It's been several days now since Louisiana's treasurer called for the state to hire a Big Four firm to oversee the distribution of billions of dollars in Hurricane Katrina aid.
In a prepared statement, treasurer John Kennedy said, "The whole world will be watching how we handle that money, and we are all aware of Louisiana's reputation. We are much better than our reputation, and this is a chance to prove it. We need checks and balances and rechecks and rebalances."
While not coming right out and describing in vivid detail tales of graft and greed, Kennedy's statement was still one of the more credible and authentic pronouncements coming out of Louisiana over the course of the past week. And it did call to mind another of my favorite sound bites from the state -- the advice historians say was relayed by politician Earl Long, who followed his controversial and corrupt older brother Huey into the governor's mansion.
Long reportedly used to tell his associates, "Don't write anything you can phone. Don't phone anything you can talk. Don't talk anything you can whisper. Don't whisper anything you can smile. Don't smile anything you can nod. Don't nod anything you can wink."
Coupled with the early missteps at every level of government to Katrina, those quotes don't inspire a ton of confidence within me that things are about to begin running more smoothly in the hardest hit region of the Gulf Coast.
It'll be interesting to see what comes of Kennedy's suggestion, which has received little coverage thus far, in the course of the coming weeks. And it might be even more interesting to see which, if any, of the Big Four firms would step up to take on such a client. Bouncing around yesterday on the Web sites of Deloitte & Touche, Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG -- there's no mention anywhere of the hurricane, never mind word of any organization-wide relief efforts from any of the firms.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco's spokesmen have said she is considering looking in to hire an independent accounting firm, but until then, it will continue to be Kennedy's office and about 30 investigators and auditors sent by the federal government from the Homeland Security Department to watch over how federal dollars are being distributed.
Maybe it should be no surprise that those 30 people are already in place. Louisiana's homeland security office already owes the Federal Emergency Management Agency $30 million for allegedly mishandling similar flood aid given to parishes between 1997 and 2002 to buy out properties or elevate flood-prone homes. A number of homeland security employees are under indictment for allegedly trying to hide the misuse of money.
Right now, disaster funds are passing through Louisiana's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and then through the treasury, where Kennedy's signature is required on the checks. The state has already dispersed about $200 million, with the City of New Orleans receiving half of that, though local papers have quoted Kennedy saying he is unsure of exactly where any of the city's money is being directed.
Whether you go back to the ways of the Long brothers' reign, or consider the logistics of doling out funds in a hard-hit region where in many cases, basic infrastructure no longer exists -- there's no question sooner is better than later to get a reliable and accountable system, with suitable internal controls, in place.
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