Wednesday, August 5, 2009

William Jefferson's Conviction and the Common Good

I don't celebrate any man's suffering nor do I have much confidence in the prosecutorial function but observing William Jefferson's subversion of the common good for his and his family's own personal interests, it is difficult not to feel like his conviction is both a decent and just outcome for his individual wrongs and also a victory for the idea that public goods should and ought to be harnessed for the actual good of the public.

I have friends whose efforts to improve our city have been directly undermined by the corruption and abuse of power of the Jefferson machine. My very block, which I share with Betty Jefferson, the former congressman's sister who is also under indictment, is scarred by the Jefferson family's corruption. My friend was living in and restoring a blighted home, adjacent to Betty Jefferson's house, and was in the process of securing ownership of the house through our blighted housing program. The congressman's brother Archie, a disbarred attorney, used his brother's influence to undermine my friend's claim on the house. He acquired it after Betty, the property tax assessor for our neighborhood, began threatening the owners of the house with a dramatic property tax hikes on their other property if her brother didn't get the house. They then illegally demolished the fine historic home and laughed off, and never paid, the $25,000 fine that they received for the flouting stop work orders commanding them not to raze the house. So the home, which my friend would have restored to its former glory, is now Betty Jefferson's poorly tended side yard and a driveway.

Public influence. Private benefits.

I am sure many New Orleanians have similar stories as the reach of the Jefferson family in New Orleans was pervasive and the family was not shy in abusing its public positions for its private benefits.

I wonder whether, in William Jefferson's absence, the federal government would have had fewer excuses during the almost four years when it has failed to adequately fund our recovery. I wonder whether they would have had fewer excuses in failing to adequately fund our levees and provide services for the poor here - Jefferson's constituency - before the storm.

It was all too easy for the people holding the purse strings in the federal government to point out the recovery money would simply be stolen or wasted.

More broadly, I wonder whether having people in government like William Jefferson has served to legitimize the Conservative argument that government cannot be trusted to deliver the common good - that the public sector should be starved until its small and pathetic enough to drown in a tub (or in the New Orleans East or the Lower Ninth Ward).

So, William Jefferson, I hope you get out someday, that you are treated decently during your incarceration, that you have the chance to atone for your crimes and abuses, and that you emerge from prison someday a better man but know that your conviction vindicates the progressive values that you have claimed to champion and that - whether its universal health care or a new New Deal for New Orleans - your conviction serves to remind people that we are entitled to public goods without public corruption.

*** I wrote about Jefferson a couple of years ago in The Nation: Jefferson Should Go

Here is a picture of the now empty lot on Jackson Avenue taken by a neighbor. Imagine, instead of weeds, a beautiful nineteenth century home:

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