the allegation. It was later reported that Mrs. Bond recanted the allegations and said that she gave the police false information while she was “emotionally distraught.” The investigation ended with no charges filed against either Bond or Young. Still, many questioned whether an allegation stemming from a domestic matter would have been given such prominence by the media or law enforcement had Bond been White.
And those are just a few examples.
“What Black elected officials came to call ‘harassment’ looked different at different times,” Musgrove said in February 2012 interview with the Root.com. “In the years between 1965 and 1974, it looked like police and intelligence-community surveillance and counterintelligence, politically motivated audits by intelligence units within the IRS and ‘dirty tricks’ by the Nixon White House. Approximately three-fourths of the African Americans who sat in Congress during these years experienced at least one of these types of state repression. And in the 1980s and early 1990s, what Black elected officials called ‘harassment’ was the racially disproportionate investigation of official corruption by the Reagan and Bush Justice Departments. One third of the Blacks that served in Congress during this period faced a federal criminal investigation, though only two were indicted and none convicted.”
As Musgrove notes in his book, the contention is not whether some Black politicians deserve to be investigated. However, the disproportionate rate at which Black elected officials are investigated when compared to their White counterparts cannot be overlooked.
In short, are there echoes of harassment ideology today? Musgrove says yes.
“At this very moment, the House Ethics Committee is investigating a number of Black members,” he said in the 2012 Root.com interview. “Now, let me be clear: Some, perhaps even all, of these members should be investigated. I am not equating harassment with innocence. Just because investigations are racially disproportionate does not mean that they will not uncover wrongdoing.
That said, many of the complaints that lead to these Ethics Committee investigations were made by conservative groups with long and questionable histories of filing politically motivated complaints against Democrats and Black Democrats in particular.
In the last three years, well over a dozen Black members of Congress have been investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee. Half of these investigations were filed by the National Legal and Policy Center, a self-described ‘conservative watchdog organization’ founded by movement conservatives Peter Flaherty and Ken Boehm, both veteran leaders of Citizens for Reagan; the Landmark Legal Foundation, an anti-labor, conservative legal group led by Reagan administration veteran and shock jock Mark Levin; and Judicial Watch, a conservative good-government group.
In other words, conservative groups are using the House ethics process to attack their political opposition, and some are downright frivolous.”
Consequences and solutions
To be sure, harassment ideology is real and rearing its ugly head. Again, consider that African-Americans comprise roughly 12 percent of the nation’s population, but barely two percent of its elected officials. Perhaps one reason more African-Americans aren’t elected to office is because the harassment of Black elected officials has had a chilling effect, causing some of the best and brightest up and coming Black leaders to steer clear of public service out of concern that their every move and entire lives will be placed under a microscope.
Also consider that two of the highest-profile and enthusiastically pursued corruption cases connected to elected officials involved former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., both young African-American leaders arguably in the prime of their careers. And while there is no justification for any wrong either may have engaged in, there are serious ramifications for the type of single-minded pursuit of Black elected officials that appears to take place.
First, more and more African Americans begin to buy into the notion that Black elected leaders are more prone to corruption than their White counterparts, which is hardly the case. To the contrary, White elected officials are involved in corruption and scandal as well, and because there are far more White elected officials than Black, it is a safe and mathematical assumption that there are far more corrupt White elected officials. It seems, however, that their transgressions are easily dismissed and forgotten as in the case of the former and censured governor of South Carolina Marc Sanford, a Republican who in 2009 finally admitted that he expended public funds for his private use related to his extramarital affair with his mistress in Argentina. Aside from impeachment proceeding and censure by the South Carolina Legislature, there was no criminal investigation, no charges, and no trial though clearly laws were broken.
On April 2, 2013, Sanford actually won his Republican House primary runoff against fellow Republican Curtis Bostic and will face Democratic Party candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch and Green Party Candidate Eugene Platt a May 7 special election.
With such an example, African Americans must be aware of the menacing and dangerous impact of the harassment of Black elected leaders. It is at once vital that Black citizens and voters hold all elected officials to high standards that reflect the responsibility and confidence placed in them while not being afraid to question why so many Black elected leaders are targets of harassment, investigations and biased media scrutiny.