Two times since Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of the federal levee system, New Orleanians have watched City Council members they elected plead guilty to federal crimes. (A third former council member, Renee Gill Pratt, was convicted in 2011 of plotting to embezzle more than $1 million from taxpayer-funded charities. She maintains her innocence.) Most recently, Councilman Jon Johnson Wednesday pleaded guilty to stealing government funds and resigned.
Elected in 2010 to represent the city’s most hard-hit district spanning the Lower 9th Ward and Eastern New Orleans, Johnson was a consummate New Orleans politician with a long political history, roots in neighborhood-based community development and a disappointingly pedestrian corruption scheme.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Johnson copped to theft of government funds in connection to an ill-fated race for the Louisiana State Senate in 2007. He had redirected to his own political campaign FEMA funds earmarked for the rehabilitation of a flood-damaged former school owned by a non-profit he controlled, the Ninth Ward Housing Development Corporation.
The building for which FEMA awarded reconstruction funds remains blighted and out of commerce. Johnson also falsified documents related to an SBA loan for the reconstruction of his home.
Johnson’s corruption was hardly sophisticated. Rather, it shared much with much of the known-to-all, enforced-by-none municipal corruption with which residents of New Orleans have long been accustomed: A politician uses loyal patrons to establish a non-profit, which competes for and wins government grants that are then treated as fungible by the politician. They can use these funds to pay for personal expenses, as something of a crony payroll, or as discretionary cash to keep a political operation going.
Johnson’s was a kiddie version of the machine run by former Congressman William “Freezer” Jefferson and his brother Mose, an operation finally dismantled in 2009 after federal agents found $90,000 in laundered bills in his freezer. Or, since this kind of corruption is not unique to New Orleans, take the case of Philadelphia’s former state senator Vincent Fumo. The 30-year Senate veteran used the non-profit Citizens Alliance as his personal piggy bank for years. Politicians get in trouble when they obviously take direct bribes or embezzle public dollars. But because non-profits are so rarely audited, they become conduits for corruption that may have once been more blatant.
City officials were reportedly stunned by Johnson’s guilty plea. But that’s not really close to being right. There is little shocking about yet another local public official meeting the gavel — The Lens, an online journalism outlet and a Next American City web partner, had reported on questionable ties between the non-profit and Johnson 18 months ago. [Disclosure: Current NAC Executive Editor Ariella Cohen wrote the original report. – Ed.]
Sad would be a better word. Johnson is no political rising star. He is a 63-year-old man whose long political career would not have ended with a naming ceremony at a toll plaza, even if he hadn’t just been charged with corruption. It would be more shocking if the political merry-go-round that is District E would come to an end.
Before the end of the day, Austin Badon, whom Johnson defeated two years ago and who also lost the at-large election just four months ago, announced he would be running yet again. This is the city’s most wayward district: the worst damage from the flood and the haziest path to recovery. Nearly eight years after Katrina, the district needs new energy and far more innovative leadership than it has received. Rising stars, please apply.