Joseph Impastato conceded he took the two cashier's checks worth $85,000. The whole thing was captured on tape by the FBI, so it would have been difficult to deny.
But it was no kickback, the councilman from St. Tammany Parish said. It was business.
When he cut a deal to receive half the money from a government contract to haul away hurricane debris, Impastato said, he was acting as a private businessman, not a public official.
Federal prosecutors are not buying it — and neither apparently is the Louisiana public. After a federal grand jury indicted Impastato on felony extortion charges last month, making him the first Louisiana politician accused of Hurricane Katrina corruption, citizens condemned him in newspapers and on talk radio and the Internet as an embarrassment to his home state.
"He's got to be a real lowlife to do something like that at a time like this," Frank White, a 62-year-old retired fire captain from the suburb of Chalmette, said in an interview. "It's the Louisiana way of doing business, I guess. But there is a quiet majority now that's sick and tired of this. People are fed up with these crooks."
In Louisiana, which has a history of political shenanigans so rich and colorful that it has become a part of American folklore, people long have laughed off misbehaving politicians as a fact of life, every bit as inevitable as death and taxes.
But as the state lobbies Washington for more money to rebuild ravaged towns and cities, citizens are realizing that Louisiana's well-earned penchant for dirty politics has exacted a steep price: It has badly damaged the credibility of the recovery effort.
"Frankly, the reputation in Washington is, if we send money down there, it will just get stolen," said political handicapper Charles E. Cook, a Louisiana native who has worked in the nation's capital for more than three decades. "It is a caricature of Louisiana politics that is not entirely undeserved but is grossly exaggerated. No one cared about it much before Katrina. But right now, it's hurting the state enormously."
A major turning point in public attitude came in 2001 when Edwin Edwards, the former four-term Democratic governor, received a 10-year sentence for taking bribes for riverboat gambling licenses. In the last governor's race, both candidates — Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco beat Republican Bobby Jindal — were considered squeaky clean, and promised government reforms. The distaste for dirty government has really picked up momentum since last summer.
"What was tolerated before Katrina is not necessarily tolerated now," said pollster Silas Lee III, a professor at Xavier University here. "Nerves are raw. People have lost their sense of security and direction. They are living a day-to-day existence, and they have little patience for any politician who is perceived as being corrupt."
In addition to Edwards, in the last decade Louisiana has seen an attorney general, a congressman, a state Senate president, a federal judge and countless local officials convicted of corruption. Louisiana's last three state insurance commissioners wound up in prison for offenses that include lying to the FBI, accepting $2 million in illegal campaign contributions and taking bribes — prompting jokes that future candidates should make sure they look good in stripes.
Jim Letten, the U.S. attorney for eastern Louisiana and the lead prosecutor in the Edwards case, sees the convictions as a sign of progress. Wherever he goes, he said, he is greeted by people — black, white, Latino, Asian — who tell him Louisiana needs to clean up its act.
"I am not sure that Louisiana has measurably more corruption than other [regions], but surely we have a reputation for being tolerant of it," said Letten, a member of the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force, a team of federal, state and local law enforcement officials investigating scams and corruption.
Until recently, Louisiana politicians proved that charisma trumped scruples. Their repeated election victories, despite corruption allegations in many instances, showed that Louisiana voters viewed the ethical transgressions of their elected officials as an amusing spectacle.
T. Wayne Parent, a political science professor at Louisiana State University and author of "Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics," said citizens accepted corrupt politicians because they were effective in providing government services, and the cash they were pocketing was not believed to be taxpayer money.
"Maybe some politician was making a deal with the devil, but that was money from some oil and gas company, or so people thought. By the late 1980s, people realized, maybe it was our money," said Parent, who believes the change in attitude has been slowly building over the last quarter-century.
Huey Long, the Depression-era demagogue who dominated every level of Louisiana government by bullying or buying off anyone who got in his way, joked that "one of these days the people of Louisiana are going to get good government — and they aren't going to like it."
Known as the Kingfish, Long was impeached as governor in 1929 on charges of bribery and gross misconduct but narrowly avoided punishment — reportedly by bribing several state senators. Elected a U.S. senator in 1930, he was assassinated in 1935 in Baton Rouge by the son of a judge who was about to be gerrymandered out of a job.
Earl Long, his eccentric brother, kept the family's Democratic political machine running into the 1960s. He once remarked that Louisiana voters "don't want good government; they want good entertainment."
He served three terms as governor, spending some of the last term in a mental hospital, where his wife had him committed after he took up with Blaze Starr, a stripper.
Edwards, who survived two trials and 22 grand jury investigations in his four terms as governor, boasted that the only way he could lose was if he were "caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."
When he ran against former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, the Republican candidate, in 1991, Edwards supporters printed bumper stickers saying: "Vote for the crook. It's important."
