Thursday, December 18, 2008

"From the Stink of the Diddie to the Stench of the Shroud, There is Always Something ..."

War broke out between the states
And they joined up with Quantrill.
And it was over in Clay County
That Frank and Jesse finally learned to kill.
-- Warren Zevon,
Frank and Jesse James
A parlor-game question arising from the highly entertaining (and much-needed!) Blagojevich diversion is whether Illinois is the most corrupt state in the union. This would seem to lead to a subjective judgment that in the end would escape empirical verification, yet Slate’s Jacob Weisberg gave it a whack recently by comparing Blagojevich’s homestate with Louisiana, which, as Weisberg notes, has a long history of “flamboyant and shameless” political corruption. Weisberg cites statistics compiled by Corporate Crime Reporter showing Louisiana led the nation from 1997-2006 with 326 federal corruption convictions, but suggests Blagojevich-era Illinois has “gone carnival” (nice phrase!) and is on the verge of snatching the crown.

We know nothing of Illinois---we’ve visited there a few times and believe it to be somewhere well north of Arkansas---but we do possess a small bit of knowledge of the political folkways of Texas’ neighbor to the east. Although a Texan by birth and bent of mind, we spent our formative years, and some deformative ones, across the Sabine in the Hub City. Growing up in the middle-class suburbs there did not necessarily gift us with any insight into the political workings of the state, although we took an early interest in government and can still do a fairly exact impersonation of the late Warren J. “Puggy” Moity. (“Ol’ Puggy ain’t gonna lie to ya,” we often heard the antic private dick-cum-scandal sheet publisher intone during the 30-minute rants he would air on local TV stations on Saturday afternoons, during which he’d cut loose with all manner of libel and invective against state and local politicians [some of it non-judgment proof].) No, everything we know about Louisiana politics---and lots that we know about human nature---we learned at our first reporting job, on the Atakapalousa Tribune,* in Atakapalousa* ("300 bars and One Church," as the saying went), the parish seat of St. Erastus Parish.* It was one of the best educational experiences we’ve ever had, and although our two years there seemed agonizingly long at the time, looking back we wish we had been more attentive and in the moment, rather than wasting our time plotting how we were going to get to the New York Times, or at least the Shreveport Journal (neither of which, alas, were takers).

St. Erastus, which sits less than a half-hour drive to the north of the Hub City but was several decades removed in socioeconomic development, was generally believed to be the second most corrupt parish in Louisiana, after Jefferson Parish outside of New Orleans, which was controlled by “Mob boss Carlos Marcello.” (We believe that was his full name.) Mob Boss Marcello’s tentacles were said to stretch far westward to St. Erastus, primarily through some undocumented and unspecified interest in the two whorehouses---what a quaint term!---that operated openly, flagrantly, in the parish.** One was near the parish line to the south, out on the main highway and up the road from the thoroughbred track outside the Hub City (the track has since moved to Atakapalousa, after Hub City voters refused to allow casino gambling on the premises); the other, called “The Spot,” was deep in the woods near the levee along the Atachamattamapa,* supposedly the swiftest-flowing river in the U.S. (They had a big “rock festival” on its banks in ’70 or ’71 and six or so naked hippies drowned after jumping in for a swim---true story.) We had seen no actual proof Marcello had a hand in these or other sporting endeavors in the locality, but back then we believed that he did and we believe it to this day. (We never patronized either establishment, because at the time we wouldn’t think of actually paying for it, and besides, we were only pulling down $195 a week.***)

We arrived in Atakapalousa with a freshly obtained college degree, some unremarkable clips from our college paper, and as stupid as a telephone pole. Our second or third week at the paper the editor told us to call the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the elder of a local German-Jewish merchant family, who had a tip for us: The newly sworn-in mayor and his father were set to make $10,000 (if we remember correctly) for handling the legal work on a big bond issue the city council had just approved. (At the time $10,000 would have seemed like a lot of money to us, so it might have been more.) We remember sitting with the kindly old city comptroller, an honest but wary wage-earner with a hangdog look, requesting he supply us with the pertinent documents and having him clarify for us just exactly how a “municipal bond issue” worked. It turned out that while the mayor had pushed for the debt issue he had abstained from voting on it, thus absolving himself of any direct conflict under the law as it was then written.

