My Turn: High Crimes and Misdemeanors

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This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 1, "Short Takes." Find more from that issue here.

New Orleans, March 1, 1987

High Crimes and Misdemeanors 

Last week, Jefferson Parish put up the barricades. New Orleans residents, primarily those in the black community along the parish line, out where the railroad tracks join the Mississippi River levee, woke up to find the public streets to the west blocked by bumpers of steel similar to those found on highway median strips. Jefferson Parish officials made no bones about it. They were tired of criminals coming over from New Orleans. 

This has been a bad season for crime in New Orleans. Uptown residents were terrorized by one set of youths that waited in the azaleas to assault them as they came home from work, from dinner, and the first revels of Mardi Gras. Another gang has been smashing the windows of automobiles, mainly those driven by single women, stopped at the traffic light on Louisiana Avenue, and snatching purses on the run. Perhaps the saddest item was the photograph of a tourist from Iowa, taken moments before her death, found shot and killed on a bright, weekday morning in Louis B. Armstrong Park. 

The Times-Picayune itself, the only daily newspaper in the New Orleans area, has taken out a full page advertisement on the crime problem entitled “TERRIFYING because it’s virtually True . . .” advising readers on how to minimize their risks in such circumstances as “WHILE WALKING,” “IF YOU ARE ATTACKED,” and “IN YOUR CAR.” The advertisement features a cartoon of a middle-aged couple at their front door, she with a pistol, he saying to her, “Honey, I’m gonna take out the trash. Cover me!” 

While all of this ruckus led the City Council to restore positions in the New Orleans police force, these measures were small consolation for neighboring Jefferson Parish, a stretch of reclaimed swampland west of the city featuring the stately homes of Old Metairie, the brick ranchettes of New Metairie, and the shopping complexes of the descriptively named Fat City. This is the domain of hidden powers, of levee boards, bridge police, tax assessors and court clerks, and none more powerful among them than the popular Sheriff Harry Lee. 

Last December, Sheriff Lee announced his plan for curbing crime in the parish over the Christmas holidays. The Times-Picayune reported his press conference on the matter: “Blacks traveling through white neighborhoods in Jefferson Parish will be stopped routinely in an effort to reduce crime, Sheriff Harry Lee said Tuesday. . . .” Lee went on to explain, “If you live in a predominantly white neighborhood and two blacks are in a car behind you, there’s a pretty good chance they’re up to no good.” 

Radio talk shows, newspaper columns and every medium on the board lit up first with indignation (“Adolph Hitler”), then derision (Why not a “visa” for the blacks? Why not one for Harry Lee, he being of Chinese-American descent?), and then, slowly, gathering their courage, in defense of Lee (What business did “they” have over “here” in Jefferson Parish anyway?). Rumor has it that, in the end, the merchants were the ones that stepped in. The prospect of black shoppers boycotting, or even simply avoiding, the stores of Fat City for fear of arrest by the deputies of Harry Lee was too grim to bear. The economics of Christmas, if not its spirit, prevailed. Harry Lee retracted his policy, explaining that he had been misconstrued. Few would bet money, however, that his deputies are not stopping blacks who happen to be driving through white neighborhoods in Jefferson Parish. But it is no longer official. 

In its place, two months later, came the barricades on the Jefferson Parish line. The following day, New Orleans ordered city workers to tear the barriers down, which they promptly did, cheered on by the local residents who picketed the area on a cold winter’s day (locally speaking: 45 degrees). The Jefferson Parish Council chairman (a former agent of the FBI) announced that the barricades would be back in place on Monday, but by the time Monday came cooler heads had prevailed and the barricades have been sidelined. For now. 

