There’s a joke to the effect that if you look up the word scandal in the dictionary there’s a picture of the state outline of Louisiana. The second definition, as the story goes, includes the state outline of New Jersey.
When a major corruption case broke in New Jersey recently, one television wag even referred to that unfortunate situation as having taken place in “Louisiana north.”
It’s no wonder. My home state of Louisiana has a long and undistinguished record of political roughhousing, rowdiness and high-jinks more likely than not to include indictment, conviction and jail.
Many historians trace it all back to the 1800s and lay the tradition at the feet of Jean Lafitte who periodically emerged from the dark swamps of southern Louisiana to swipe the cargo carried along French and Spanish shipping lanes.
A rogue to be sure but he was one of the state’s favorites mainly because he distributed his stolen loot to the poor folks. That won him a lot of favor from people in high places.
It’s not a proud tradition in pelican politics but one that has endured from then until now, nonetheless. Along the way we have witnessed the jailing of two governors, an attorney general, a covey of insurance commissioners and countless lesser office holders all the way to the court houses, city halls, cop shops, and one or two parish (county) water district chief executives.
The most recent example, of course, was the conviction of long-time, now former, U.S. Representative William ‘Dollar Bill’ Jefferson who this month was found guilty on 11 counts surrounding public bribery involving business deals with Nigeria and other African countries. Among those counts was a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organization Act (R.I.C.O). He was accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars, 90 thousand of which was discovered in plastic baggies hidden under the beans and corn in the freezer at his home. The episode generated a whole new round of laughs around the terms ‘cold cash’ and ‘frozen assets.’ He faces 150 years in a federal prison.
Ironically, it was a Nigerian national holding a public position in Monroe, Louisiana who brought world-wide attention to the state just prior to the congressman’s conviction.
Patrick Onymechara was that city’s tax collector when he was arrested in late May and charged with 27 counts of felony theft involving hundreds of thousands of dollars, a sum that may wind even higher. He is being held in the local parish lockup in lieu of $2.8-Million bond while a cluster of local, state and federal agents continue their investigation.
Initial court hearings in Onymechara’s case are in limbo while his lead defense attorney, former State Senator and Chair of the legislative Ethics Committee, Charles Jones, prepares for his own trial in January on two federal charges of making a false tax return and one count of tax evasion.
Why a Nigerian national was ever hired in the first place by Abe Pierce, the first Black mayor of Monroe since reconstruction, has provided many questions in and of itself. The employment of a foreign national involves a tedious, time-consuming, labor-intensive process and in a community with an abundance of qualified accountants some wondered why the Pierce administration would go such lengths at a time when city hall was under intense scrutiny in an on-going federal-state investigation of bribery that ultimately ended in convictions of the city’s Community Affairs Director and a private contractor. Onyemechara was elevated to director of Taxation and Revenue by the late Mayor Melvin Rambin, Pierce’s successor.
For historical perspective, it should be noted that Onyemechara is not the first Monroe, Louisiana tax collector caught up in a case of missing money.
In September of 1856, the then tax collector, R.M. Routon, could not account for $291.75 when confronted by the city’s Trustees (Council) when they reviewed the Town Assessment Rolls. At that nighttime meeting, the Trustees voted to spend $3.50 to buy some candles and candlesticks and then voted to initiate court action to bring settlement against the tax collector. Did I mention that Mr. Routon also served as police chief at the time? By December, the missing funds had still not been repaid and Routon resigned as tax collector. A new police chief was elected.