The mayor was just a little older than us---a big, friendly, boyish guy who had made his name as quarterback on the Tulane squad that was the first to beat LSU since’48, something like that. Someone---probably the Chamber of Commerce guy, who must have had a long-standing beef with the mayor’s big-shot lawyer father---requested that the D.A. investigate after our story appeared. But the D.A., as the mayor told us with a noticeable sheepishness, was his “godfather,” so the matter was somehow kicked to the attorney general---a good friend or distant blood relation of the mayor’s father, according to the mayor (who, again, related this circumstance with matter-of-fact embarrassment). Nothing came of it, of course, not that we figured it would, and the mayor (now a big-time plaintiff’s attorney) remained friendly and became a decent source for us. But the incident did leave us with a greater appreciation of Coppola’s Godfathers I and II, particularly Michael’s warning to Fredo to never go against the family, and it gave us a heads-up to the murk we’d be blindly wading into for the next couple of years.

There was always something similar afoot, and a sizable cast of raffish characters, a real-life Runyonesque crew with country Cajun accents. It wasn’t like we were a crack investigative reporter, although we could be industrious when aroused; the stuff just fell in our hands and those of other reporters, like overripe fruit. It helped that there was no competition---the Tribune (long since swallowed into the Gannett maw) had the place to itself---and that our editor was a decent guy with solid news instincts. He was the kind of crusty old-school journalist who chain-smoked his way through his second bout of cancer (we were surprised to learn a few years ago that he was still among the living) and was generally fearless in pursuing stories, a stance that’s not easy to maintain in an incestuous (often literally) small town. (He lost his job, of course, before we vacated the premises, and the chain owner replaced him with a pious, pud-faced Baptist from Mississippi who began running a “Bible verse of the day” on the front page.)

Yes, there was corruption a’plenty: Most hilariously, the boat ramp that the police jury (county commission) president had quietly built with public funds on private property for a friendly constituent---an “ol’ boy,” as the official explained to us, who had some disability that prevented him getting over to the public ramp down the road (perhaps this was just an early example of privatization). The story prompted a number of complaints from other boat owners wondering where their taxpayer-funded boat ramps were, and the police jury president, a jowly, humorless Boss Hogg type, decided not to seek re-election.

More seriously, there was as the long-running story that we worked on with our good pal Mike of the $25,000 bribe that Clyde Vidrine, an aide to Gov. Edwin Edwards during his first term, claimed had been given to Edwards (in cash, in a brown paper bag, of course) to clear the way for the permitting of a toxic waste dump in the middle of the woods in the parish directly to the north of St. Erastus. A year or so earlier Vidrine had written and published Just Takin’ Orders: A Southern Governor's Watergate, a book of much statewide notoriety in which he alleged numerous finely detailed instances of felonious behavior in the Edwards administration. The bribe had been touched on briefly by Bill Lynch, an investigative reporter for the New Orleans States-Item (RIP), who suggested there was a lot more to the story and we should pursue it. Mike had stumbled into the Vidrine connection when he been pulling string on the mysterious dump site after it appeared on the EPA’s first Superfund clean-up list---no one locally, not even the residents of a nearby trailer park, knew of its existence. Out of the blue he got a call from Vidrine, who had returned to his nearby hometown after his banishment from Baton Rouge. “You kind of stepping into my pasture there,” Vidrine told Mike. We eventually met up with Vidrine---framed on the cinder-block walls of his drafty "office" were the same pictures that appeared in his book of him with Myron Cohen and Ann-Margaret---and later traveled to Baton Rouge to interview Edwards. We cannot get our hands on the clips, but if memory serves Edwards never directly denied that money exchanged hands for the permit but dismissed the matter with his usual line of charming BS, claiming that if there was a bag of money left in his office “Clyde” had taken it and blown it all on booze and whores. We do remember being somewhat underdressed for the interview, appearing in the gubernatorial office in our skeevy leather jacket and black Chuck Taylor high-tops. The governor asked where we’d acquired our footwear. Many years later his charm would wear thin and his wit would not save him.

