September 26, 2005

IS THIS PORK?

Louisiana’s congressional delegation has requested $40 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, about 10 times the annual Corps budget for the entire nation, or 16 times the amount the Corps has said it would need to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 hurricane.

Louisiana Sens. David Vitter (R) and Mary Landrieu (D) tucked the request into their $250 billion Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief and Economic Recovery Act, the state’s opening salvo in the scramble for federal dollars.

The bill, unveiled last week, would create a powerful “Pelican Commission” controlled by Louisiana residents that would decide which Corps projects to fund, and ordered the commission to consider several controversial navigation projects that have nothing to do with flood protection. The Corps section of the Louisiana bill, which was supported by the entire state delegation, was based on recommendations from a “working group” dominated by lobbyists for ports, shipping firms, energy companies and other corporate interests.

This needs to be a non-starter. It is, to me, an open and under-debated question whether the federal government should fund the rebuilding of New Orleans — I’m inclined to agree with the polls that say it shouldn’t — but this is a naked grab for money by the very political establishment whose corruption and ineptitude led to the problems in the first place. It should be slapped down fast and hard.

UPDATE: Reader Ric Locke emails:

I dunno, Glenn. Maybe you’re too hasty.

The rule in Louisiana has generally been that twenty percent goes to the relevant officials. In the case of a big project, that means that after the Congressional delegation, the State people, and all the city/parish locals, what’s left is 0.8 * 0.8 * 0.8 = a little over half for the actual work.

Contractors then take over, and you have, e.g., four loads of fill dirt delivered but pay for five.

Let’s give them most or even all of it, but with a proviso that they have to put up a Web site on which /every penny/ is accounted for, down to front-and-back scans of every invoice paid. There’s bound to be one or two public-spirited anal retentives detail-minded folk willing to go over it. The result would either be enough indictments to clean-sweep the whole bunch, or a New New Orleans twenty meters above sea level, made entirely of gold-plated titanium, and covered with a dome for full-city air conditioning. Either one would be fun to have, no?

Heh. I know which is more likely . . . .

In a related item, John Fund writes that it’s time for the feds to clean up corruption in Louisiana:

Despite assurances from President Bush, “the government is fighting this war [on waste] with Civil War weapons, and we’re just overwhelmed,” Joshua Schwartz, co-director of the George Washington University Law School’s procurement law program, told Knight Ridder. Democrats are already scoring political points. Rep. David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, is lamenting the lack of accountability in the aid package. He is calling for “the beginning of some new thinking” on how to handle disaster relief.

Put bluntly, the local political cultures don’t engender confidence that aid won’t be diverted from the people who truly need and deserve it. While the feds can try to ride herd on the money, here’s hoping folks in the region take the opportunity to finally demand their own political housecleaning. Change is past due. Last year, Lou Riegel, the agent in charge of the FBI’s New Orleans office, described Louisiana’s public corruption as “epidemic, endemic, and entrenched. No branch of government is exempt.”

Louisiana ranks third in the nation in the number of elected officials per capita convicted of crimes (Mississippi takes top prize). In just the past generation, the Pelican State has had a governor, an attorney general, three successive insurance commissioners, a congressman, a federal judge, a state Senate president and a swarm of local officials convicted. Last year, three top officials at Louisiana’s Office of Emergency Preparedness were indicted on charges they obstructed a probe into how federal money bought out flood-prone homes. Last March the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered Louisiana to repay $30 million in flood-control grants it had awarded to 23 parishes.

Read the whole thing. And maybe (expanding on Locke’s suggestion) the aid relief should have a provision allowing private qui tam suits for fraud — and allowing them to be brought by lawyers admitted to practice in any jurisdiction in the United States. Those guys won’t be able to turn around without somebody taking notes. Put the trial lawyers to work cleaning up Louisiana!

Okay, maybe not. But we need to do something — and Louisiana officials shouldn’t expect a blank check. Or an excessively large one.

ANOTHER UPDATE: More here: “There is nothing at all sensible about rebuilding New Orleans. It will be on, or under, the Gulf of Mexico by 2050.”

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