The "crook" handily won. But he was eventually sent to prison for taking bribes after Eddie DeBartolo Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, testified that he had paid Edwards $400,000 to land a casino license.
Even now, during the state's ultimate hour of need, some Louisiana citizens say they could stomach a crooked politician — as long as he was competent.
"I'll tell you what, I'd take Edwin Edwards in a minute to get us out of this mess," said Gid Brill, 65, a tool salesman from Belle Chasse. "He might skim off $10 million for himself, but he'd know what to do with the rest of the money."
Such attitudes do not go over well in Washington, where some Republican lawmakers speak of Louisiana as if it were a banana republic.
Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), who sits on the pivotal appropriations committee which oversees all major spending bills, compared fraud in Louisiana to fraud in Iraq. During town hall meetings in his home state last year, he repeatedly said that Louisiana and New Orleans had "the most corrupt governments in our country."
State lawmakers last year sought $250 billion from Congress for recovery and reconstruction in a proposal criticized as a grab-bag of pork-barrel projects. President Bush said Thursday the federal government had approved $85 billion in aid to the Gulf Coast. Louisiana's congressional delegation has contended that is not nearly enough, and continues to press for more.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) said that the corruption, while historically accurate, has been magnified by Republicans in Washington who do not want to help Louisiana. "I don't want to discount that the image carries the scars of our past. But we have emphatically turned the corner," Landrieu said.
Citing the corruption scandal in the nation's capital centering on GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Landrieu added, "Republicans in Washington should clean up their own house before using Louisiana's past reputation an excuse for not wanting to rebuild the Gulf Coast."
Not surprisingly, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) sized up the situation differently.
"It's not fiction — we have had some real corruption issues here in the past, and to some extent we still do today," Vitter said. "My colleagues in Washington want assurances that money is going to be spent wisely, given those issues, and I don't think it's too much to ask."
Government statistics indicate that Louisiana is one of the most corrupt states in the country. From 1995 to 2004, federal prosecutors won 310 corruption convictions involving public servants and citizens in Louisiana, said a report by the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department. That was far from the highest total: California prosecutors logged 871. But California is a state of 36 million people, nine times the population of Louisiana.
In the last month alone, federal prosecutors have been busy bringing corruption charges against Louisiana public servants. Two sheriffs deputies who worked at a Gretna jail were sentenced last week after confessing to taking bribes — part of an ongoing federal probe dubbed "Operation Wrinkled Robe," which seeks to ferret out jail and courthouse corruption. The investigation already has resulted in the conviction of a former state judge.
Last Friday, a federal grand jury indicted a former New Orleans police officer caught driving a stolen pickup, one of about 200 Cadillacs and Chevys looted from a dealership after Katrina. Witnesses reported seeing officers drive away in the vehicles. A state grand jury is also investigating the case, along with other allegations of looting by law enforcement officers.
Brett Pfeffer, a former aide to Rep. William Jefferson, a New Orleans Democrat, pleaded guilty two weeks ago to bribing an unnamed congressman on behalf of a small telecommunications company. Jefferson has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing.
Impastato's trial is scheduled to begin next month. He pleaded not guilty Jan. 10 to federal charges that he extorted money from a businessman after helping him land a contract to remove debris. If convicted of the charge, as well as related counts of conspiracy and money laundering, he could face up to 20 years in prison.
The indictment said Impastato arranged with Lee Paul Mauberret of the Pontchartrain Chipping Yard to split the $200,000 contract. A relative of Mauberret's balked at paying the kickback, and Mauberret called the FBI, which set up the sting.
Impastato, 33, continues to serve his second term on the council in St. Tammany Parish, next to New Orleans on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. He declined to discuss the case when reached at Sal & Judy's, his family's Italian restaurant, where he makes a living running a business selling tomato sauces and olive oil.
His lawyer, Karl Koch, said Impastato did not "use his official capacity in any way" to enrich himself, and witnesses would testify that Impastato did a fair amount of the hurricane cleanup work himself. Impastato's critics said his actions — legal or not — set back the state's efforts to repair its reputation.
"Impastato should have avoided this at all costs. Especially given the current climate and attitude in Washington toward Louisiana," St. Tammany resident Dana Deris wrote on a blog carried on the New Orleans Times-Picayune website. "He IS guilty of furthering the negative image of Louisiana."
Outside a grocery store a few blocks from Sal & Judy's, Robert Keys, 72, shook his head.
"I'd love to be the judge on that one," said Keys, a 41-year resident of St. Tammany Parish. "A snake is going to take advantage of this opportunity right now, because there's a lot of money flying around loose. I guess the question is whether it was a legal shakedown or not. But either way, he's still a snake."
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