Race, politics color New Orleans probe

Mayor's pledge to rid corruption seen as `assault' by black pastors

March 07, 2004|By Scott Gold | Scott Gold,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS - This city, which over the years has seen its share of corruption, did not get terribly worked up when word first leaked that investigators were looking into whether shady deals and cronyism had plagued the former mayor's administration.

But everything changed last month when federal agents drew their guns and used a battering ram to burst into the French Quarter home of Jacques Morial - brother of former Mayor Marc H. Morial and a member of one of New Orleans' most prominent black families - searching for computer files and documents.

In the weeks since, the city has become enmeshed in a debate over the politics of race and the definition of progress.

A coalition of 30 black pastors denounced the early-morning raid, asserting that authorities have treated white defendants with more restraint and respect. And they have used the corruption investigation as a springboard for a wide-ranging dialogue on race.

"I look at this as more than one investigation," said the Rev. Tom Watson of Watson Memorial Teaching Ministry. "This is a spiritual assault, an assault across America, an assault on black men."

Their criticism has been aimed with particular fervor at current New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who was elected in 2002 after the eight-year reign of the charismatic Morial.

Nagin, who is black, swept into office on a pledge to rid City Hall of corruption. But the pastors allege that since his election, he has turned his back on New Orleans' black citizens, failing to provide adequate support for community policing, for instance, and curtailing operations at the city's African-American museum.

A spokesman for the mayor denied the allegations. He said that the only thing under "assault" is the notion that one must be a member of a back-room, good old boys' network to get a share of city business.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who helps run the federal government's law enforcement activities in the region, would not confirm the investigation. But City Hall and law enforcement sources said that investigators have cast a wide net to gauge the integrity of numerous public contracts enacted in recent years.

The probe is focused largely, the sources said, on business executives and attorneys with close ties to the Morial administration. The executives reportedly had a hand in municipal business during Morial's tenure, from food and beverage concessions at Louis Armstrong International Airport to the city's negotiations to lease land for a casino.

It is unclear why Jacques Morial, a longtime confidant to his brother, was among those subjected to a search warrant. He did not return calls seeking comment.

Marc Morial, now president of the New York-based National Urban League, also declined to comment.

The criminal division of the Internal Revenue Service in New Orleans led the raid. Michael Nelson, the special agent in charge of the division, also would not comment. However, Letten said that it was "certainly our belief that under the circumstances, the agents acted within the standards set for them by law and policy."

Letten reacted angrily to allegations that his office was motivated by race and politics; the criticism, he said, was designed to "create and exploit fears" in the black community. He pointed out that his office had routinely tackled difficult and politically delicate corruption cases. Most, he said, targeted whites, from former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards to former gubernatorial candidate and Ku Klux Klan Wizard David Duke.

"We are guided by principles of equity and justice only," Letten said. "We are truly colorblind and are not influenced or motivated by politics or political considerations."

Rory Verrett, a New Orleans native, said the city was going through growing pains.

"The mistrust is well-founded, in some ways. You have a history of segregation in this city," he said. "But we are at a transition point right now, and some people don't understand that paradigm. They are still feeding off that mistrust. But it doesn't have to be us versus them."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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