July 7, 2008

Part Two: July

Few Changes Expected In City Councilman Budd Situation
Embattled Politician Remains Out Of Public Sight; First Trial Begins In October

When City Councilman Lucas Budd was arrested for drug charges in May, the story sent shockwaves through the city and was even briefly featured in the national press. The hard-working former Assistant District Attorney could occasionally be a firebrand, but Lucas Budd was well-liked by journalists, other politicians and, more importantly, most voters. Many considered him “one of the good ones” and he was widely seen as a potential front-runner in the upcoming mayoral elections.

Then came the May 28 arrest, when NOPD officers pulled over a wildly swerving car on the outskirts of the French Quarter and discovered inside a young shirtless male who quickly fled the scene, as well as large quantities of various illegal drugs and an allegedly deranged Lucas Budd, who had to be physically restrained during the arrest.

Even in a city long familiar with political corruption, Budd’s arrest was shocking. For more than a week, local television news shows featured almost constant coverage of the Lucas Budd situation. The story, however, yielded few additional developments. Within hours of his arrest, Budd had been released into the custody of his attorney and retreated to his large Garden District home.

Since then, little has changed. Budd has released no statements of any kind and remains cloistered in his home. He has yet to appear at any City Council meetings since his arrest but has not resigned his seat. His attorney, Marvin Dapp, appeared in absentia at Budd's preliminary hearings and entered a plea of not guilty to all charges. Visitors to the Budd household are turned away by two city policemen and told that Mr. Budd is receiving no guests.

With no fresh developments in the story, the city and the media have moved on. Attention has since turned to the growing scandal at the Sewage & Water Board, as well as recent allegations of misuse in Mayor Cope’s discretionary spending budget.

But though Lucas Budd’s arrest may be gone from the front pages, it’s far from forgotten in New Orleans’ political circles. When Budd finally emerges from his seclusion, he’ll discover a political reality far removed from the one he left. With almost no supporters, and a move by the Louisiana State Bar Association to disbar him, Budd’s career would appear to be in shambles.

A recent Times-Picayune poll found that 77 percent of respondents thought that Budd should resign his City Council seat and let the city move on. When asked if they would still consider Mr. Budd for mayor, almost none said they would, and it was reported that many initially thought the pollster was joking.

Budd’s fellow politicians have been particularly eager to distance themselves from Budd. A recent campaign ad for one of the increasingly-heated State Senate elections featured a photograph of the candidate’s opponent with Lucas Budd at a charity poker tournament. Both of the men are smiling, cigars in their mouths, with large stacks of play money and poker chips spread out before them. The controversial ad--denounced by many as “mudslinging”--was recently pulled from the air.

The only vocal supporter of City Councilman Budd has been, ironically, the man who was assumed to be his toughest rival in the mayoral race: City Councilman Jerome Johnson. A childhood friend of Lucas Budd, Johnson has defended him publicly many times since the May arrest.

Johnson was recently successful in getting the City Council to halt proceedings to remove Budd from his seat. “This man has plead innocent at his hearing and is yet to be found guilty in any court. When the day comes that he is found guilty, we’ll do what we have to do. But until then, we cannot punish an innocent man. It’s not the way we do things in New Orleans, and it’s not the way we do things in America.” Earlier attempts to censure Budd have similarly failed.

Johnson’s actions may have put him at odds with other members of the City Council, but many voters view his defense of an old friend in a far better light. “Now, I may think Lucas Budd is guilty as [expletive],” Jake Thomas recently wrote in his widely-read political blog Mid-City Musings, “and for all I know, Jerome Johnson does, too. But darn it if sticking up for his friend in the face of overwhelming odds isn’t more than a little heartwarming to this jaded old cynic. We should all have friends so loyal.”

When reached for comment, Councilman Johnson replied: “I certainly appreciate Mr. Thomas’ remarks, and I’ve enjoyed his Internet website many times in the past, but as I’ve said before I like to think I’d be pursuing this matter just as diligently if Lucas were my most hated rival. This issue goes beyond friendship: we simply can’t make a move against him until he’s been found guilty by a jury of his peers. I don’t want to sound too overblown here, but I’m not just defending a friend, I’m trying to defend the democratic process.”

Most recently, Johnson was successful in getting the first of Budd’s many trials moved from September to late October, after the sure-to-be-tumultuous mayoral election. Johnson says: “September will be the height of the election season, and trust me, the people of New Orleans are gonna be sick to death of politics. And in the middle of all that, you’re going to ask a politician to stand trial on corruption charges? How could he possibly get a fair trial in that environment?”

It’s entirely possible Budd may stay secluded in his home until the day of his first trial. If so, one thing is certain: he will emerge into a vastly different world than the one he left. However, WWL senior political consultant RenĂ© Parquette writes in an email that we shouldn’t count Budd out just yet:

“The situation certainly looks very grim for Mr. Budd, but this is New Orleans, and as we all know anything could happen over the long hot summer. By October, it will have been a full six months since his arrest, and a lot will have happened in the city. We’ll certainly have had other politicians ousted on corruption charges in that time. We’ll also have a new mayor, and the smart money says that it’ll be his old friend Jerome Johnson."

Parquette continues: "I don’t think anyone seriously believes he'll find a way to get out of this, but let’s face it: Lucas Budd has surprised us in the past.”

New Orleans Times-Picayune
Sunday, July 2
Reprinted by permission.