Update on New Orleans' Battle Against Corruption

+ Brandon Fuller

Last July, we wrote about the request, made by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and community groups, for the Justice Department to help with police reform in New Orleans. Two recent federal convictions involving police officers and a judge from New Orleans demonstrate that outside intervention of this sort, by a strong central government, can indeed be an effective way to respond when a culture of corruption infects local institutions.

A federal jury in New Orleans recently convicted three police officers in a case involving the killing of Henry Glover, the burning of his body, and a subsequent cover up of the incident in the wake of 2005‘s Hurricane Katrina. This key federal action comes years after the incident because local authorities failed to take up the investigation of Mr. Glover’s death, a sign of the depth of neglect and misconduct in the Katrina-era New Orleans police department.

The Glover case was the first trial of at least nine that involve the investigation of New Orleans police officers by federal authorities. The investigations occur as the Justice Department continues the review of the New Orleans police department that it began in May. The Justice Department stepped in after Mayor Landrieu and New Orleans community groups called for federal assistance in transforming a police department where some members stood accused of murder, rape, and a host of other crimes.

The resolution of the Glover case occurred on the heels of another federal action aimed at curbing corruption in Louisiana: the conviction and removal of New Orleans federal Judge Thomas Porteous. The Senate found him guilty on four articles of impeachment, stemming from charges that he accepted cash, gifts, and favors from attorneys and bail bondsmen with dealings in his court.

According to the Times-Picayune, Porteous’ lawyer, Jonathan Turley “suggested the judge’s behavior was not outside the norms in Louisiana courthouse circles.” Unfortunately for Turley and Porteous, the Senate was able to distinguish between what is done and what is right. Mayor Landrieu and community organizers are confident that the Justice Department can do the same in helping New Orleans to rid its police force of corrupt and malfeasant officers.

In a federal structure, it is not uncommon for the central government to take corrective action when local jurisdictions go awry, particularly in cases like New Orleans’ where local authorities request the help. Other examples include the use of financial control boards to prevent municipal bankruptcy in New York City in the 1970s and Washington D.C. in the 1990s. But such cases raise interesting questions about whether the existence of strong, effective government in one part of the world can be used to voluntarily facilitate a more rapid transition to strong, effective governance in another part of the world where government is weak and ineffective.

The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) is one ongoing example of this type of cross-border cooperation. So is the use of the UK Privy Council as a court of final appeal for some commonwealth countries. This example raises the question of whether non-commonwealth countries might be able to voluntarily opt in to the same arrangement. What if a court in a commonwealth state that still benefits from this form of review agreed to act as the court of final review for the legal system of some other nation?

We recently suggested that the Greek government use this type of arrangement to tackle the corruption and patronage that seriously hamper economic growth in Greece. The head of the Greek anti-corruption commission would be appointed by and accountable to the President of the European Union (EU), a body with an ample stake in Greece’s success but neutral with regards to its domestic politics. A bit of experimentation with voluntary shared-governance schemes could lead to large gains in places where weak and ineffective governance limits human potential.

Tile photo by Ryan Bowley.

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