Corruption and Justice

In June 2005, The Independent Weekly published an investigative cover story ("Foggy Contract Breakdown") revealing that Iberia Parish President Will Langlinais had extended millions of dollars worth of parish contracts with Mosquito Control Contractors Inc. without the knowledge or approval of the Iberia Parish Council. That revelation ultimately led to the council demanding a legislative audit of all parish finances in 2006.

The findings of that investigation were released earlier this year, and they weren't pretty. Louisiana Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot's report found that Langlinais directed public funds to improve private property; was inappropriately reimbursed for meals already paid for with parish and state monies; entered into contracts in violation of the parish charter; used public funds for charitable donations and to pay for employee meals and social events; and pressured parish employees to solicit donations and work on his campaign fund-raising golf tournament during parish work hours.

Those charges were so disturbing and widespread that The Independent Weekly called on the Iberia Parish Council to impeach Langlinais and remove him from office ("Impeach Will Langlinais," March 14). Langlinais decried the audit and subsequent investigation by 16th Judicial District Attorney Phil Haney as nothing more than a political witch hunt and steadfastly maintained his innocence.

Not anymore.

In a surprise about-face, Langlinais pled guilty last week to one felony count of malfeasance in office and resigned from his elected position, bringing to an end one of the most unfortunate chapters in Iberia Parish history.

The deal was sealed last Tuesday night during an executive session of the Iberia Parish Council. There, DA Haney, Assistant Attorney General Butch Wilson and Iberia Parish Council special counsel Edward Landry presented a choice to the Iberia Parish Council. Its members had the option of holding out for Langlinais' trial or accepting a deal hammered out by its counsel and Langlinais' attorneys, Gerald Block, Lester Gauthier and Paul Hebert.

Langlinais is fortunate that the plea bargain was accepted. Councilman Bernard Broussard, who led the initial push to audit Langlinais, would have preferred a trial. There are many, many questions still unanswered: the clandestine contract signed by Langlinais and Mosquito Control president Glenn Stokes, giving MCCI a sweetheart 10-year contract extension; another illegal contract between Langlinais and attorney Shane Romero for unauthorized risk management services; and numerous billing discrepancies scattered throughout other contracts and departments. "We had a serious problem in our government of misspending and mismanagement and abusive policies," Broussard says. "We need to make sure everybody understands what was going on."

Langlinais' supporters stood by him. Councilman Naray Hulin has been a staunch defender of Langlinais from the beginning of the investigation and says he approved the plea bargain to avoid further attorney expenses to the public. He also believes the $100,000 restitution settlement was too much and unfair to Langlinais. "I think Will did a great job as parish president," Hulin says. "If Will is guilty of anything at all, it's trying to help the taxpayers too much. Maybe he went astray in doing so, but it was all in an effort to help."

Ultimately the council reached consensus that Langlinais' guilty plea and resignation from office was the best way for government and the community to move forward. Langlinais has also lost his right to vote and to run for office. In return for his plea bargain, Langlinais has been granted immunity from further prosecution.

His fate is now in the hands of 16th Judicial District Judge John Connery, who can send Langlinais to state prison or parish jail for up to five years. Or he can offer him standard probation, set special conditions or simply send him home, facing no more punishment than he has already received. Connery stated from the bench last week that he welcomes input from the council and victims of the crime regarding Langlinais' sentence, which is scheduled for this Thursday, Aug. 2.

There will undoubtedly be friends and family in court on Thursday to defend Langlinais' character. Hulin will speak on Langlinais' behalf. "I don't feel he should serve jail time," Hulin says. "Probation is enough. Will is not a criminal." Broussard, on the other hand, wants to reiterate that the public trust has been violated. "I think when you take the oath of office, it is an honor and you should not represent your own needs and desires," he says. "We asked to hold office and promised to do the right thing. We need to be clear about Will's actions. This was not accidental mismanagement. The withholding of the information was not an oversight."

Louisiana has for too long offered a wink and a nod regarding political crimes ' but there is nothing funny about the abuse of public funds. In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the state has paid a heavy price for its history of corruption and leniency, as national politicians and pundits have used that history as an excuse to withhold or stall recovery funding. We will never recover from our position at the bottom of the list as a place to do business if we treat corrupt politicians with kid gloves. "We need to send a message by demanding justice," Broussard says ' and we agree.