The report in the Times-Picayune on the financial disclosure of last year’s futile effort to depose councilwoman Stacy Head accentuates the need for higher standards of accountability in our local political process. The list of donors raises questions about the fiscal conduct of churches and police officers, and shines light on the ramifications of the Nagin-Riley regime.
Several donors included pastors from local Baptist churches, which appears to violate the IRS tax-exempt status of churches and religious organizations. This is hardly unprecedented in New Orleans; during the prosecution of Bill Jefferson and his relatives, several Baptist pastors used their pulpit to hold candlelight vigils in support of Jefferson. Needless to say, these acts went unpunished.
More alarming is the fact that one of the pastors in question, Donald Berryhill of First Zion Baptist Church, is also a NOPD officer, meaning that he violated both the code of conduct regarding a clergyman and a police officer. His involvement in the recall effort had previously been investigated within the department, but Berryhill was cleared of any wrongdoing. Either the “investigation” team was incompetent, or more likely, given the history of the department, it was quick to sweep any discovered violations under the carpet.
Fortunately for the city, Mayor Landrieu’s actions so far indicate a reversal of direction regarding public policy. The wise hiring of Ronal Serpas as police department has been accompanied by promises of external and Federal audits of the Department. This is necessary to purge a historically corrupt department of its culture of obfuscating and colluding with bureaucratic offices such as the Sanitation Department. Likewise, a cooperative relationship with Inspector General Ed Quatreveaux will help combat waste and abuse within the city.
However, we must continue to take steps to ensure good governance. Independent and objective audits are needed to regulate the civic process. For instance, in a city such as New Orleans, where divisive racial politics play such a major role, we must hold religious leaders and organizations accountable for abusing their position for purposes of demagoguery and political favoritism. Behavior which violates IRS statutes needs to be reported.
Likewise, political action committees, such as the effort to recall Ms. Head, need to be held to higher standards of transparency (The irony of this PAC’s official name, Citizens for Accountability and Transparency in Government, is surely lost on its members). As reported in the Times-Picayune, the chief organizer of the recall effort, Barbara Ann Jackson, failed to both register it as a PAC and release a financial disclosure. Considering the list of partners, one might assume this was too avoid potential embarrassment. Fortunately, the Board of Ethics has launched an investigation into this. We can only hope that it holds the concerned parties accountable and sets a new standard for civic responsibility.