The most recent sensation in New Orleans, however, eclipsing the usual bustle over Mardi Gras and the what-have-come-to-be-usual contretemps of the state’s Governor Edwin Edwards, has been the rise and apparent fall of James R. “Jim Bob” Moffett, chairman and chief executive of New Orleans’ only Fortune 500 company, Freeport-McMoran Incorporated. Mr. Moffett moved his corporate headquarters to the city in 1985, at a time when New Orleans was reeling from the embarrassment of its ruinous World’s Fair and much in need of a star. Moffett’s rise to stardom was meteoric, and not undeserved. He spoke out on the city’s crisis in education (led by New Orleans, Louisiana ranks close to last place in educational testing, close to first in teenage pregnancies, close to first in venereal diseases, and close to last in adult literacy). He formed the New Orleans Business Council, through which local enterprises provided public schools with such basic fare as pencils, paper, and electric fans. (Most New Orleans public schools have no air conditioning, although they open in September when the temperature outside is a moist and steady 90 degrees.) He raised money for the symphony, on its last legs with the departure of Phillippe Entremont as its director in 1986. He raised money to reopen the public libraries. He spoke of growth at a time when big oil was shrinking and leaving the city flat. He spoke of corporate responsibility, in this city of Carnival. He spoke on local television, was interviewed by local columnists, and he came across blunt and refreshing. He also made chemical fertilizer in a large plant upriver from New Orleans, and it all but brought him down. 

The fertilizer is made from a phosphate rock, strip-mined in Florida. The mining is not a pretty sight, but that takes place over in Florida and has never played heavily on the conscience of New Orleans. The rock is barged across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River to Freeport’s plant, and to three others, where it is crushed and the phosphoric acid extracted (for fertilizer); the residue, called gypsum, is piled in stacks, indeed mountains, near the banks of the Mississippi. These plants are running out of land on which to pile the gypsum, however, and applied to federal and state authorities for permits to dump it into the river. Unfortunately, the gypsum contains uranium, radium, cadmium, and a long list of toxic materials. Just as unfortunately, it would go into the river upstream of the drinking water intakes for Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, St. James, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, Lafourche, and Plaquemines parishes . . . all tolled, about two million people. 

At first, the applications made no ripple. Then, last March, the Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing in New Orleans and the lid came off. Neighborhood groups that had never used the word “environment” in a sentence showed up in force to protest, to hoist their children onto the podium (“She wants to live to grow old”), to offer petitions with 100 signatures, one with 1,000 signatures. Those are the kinds of numbers that stimulate local politicians, and, by the evening session of the hearing, they, too, were lined up for their turns to speak, and oppose. Thenceforth the rhetoric took on a darker tone. Don’t poison us. We don’t want to glow. 

People began to identify Freeport-McMoran by name. At this point, Jim Bob Moffett, in what may turn out to be the public relations boo-boo of the decade, shot back, in person. Advertisements began appearing on local television in favor of the dumping. “Hello, this is James R. Moffett. . . .” There was nothing wrong with the discharges, the ads asserted; if scientific studies showed anything wrong, the materials would not be dumped. “You have my word on it.” The issue had become personalized. It was about to become even more so. 

Louisiana has always been something of a backwater, part of its charm, it is said. It takes a while for ideas from the rest of the country to find their way here. Small cars never have taken hold. Neither has anything to do with the environment. What was happening in New Orleans was without precedent. It was an awakening, about 15 years after most parts of the country had experienced theirs. Louisiana does have, to be sure, a Department of Environmental Quality, but it has always been funded at a poverty level (about one dollar per resident, the lowest per capita funding for environmental protection in the country, one fourth of the national average; New Jersey, by contrast, spends close to ten dollars a New Jerseyan). So Governor Edwards was relatively safe in appointing as Secretary of the Department, Pat Norton, an environmental enforcement attorney from the Office of the Attorney General. Only Pat Norton did not turn out to be safe. 

After a year of citizen complaints over a hazardous waste incinerator in Baton Rouge, she made an unannounced inspection of the plant site and found the stacks belching smoke, the stench powerful, the control room empty and its operator outside apparently faint from the fumes. She ordered the plant closed. The incinerator hired the Governor’s former law firm, which promptly sued to remove the Secretary from any decisionmaking on the incinerator. The company also hired attorney Dan Burt, fresh from his representation of General Westmoreland, who sued Norton personally for tortious interference with the incinerator’s business (its stock fell on the New York exchange). Secretary Norton became, at one and the same time, a folk hero to Baton Rouge and a pariah to Governor Edwards. Flowers filled her office, offerings from the people, but at the beginning of this year, the Governor dismissed her summarily as “unbalanced” in favor of the environment. 

