NOLA Council Leader Resigns, Admits Bribes

New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas suddenly resigned his post yesterday, admitting that he accepted a bribe from a city contractor. For more, Farai Chideya talks with David Meeks, city editor of The Times-Picayune newspaper.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

The second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is fast approaching, and there's no shortage of news today coming out of the Crescent City.

In just a moment, we'll talk with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who's leading a congressional tour of New Orleans neighborhoods - some recovering, some not.

But first, prominent New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas dropped a bombshell yesterday that will reverberate through the region.

Mr. OLIVER THOMAS (Council member, New Orleans, Louisiana): I stand here today before you, humbled, disappointed in myself, and seeking your forgiveness for what I'm about to say. Approximately five years ago, I accepted an inappropriate gift from a local businessman and tempted - intending to influence me and gained my favor as an elected official. It was wrong, and I accept full responsibility for this action.

CHIDEYA: Thomas' admission came as part of a wide-ranging federal corruption probe, and adds yet another stumble to New Orleans' troubled, post-Katrina recovery.

For more, we've got Edward Chervenak, a professor of political science at the University of New Orleans. Professor, welcome.

Professor EDWARD CHERVENAK (Political Science, University of New Orleans): Nice to be here. Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: So paint us a picture of Oliver Thomas. He's reported to have been one of the city's brightest, rising stars. Why is that?

Prof. CHERVENAK: Well, Oliver was unique in that he was one of the few politicians who was able to transcend the racial divide in the city, that he was very popular with both white voters and African-American voters in the city. You know, kind of the heir-to-be, you know, to be the next mayor.

CHIDEYA: So what exactly did Thomas admit to doing?

Prof. CHERVENAK: He admitted to taking a bribe to allow a friend to have contract for a parking garage in the French Quarter.

CHIDEYA: Now, what kind of money are we talking about in terms of the overall value of that service?

Prof. CHERVENAK: Well, he - allegedly, well, he's guilty of taking $15,000 to help influence the contract for a friend, plus there was some kickbacks involved as well from one of his associates.

CHIDEYA: Now, the judge in the case called this quote, "a body blow to the community." Why was Thomas so important, and what does this mean for the communities he served?

Prof. CHERVENAK: Well, I think that he was viewed as one of the good guys. There was never really any kind of hint of scandal surrounding him. I've had him come in to talk to my class several times. You know, a very inspiring speaker, very pro New Orleans, and always seemed kind of a straight up guy. And so I think that's what really has taken a lot of people aback is the fact that, you know, they just couldn't really think that someone like Oliver could be involved in a political corruption.

CHIDEYA: I remember, as we were going back for the Katrina anniversary, doing reporting there, we saw him in the Lower Ninth Ward, interviewed him. He seemed to be someone who spent a lot of time walking the beat, so to speak, going around in the communities. Does this really surprise his constituents, people of the city of New Orleans, people like you who study New Orleans?

Prof. CHERVENAK: Not only surprised but saddened. Like I said, because this is just, you know, totally out of the blue, totally unexpected. But I think, you know, in the end, what it does is just show how pervasive and how endemic the corruption here is in the city, that if that - even someone like Oliver Thomas can, you know, get caught up in it.

CHIDEYA: What about the federal probe, an investigation into corruption on a larger scale?

Prof. CHERVENAK: Obviously, there(ph) seemed to be very effective. There - got a couple of guilty pleas now - one from a former school board president, now from Oliver Thomas, and also from some associates of former Mayor Marc Morial. You know, I would expect that more heads will roll as we get more guilty pleas. So this is far from finished.

CHIDEYA: So going back to Thomas. He admits to taking the bribe from Stan Barre, a member of Marc Morial's inner circle. Morial is a huge figure on the black political scene, and he's head of the Urban League. Has this probe, by association, tarnished his reputation?

Prof. CHERVENAK: I would believe so. I - you know, I don't what the eventual target or goal of the federal government is, but certainly they'll be looking at him. They've certainly - they executed a search warrant on Mayor Morial's brother's house. You know, I think, eventually, that the road will lead to Marc Morial.

CHIDEYA: Finally, what is the city feeling right now? We're nearing the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and not only do you have this case, but the congressman, William Jefferson, representing the area around the city, also under a cloud? What does that make people feel?

Prof. CHERVENAK: It's a struggle to live in New Orleans. It's a struggle to, you know, kind of get through the recovery. And I think that these types of situations only add to it. You know, people are trying to build - rebuild their lives. And, you know, we need lots of assistance and help from the outside, from the federal government. And the concern is that this cloud of corruption will kind of taint our reputation and then prevent the federal government stepping in and helping the city.

CHIDEYA: Well, professor, thank you so much for sharing your time.

Prof. CHERVENAK: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Edward Chervenak is a professor of political science at the University of New Orleans.

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