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Louisiana Works on Cleaning Up Political Act

Looking back, many of the candidates listed on the state's ballot 12 years ago could easily form a historical Hall of Shame - a large proportion of them are behind bars or on their way.

Along with former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who won his fourth term in 1991, two other winners in statewide races are in federal prison. A third now faces state corruption charges. And two election losers from that year, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, have either served or are about to serve federal terms.

With statewide elections this fall, some are cautiously speculating that Louisiana is finally shaking its sorry legacy of political corruption.

"We're basically at rock bottom," said Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission of Greater New Orleans, a private watchdog group.

"We're starting to rebuild our national reputation as a business community. The way we are going about it is to reform our politics, with an assistance from the FBI and the U.S. attorney," he said.

In October, Edwards began serving a 10-year sentence for extorting applicants for casino licenses. About the same time, former Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown went to prison for six months for lying to the FBI during an investigation of a liquidated insurance company.

Brown was the third consecutive insurance commissioner to be put behind bars. Doug Green is still serving 25 years in federal prison for taking $2 million in illegal campaign contributions. His predecessor, Sherman Bernard, served 30 months for taking bribes disguised as campaign contributions.

Duke, who once served as a state House member, is scheduled to begin serving a 15-month federal sentence on April 15. He pleaded guilty to a tax charge and a mail fraud charge stemming from abuse of his political contributors' money.

Former Elections Commissioner Jerry Fowler is serving a five-year sentence from taking kickbacks from voting machine suppliers. His old office is being abolished next year with its functions transferred to the secretary of state.

Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom currently is fighting state charges alleging bribery, misusing state property and filing false public records. Odom, who faces re-election this fall, has denied wrongdoing.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said he hopes the state's prosecutions of politicians have a twofold effect: deterring other corrupt officials and giving the public the faith to report bribe attempts.

"We're demonstrating for citizens that corruption is not the order of the day and it will be aggressively prosecuted and punished," Letten said. "As a byproduct of that, we are seeing a push for reform and an end to citizen apathy."

Last summer, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced a crackdown on City Hall corruption, swamping the crime commission with hundreds of tips, including many referred to the FBI, Goyeneche said.

"There is a growing sense of urgency in the business community to change our image as the corruption capital of the United States. We have noticed a dramatic shift in public opinion with more high-level businessmen calling in and reporting corruption," Goyeneche said.

Federal authorities also are looking at the operations of New Orleans public schools and allegations of corruption in the judicial system in suburban Jefferson Parish.

There have been other successful prosecutions of state officials over the past 60 years, starting with the 1939 mail-fraud conviction of Gov. Richard Leche. But over the long term, the state's wink-and-a-nod attitude toward corruption remained largely intact.

What's different now?

"I believe people's expectations are higher and they are expecting honesty and integrity from our public officials," Goyeneche said. "They're beginning to get it."