Political corruption with ties to Lafayette. The GOP capturing both houses of the Louisiana Legislature. Gov. Bobby Jindal coasting to re-election while helping to orchestrate a purge on BESE. Lawmakers struggling with redistricting and a tight budget.
“And those were just the headlines,” Gambit Publisher Clancy Dubos writes in his Top 10 Political Stories of 2011. “The stories behind those headlines made this another year to remember.”
The No. 1 story — it is Louisiana — centered around multiple federal political corruption investigations, a couple stretching into Lafayette:
1. Federal Corruption Investigations — The indictments and convictions can’t come fast enough for citizens who are sick and tired of corrupt politicians, but the feds move at their own deliberate pace. Given the track record of U.S. Attorney Jim Letten & Co., you can’t fault the feds for taking their time. This year saw the convictions of some major political kingpins, and the indictments of several more:
• Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle and post-Katrina contractor (and political hustler) Aaron Bennett pleaded guilty to a bribery scheme in connection with a Plaquemines jail. Ultimately, both men may wind up providing information about corruption cases in other parishes, which will makes their case worth watching in 2012.
• Former New Orleans City Council member Renee Gill Pratt was convicted of conspiring to rip off more than $1 million from taxpayer-funded charities. She got a seven-year sentence while her co-conspirator-turned-government-witness, former Assessor Betty Jefferson, got house arrest. Gill Pratt’s conviction was the final nail in the political coffin of former Congressman “Dollar Bill” Jefferson, kingpin of the Jefferson Political/Crime Family. (Dollar Bill, meanwhile, remains free on bond while he appeals his conviction and 13-year sentence for racketeering and other crimes in Virginia.)
• Former City Hall tech contractor Mark St. Pierre was convicted of all 53 counts of bribery and conspiracy — and later sentenced to more than 17 years in jail. (During the trial, former New Orleans Chief Technology Officer Greg Meffert testified that St. Pierre struck a quid pro quo in 2005 with then-Lafayette Chief Information Officer Keith Thibodeaux, under which LCG would hire one of St. Pierre’s companies, NetMethods, if Meffert would hire Thibodeaux’s wife. Read more here.)
• In Jefferson Parish, former parish prez Aaron Broussard and his ex-wife, along with former parish attorney Tom Wilkinson, now face payroll fraud charges — and that’s the low-hanging fruit.
• In other Jefferson Parish news, former Wildlife Commissioner Henry Mouton pleaded guilty to one count of accepting bribes from an unnamed (read: River Birch) landfill company. Mouton’s plea, along with Broussard’s indictment, are probably just the first steps toward a possible indictment of River Birch owner Fred Heebe.
Other investigations are thought to be focused on former Mayor Ray Nagin and various officials in St. Bernard Parish. As you can see, federal corruption cases could have accounted for most of the Top 10 stories. For Letten, southeast Louisiana is truly a target-rich environment.
2. GOP Gains — Republicans now hold all seven statewide elected offices and a majority in the House and Senate. For the Louisiana GOP, these are the days of miracle and wonder. Now comes the really hard part: governing. The big question that 2012 will answer is whether the party can handle success — or will Republicans, as Caroline Fayard famously gaffed, eat their young?
Read the rest of Gambit’s Top 10 picks here.