Endorsement snafu; Butler a no-show in court
By Gordon Russell, Michelle Krupa, Frank Donze and Michael Perlstein Staff writers
Endorsements have been hard to come by for struggling incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin. So when he announced the backing Thursday of perhaps the city’s second-most powerful (and also embattled) politician — U.S. Rep. William Jefferson — it should have been a banner day for the Nagin camp.
But the normally cut-and-dried process of issuing an endorsement, complete with glowing testimonials, soon turned into an episode of the “Keystone Kops.”
First came the initial news release, in which Jefferson was quoted saying Nagin is “an extremely capable individual who deserves to continue” as mayor, among other compliments. In the release, Jefferson also seemed to give Nagin most of the credit for securing federal aid.
Minutes later, word came from the Nagin camp that a “clarification” was to follow. The “clarification,” which more closely resembled a retraction, said the release “was mistakenly sent” by Nagin consultant Bill Rouselle. Rouselle explained that Jefferson had not approved the relatively banal quotations attributed to him in the news release.
An hour later came a new — and much more tepid — statement from Jefferson, which indicating that he had signed an affidavit promising to support Nagin two and a half years ago.
“I continue to support his re-election and believe he can lead our city effectively,” the release said. “I therefore have authorized Mayor Nagin’s campaign to release the facts of my long standing support of his re-election.”
So, what’s the back story? About the only thing that seems clear is that Jefferson objected to the credit Nagin was claiming for landing federal aid.
The claim essentially left out Louisiana’s congressional delegation, which includes Sen. Mary Landrieu — brother of Nagin opponent, Lt. Gov. Mary Landrieu — as well as Jefferson himself, of course. Jefferson supporters also noted that the congressman is close to a number of Nagin’s challengers, making him less eager to issue a ringing endorsement.
But the episode leaves other questions unanswered, such as why, two days before the election, the two camps were still haggling over how to portray an endorsement that was landed more than two years ago. With the election just a day away, voters may never know.
Former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson has been depicting former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial as the incarnation of all things corrupt for the better part of the mayor’s race. But it wasn’t until she went national with her vitriol that Morial howled, “Enough!”
In a televised debate Monday, Wilson responded to a question from moderator Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s political talk show “Hardball,” by calling Morial “the most corrupt mayor that we’ve had in our history.”
With the debate airing nationally and Morial now serving as president of the National Urban League, Wilson’s comment apparently hit a chord that previously had gone unstruck. Indeed, Wilson has condemned Morial’s contracting practices, the subject of several federal criminal investigations, in local TV forums and campaign ads for weeks.
Morial’s lawyers put Wilson on notice Thursday that unless she agrees to “cease and desist from making similar false accusations in the future ... and immediately issue a public statement apologizing for your conduct, ... we will seek all available relief under the law without delay,” according to a letter delivered to Wilson’s campaign office.
“According to well-established Louisiana law, your reckless and intentional statement — which has seriously harmed Mr. Morial’s reputation and good name in the greater New Orleans community and across the nation — constitutes defamation and is actionable in court,” it states.
The letter goes on to note that Morial worked with the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI to “clean up corruption” in the New Orleans Police Department.
Wilson’s campaign, which provided the letter to The Times-Picayune, had no further comment Thursday.
While Wilson clearly despises Morial, he’s not necessarily her least favorite mayor. Wilson also took aim Monday at former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, saying he was “dumb, incompetent and corrupt.”
Got a good lawyer Sidney?
Kimberly Williamson Butler’s one-woman soap opera took another tragicomic twist Thursday when the Criminal District Clerk of Court and longshot mayoral candidate was a no-show at a hearing for her own lawsuit.
The embattled and unpredictable Butler resorted to litigation last week after new locks were installed on the doors of flooded courthouse evidence rooms overseen by her office. In her suit, Butler claimed Judge Camille Buras ordered the locks changed, that Judicial Administrator Liz Stogner changed them, and that Judge Raymond Bigelow participated in the conspiracy to shut her out.
Buras, Stogner and Bigelow were joined in civil court Thursday by a cluster of criminal court judges and assistant district attorneys, along with staff lawyers and investigators from the state attorney general’s office. All of them, including Butler’s own attorneys, were kept waiting for more than two hours before Civil District Court Judge Yada Magee decided enough was enough.
Magee didn’t even wait for Assistant Attorney General Christopher Hatchett to finish his motion to dismiss before she tersely pronounced, “Granted.”
Many of the judges and attorneys in the courtroom were among those who were kept waiting by Butler in March after she was held in contempt for failing to accept court-ordered assistance in the clean-up of her office. After that weeklong standoff, Butler served three days in jail and was fined $500.