The firestorm that ensued was as violent as it was unexpected. The Governor had killed a heroine. Although the Governor had hinted at his intended retirement, he was now about to announce his candidacy for re-election. He quickly appointed as new Secretary Martha Madden, who had been, of all things, a lobbyist for the local Sierra Club. The following week, Secretary Madden announced that the permits to dump Jim Bob Moffett’s gypsum would be . . . denied! At a press conference that same week, Edwards professed surprise that New Orleans could have expected otherwise. He loved the environment. How could he be so misunderstood? 

Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, Mr. Moffett hit the ceiling. In a hastily called press conference he accused the state of being a “banana republic,” and characterized the opponents of gypsum dumping as “purple haired ladies in tennis shoes.” He had received death threats over the gypsum issue, he said; he had hired personal bodyguards. He made the evening telecasts, front page on the Times-Picayune. He provoked an avalanche of letters, few of them polite. Bumper stickers appeared reading, “Dump Jim Bob, Not Gypsum.” Pundits around town wondered whether Mr. Moffett would be entitled to workmen’s compensation for an injury to himself on the job; the speculation was that he might not be eligible since the injuries were self-inflicted. 

Jim Bob’s fall from grace, if such is the case, has taken the spotlight, momentarily, from the redoubtable Governor Edwin Edwards, a legend in Louisiana, so popular during his last election and so notorious in his reputation for philandering that, on the crest of his campaign, he quipped that the only way his opponents could stop him was if they caught him in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. For the two years following his re-election, and following his post-election fundraiser in Paris for financial backers to pay the last bills of his record-breaking $17 million dollar campaign, Governor Edwards enjoyed more spotlight than he wished. Indicted on federal racketeering charges for his involvement in the marketing of licenses for private hospitals, his trial proceedings here in New Orleans lasted almost a year, only to end up in a mistrial when the jury was unable to arrive at a unanimous verdict. 

A second trial of the case led to an acquittal, but by that time the state government was bankrupt. World oil prices had dropped 60 percent, and oil revenues provide more than half the state’s revenues. The Governor’s solution was predictably sui generis: gambling casinos in New Orleans and the neighboring parishes. Whether the Governor had this proposal in mind at the time of his re-election — or whether it came to him as revenge for trial evidence showing his frequent trips to Las Vegas to gamble, under an assumed name, out of suitcases filled with unmarked bills — is a matter of local speculation. The fact is that he pushed his casino proposal hard in the state legislature, and lost to an unlikely coalition of black Baptist churches and the white fundamentalists of North Louisiana. 

The Governor then called a special session of the legislature to resolve the fiscal crises, offering no solution of his own, and let the legislators stew. Stew they did, argue they did, and, predictably, came up with nothing. What they came up with, in fact, was in some eyes worse than nothing: carte blanche for the Governor to cut and choose as he wished among the state programs in order to make ends meet. This authority is the stuff of patronage, and the Governor subsequently, following his announcement for reelection, restored full funding for educators, minority programs, and the state police . . . his bedrock constituencies. 

The new Governor’s race is now a woolly affair, with three entrants from Louisiana’s federal congressional delegation (Representatives Bob Livingston, Buddy Roemer, and Billy Tauzin), the Secretary of State (a super-clerical position in Louisiana, but one with the considerable power of public exposure; all state documents arrive embossed with a large seal, signed “Jim Brown, Secretary of State,” as does the Secretary of State’s newsletter), and the Governor himself. The anomaly of the race is that Rep. Tauzin has been a longstanding Edwards ally, a fact fueling the view that the Governor is only announcing for re-election in order to keep the legislature in line. Following the session, they say, he will retire in favor of his ally, Tauzin. To be sure, a somewhat byzantine way to proceed, but, for Louisiana, politics as usual.