The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
New Orleans: Doomed by Corruption?

A major corruption investigation is underway in New Orleans. One by one, businessmen and city officials are being brought to trial under corruption allegations, many of them dating back to former Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration. The Wall Street Journal‘s sources suggest that a broader corruption investigation aimed at Nagin himself may be underway:

Rodney Williams, a New Orleans businessman, pleaded guilty Wednesday to bribery and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in a public-corruption investigation against a former city official named in documents as “Public Official ‘A.’” Two people briefed on the matter say that person is Mr. Nagin. . . .

In 2010, Gregory Meffert, the city’s chief technology officer under Mr. Nagin, pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, and filing a false tax return. Prosecutors said Mr. Meffert accepted bribes in exchange for no-bid technology contracts from the city. Mr. Meffert’s sentencing has repeatedly been postponed.

In June, Frank Fradella, whose companies received millions of dollars in city contracts while Mr. Nagin was in office, pleaded guilty in federal court to securities fraud and conspiring to commit bribery. In his plea agreement, Mr. Fradella agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in an ongoing corruption investigation. A prosecution document that accompanied Mr. Fradella’s plea agreement outlined how he paid bribes—including a $50,000 check—and delivered free granite to “Public Official ‘A.’” The document states that the unnamed official, starting in 2007, “used his office to provide favorable treatment and benefits to Fradella and his business interests.”

If these allegations are true—and that’s looking likely—then they upend the established narrative about Hurricane Katrina. The media wanted to tell the Katrina story as a morality play about the evil and incompetent Bush Administration (to be fair, there was plenty of incompetence to point at). But the real story in southern Louisiana in 2005 was  about the costs of decades of corruption, machine politics, and general negligence by the politicians of the region, who were repeatedly re-elected by voters who had blinded themselves to the deterioration of their own institutions. The allegations against Mayor Nagin might just be what is needed to wake people up to just how murderous and dangerous the climate of corruption and negligence was in New Orleans.

Those following the tragedy of Detroit know that the city was brought low by more than just changes in the global automobile market. Detroit was also raped and looted by its political class. But America by and large has completely failed to come to grips with the ways that viciously exploitative politicians and entrenched political machines are destroying great cities and impoverishing their residents.

Some will see these corruption stories as stories about race. They are wrong. Political machines have been capturing municipal governments in American politics since the 19th century. The majority of these machines have been run by whites, and there is nothing racial about the sociological and political forces that create political systems like those in 19th-century Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and in some of our cities today.

Political courage, reform movements, and aggressive and skilled prosecutors have always been required to break the power of criminal syndicates masking themselves as political organizations. It’s time to revive the vigor and idealism that led people like Theodore Roosevelt to take on Tammany Hall.

Published on December 6, 2012 6:00 pm