Near the end of our apprenticeship in St. Erastus we got a call from somebody at the U.S. Attorney’s office, which was all the way up in Shreveport, a good five-hours drive away before the completion of the interstate, telling us to request File No. so-and-so and that it might make a good story. It turned out the Justice Department had been quietly investigating a local school trustee for a while and was about to strike a plea bargain with the man. It would be the first time the feds had prosecuted a vote-buying case under the Voting Rights Act. The infraction involved the purchase of the ballots of 60 or so black voters in Atakapalousa, who (memory fails us here) had been given some kind of gratuity---maybe $5 or $10---for their help in ensuring the white board member was elected. The trustee’s brother was the superintendent of schools, and their family had a wholesale and retail gasoline business that contracted with the school district and other local governments. The trustee avoided jail time but had to resign his seat, a grievous inconvenience for the family. We had not initiated the investigation, just written about it at length---and pretty much the way the assistant U.S. Attorney told it----but the episode seriously soured our relation with then ex-trustee, who thereafter would greet us only with an icy “Hey … babe …” that we found both funny and faintly menacing. (The last time we saw the old boy he was hosting a show on the local cable access channel---who says there’s no second acts in American life?)

A couple days after the court case concluded we were walking in front of the courthouse when we ran into one of the state district judges, a crotchety, spiteful old asshole whose father had been a judge, grandfather had been a judge, etc. (and whose extended family was the one supposedly maligned by Huey Long for allegedly having “black blood,” a remark which by legend if not fact led to Long’s assassination by a family in-law). The judge said he had read our stories, chucked a bit, then turned contemplative: “Y’know, in the old days we’d just give the niggers a chit before they went to vote---like a, a … wooden chit,” he recalled, almost wistfully, “and later we’d let ’em re-deem it for a glass of whiskey.” Such is democracy.

There were many other stories---some too complicated to explain here, some the particulars too lost to memory for quick-and-dirty retrieval---but one of the most telling involved the sports editor at the Tribune. On one Super Sunday the state police---or maybe it was the feds---raided a downtown bar that had made what seemed to us to be exceptionally large book on the game. From under the glass on the bar the authorities confiscated a check for $1,000 made out by the sports editor to the bookmaking barkeep.

The sports editor was a lightly closeted gay guy---sort of mean-prissy, overly dramatic, just an obviously full-on gay dude, but damned for near-eternity to be sports editor of a small newspaper in a nowhere town in the late 1970s (which in retrospect fills us with wonder and a sort of admiration that he managed to pull it off, at least adequately---he got the scores right---in that environment). He was the queen of his small fiefdom and something of a load. Late at night, when the newsroom was clear of all but the sportswriters and yours truly and our hard-working pal Mike, the sports editor had a bad habit of loudly deploying the word “nigger” when grousing about some high school athlete or another. This would send Mike, who was and is an upright dude, around the bend and right up into the sports editor’s face. The sports editor would respond with a torrent of vituperative bitchiness. All this caused us to look with some disfavor on the boy.

When it came time for the bookie’s trial, the sports editor was called to testify about the forever-uncashed check he had written. For the next day’s paper, down in the story but not too far down, we wrote the following paragraph: “R---r B----t, who identified himself as the sports editor of the Atakapalousa Tribune, testified about a $1,000 check …” Etc. We wrote it that way for a laugh, figuring our editor would fix it for us, but as with too much off the under-deadline crap we churned out each day (5, maybe 6 stories, all written between 8 a.m. and the 11:30 a.m. deadline and baked in Camel filters and black coffee), it sailed right on to the front page, unmolested. Now we realize that our editor, who also did not care for the sports guy, probably left it that way intentionally.

That afternoon the sports editor stormed into the office, slammed down a stack of fresh papers on his desk and bellowed, at us and everyone else in earshot, “Why the fuck did you put in that I ‘identified myself as the sports editor’ …?”

We had no ready answer other than the truth: “Well, you did … I mean the prosecutor asked you to identify yourself, and that’s what you said,” we replied. “And y’know …,” we added, unconsciously articulating the secret motto of the true Louisianan, “I just couldn’t help myself.”

*To cover all behinds, mostly ours, we have changed the locale names just a bit here.

**The district attorney, a Georgetown Law grad who favored gaudy checkered sports jackets, once told us that the whorehouses were allowed to operate "because that's what the people want." This was during the same surreal conversation when he informed us, without elaborating, that his wife was Sicilian.

***Although this is irrelevant to our story, we did patronize on an evening or two a topless bar in the vicinity of the racetrack called The Galloping Jugs. We just wanted to record that name for posterity.

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