Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Louisiana officials are keenly aware of the state’s reputation for creative spending and are looking for ways to reassure Washington that billions of dollars in hurricane-relief funds won’t be wasted.

Jerry Luke LeBlanc, the state’s commissioner of administration will hire an accounting firm this week to monitor spending, and Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, is sponsoring a bill to forgive federal loans if the state can account for proper spending.

“We have a certain history that we have to deal with,” Mr. LeBlanc told the Shreveport Times.

“Because of the perception, whether we like it or not, we have something to prove. I disagree with it, but we’ve got the perception, and we have to deal with the perception,” he said.

State officials aren’t the only Louisianans concerned federals dollars will be misspent. Former New Orleans levee officials say misspending will only get worse when federal dollars arrive.

“The bad guys are rubbing their hands with glee at all the money that will be dumped in here, and it will make it worse, it will make it open warfare,” says Bill Nungesser, a former Orleans Levee Board president who says he was kicked off the board a decade ago for firing overpaid workers and blowing the whistle on wasteful spending.

“I fought them because they were spending money on fountains and every conceivable thing. The year I was president, they spent 80 percent on things other than the levees and flood control, and that’s their primary function,” Mr. Nungesser says.

Federal auditors already are trying to find out what happened to $60 million the state office of homeland security received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. Two state officials are under indictment for misappropriating funds to pay for a junket to Germany and purchase L.L. Bean parkas, and $10 million of the emergency funds were used to purchase property.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and Budget Committee chairman, is pushing legislation to create the Gulf Coast Recovery and Disaster Preparedness Agency to oversee spending.

“While we continue to provide much-needed assistance in federal resources, we must provide an accountable structure for ensuring that these taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and in a systematic way,” Mr. Gregg said.

A 440-page spending wish list submitted by Sen. Mary Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, and Mr. Vitter estimated to cost more than $250 billion, included $8 million for alligator farmers and $35 million to promote seafood.

A radio talk-show host in New Orleans predicts political patronage will only get worse if federal spending goes unchecked.

“If we don’t have a czar or something to make sure the money is spent right, it will be the same Louisiana politics, where the connected cronies get the money, and the public will get shortchanged,” says Jeff Crouere.

Peggy Wilson, former New Orleans City Council president during the 1980s and 1990s, says unchecked spending occurred when she was on the levee board in 2000 with questionable million-dollar legal and insurance contracts and little attention to levee maintenance.

“At one meeting, I raised my hand and asked when we were going to talk about the levees, and they said, ‘That’s not on the agenda. We can’t talk about that right now,’” Mrs. Wilson said.

“It’s a corrupt institution that goes back to Huey Long and it should be eliminated,” Mrs. Wilson said, referring to the legendary Louisiana governor of the 1930s.

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