It's not unusual for Southern politics to go through a few weeks tainted by scandal. But over the last month, a veritable popcorn machine of crooked deals and moral failings have burst across the region's headlines, leaving even the most jaded politicos aghast.

Exhibit A here in North Carolina has been the fall of Democratic kingpin and former House Speaker Jim Black, sentenced to five years in prison for campaign finance misdeeds (the judge said he deserved "twice that.") In a statement, the advocacy group Democracy North Carolina argued that the issue goes deeper than Black's penchant for shady deals with optometrists:

The ugly story of former Speaker Jim Black's abuse of power is not yet finished. New evidence of possible corruption involving a high-powered lobbyist linked to the video-poker industry demands the immediate and full attention of state and federal prosecutors.

From the beginning, Democracy North Carolina has pushed to hold the donors of illegal money accountable, not just the politicians. Now, with the revelation of a $500,000 "loan" from a video-poker lobbyist, we have come full circle from our original complaint in June 2004 alleging a conspiracy by the video-poker industry to funnel illegal donations into Jim Black's campaign. [...]

Corruption is fundamentally a crime against democracy, against we-the-people and our ability to have honest, fair self-government. It must be rooted out and defeated.

Republicans -- especially of the "family values" variety -- have had an even tougher time. The top story, of course, has been Louisiana Sen. David Vitter's fondness for women in the world's oldest profession. As if the disconnect between Vitter's moral crusades and adventures in prostitution wasn't enough, we now learn that Vitter may have been making pay-for-booty calls while voting in the House chambers:

Telephone records released by Deborah Jeane Palfrey indicate she placed calls that were answered by Vitter's Washington phone on five occasions while Vitter was in the House, from 1999 through 2001. On four of those five days, the House was in session and Vitter participated in every roll call vote.

In an odd statement, Vitter's colleague Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), openly worried that he "could be next," and went on to say D.C. can be a "lonely and isolating place." But Vitter is hardly alone:

* Last month, GOP Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani's top man in South Carolina, Thomas Ravenal, was indicted on federal cocaine charges -- the third scandal to rock the campaign (Vitter was his top Giuliani's staunchest Southern supporter)

* Sen. John McCain's campaign has also been touched by what conservatives might call "moral relativism" -- the co-chair of his Florida operation, state Rep. Bob Allen (R), was recently busted for soliciting a male undercover police officer.

* North Carolina Republicans haven't been left out: Rep. David Almond (R) abruptly resigned yesterday after undisclosed "serious" charges of sexual impropriety surfaced -- which must have come as a shock to the conservative NC Family Policy Council ("a voice for traditional family values") which gave him a perfect score in their 2006 voter guide (pdf).

Exposing hypocrisy never grows old, but the focus on personal moral failings may distract us from more important issues. In his piece "Forget Sen. Vitter's Penis; Follow His Money," Denny Wilkins offers a laundry list of Sen. Vitter's dealings outside the bordellos of New Orleans and D.C. that represent deeper scandals:

Defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which says it currently employs more than 17,000 shipbuilding professionals, primarily in Louisiana and Mississippi, has received $4.3 billion in federal contracts during Sen. Vitter's time in Congress. Over that time, Northrop has given Sen. Vitter $38,050 in campaign contributions.

McDermott International, an engineering and construction company with facilities in Morgan City and New Orleans, received $354 million in federal contracts. It gave Sen. Vitter $35,250 in campaign contributions.

Edison Chouest Offshore, an offshore vessel service company founded in Galliano, La., received about $66.6 million in federal contracts during Sen. Vitter's service in Congress. The company is the largest campaign contributor to Sen. Vitter at $84,526. [...]

Sen. Vitter serves on the Committee on Environment and Public Works and its Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety. Energy PACs gave him money. Duke Energy gave him $10,000 for his Senate campaign. Centerpoint Energy gave him $3,500. El Paso Corp., which owns North America's largest natural gas pipeline system, gave him $6,500. Entergy Corp., which seeks a revival of the nuclear power industry, gave him $7,000. Overall, the oil and gas industries have given him $459,085 and the electric utility industry $110,666.

There's more where that came from. How did he do it all?