Butler’s disappearing act Thursday could again prove costly.
“We will seek sanctions against her for all costs of this defense,” Assistant Attorney General Burton Guidry said. “She has thumbed her nose at the entire justice system by not showing up.”
From Wilson’s repeated references to “pimps and gangbangers” to incessant replays of Nagin’s infamous “chocolate city” speech, the mayoral campaign has been rife with racially charged language.
On the stump last month, Nagin reminded a largely black audience that he faces a predominantly white field of challengers, saying of his opponents: “Very few of them look like us.”
Now, in a radio ad being aired by Nagin, African-American community activist Barbara Major makes a pointed plea to black voters on the mayor’s behalf.
“In my opinion, the struggle for political and moral control of New Orleans is at stake,” said Major, whom Nagin named to co-chair his Bring New Orleans Back Commission.
In the spot, Major says she accepted Nagin’s request to serve because she believed “our people” needed “to be heard in the rebuilding of New Orleans.”
After Nagin’s hand-picked BNOB panel submitted its recommendations — which included a controversial proposal to postpone building in hard-hit areas — Major says Nagin agreed to address many of her concerns, which she said at the time included the proposed moratorium.
“He delivered a final report that will allow all citizens to return and to get help,” Major said in the radio ad. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but neither did the rich and powerful who usually run the city.”
In closing, she says Nagin “is not perfect,” but asks voters to support him on Saturday, calling the mayor “the man with the plan and the courage to lead.”
Polls have been hard to come by during the mayoral campaign, but the few that have been released have been consistent: The contest is a three-horse race.
The latest survey of New Orleans residents shows Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and incumbent Ray Nagin leading the pack, with Audubon Nature Institute Chief Executive Ron Forman in third place.
The poll, conducted by Tulane University’s political science department from April 15-17, surveyed 571 citizens by phone. Respondents were split evenly along racial lines.
Landrieu led the pack with 26 percent of the vote, followed by Nagin with 21.4 percent and Forman with 18 percent. More than 17 percent of those surveyed were undecided and a similar amount indicated a preference for candidates other than the three front runners.
Just like earlier surveys by Loyola University pollster Ed Renwick, the Tulane poll showed that Landrieu was the only candidate with a bi-racial coalition, picking up 33.3 percent of the black vote and 28.5 percent of the white vote.
Nagin led among black voters with 43.3 percent, while Forman was first among white voters with 39.3 percent. Lawyer Rob Couhig had 21.6 percent of the white vote, while Nagin picked up 5 percent.
The survey had a margin of error of 4.1 percent.
If mail volume is a barometer, City Councilman Jay Batt is a bit nervous about hanging onto his District A seat — and he’s particularly concerned about challengers Shelley Midura and Sal Palmisano.
Some District A residents received no less than five mailers from Batt Wednesday. Two were testimonials to Batt, one from U.S. Reps. Bobby Jindal and Richard Baker, fellow Republicans, and another featured Batt’s wife, Andree.
The other three were hit pieces, two aimed at Palmisano, one at Midura. One Palmisano mailer refers to “My Pal Sal” as “Nobody’s Pal” and recounts his controversial career as a car booter. The other features Palmisano decked out in a clown suit and says that Palmisano’s professional resume is less than impressive.
The Midura flier makes a somewhat flimsy case that Midura is “politically connected” because her mother worked in the administrations of Dutch and Marc Morial. (Midura’s mother spent about 20 years at City Hall, a time that also included Sidney Barthelemy’s administration.) It also claims her campaign has been largely funded by “wealthy trial lawyers” whom it does not name. (One of them is pictured, however, under the caption “Trial Lawyer.”)
The message on each of the fliers is the same: reject the “smear campaign” — by voting for Batt.
City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who is seeking re-election to her District D seat, is crying foul because none of the campaign finance activity of Louella Givens — perhaps Hedge-Morrell’s best-known opponent — is yet posted on the state ethics board’s website.
Givens has been advertising heavily on television, and Allan Katz, a spokesman for Hedge-Morrell, claims she has spent more than $50,000 on media buys.
State law requires candidates to disclose contributions that add up to more than $200 as well as expenditures that total at least $5,000 cumulatively. In addition, those who do not meet those limits are required to file affidavits saying so. Givens, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, filed one such affidavit on March 22, but nothing since then has been posted.
Givens claims she has filed two reports with the state since then, one mailed April 12 and one mailed Wednesday. “I don’t have control of what they post,” she said. “It’s my job just to get it to them.”
Chris Sommers, a compliance officer with the ethics board, said that the state had not received any of those reports as of late Thursday