According to several sources inside city government, Mayor Mitch Landrieu is set to endorse former Councilwoman (and former State Senator) Cynthia Willard-Lewis in the city’s hotly contested at-large council race. Legislative sources indicate that the Mayor’s office has reached out to local officials to pressure them to endorse Willard-Lewis and also to join Landrieu in a press conference announcing the Mayor’s intentions sometime early next week. Those same sources suggest that many legislators have declined to participate or endorse due to Willard-Lewis’ possible association with an ultra-high-profile scandal erupting in the New Orleans area. As the Democrats only and last hope for statewide office, we can’t see this as a good thing for Mitch Landrieu. Mayor Landrieu is repeatedly mentioned as a 2015 gubernatorial candidate. From Al Hunt in Bloomberg just this week:
He’s likely to be re-elected in two years. A year later he’ll have to decide whether he stays or, as maybe the only Democrat who could win a statewide race, runs for governor.
With Mitch gone as early as 2015, is a Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis his hand-picked successor as the ground-breaking first African-American female Mayor of New Orleans?
Willard-Lewis is a longtime Democratic stalwart, with a large political family and a strong base of support with African-Americans throughout the city. She narrowly lost a race against fellow Democrat J.P. Morrell for the 3rd district Senate seat after her former district was redistricted away from New Orleans and into the river parishes.
According to our friends over at Slabbed, Cythnia Willard-Lewis may also be embroiled in a massive political corruption case emanating from River Birch Landfill in Jefferson Parish. The long and short of the story is that, after Hurricane Katrina, Fred Heebe, owner of River Birch, angled to shut down or divert all the trash and debris from hurricane-clean-up to his landfill, River Birch. This was, and apparently continues to be, big money business for Heebe.
As you’d expect in Louisiana, the big dollar nature of this ploy meant that Heebe played a strong political hand, and he played it hard. His finger-prints have been found all over the Jefferson Parish corruption that up-ended the entire political establishment and helped land Parish President Broussard under Federal indictment. Heebe’s own wife is former Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Jennifer Sneed. Heebe also seemed to pay off half of the politicians in and around New Orleans to help fill up his dump.
Heebe’s tentacles, however, have yet to been placed on any currently relevant (or serving) politicians. Most of his friends have been outed, targeted, or retired. However, a tipster points out some strong clues that might point to Cynthia Willard-Lewis’ possible involvement in the River Birch scandal. First, slabbed reviews a River Birch-related lawsuit by one of Heebe’s competitors:
Only recently revealed, it appears that the plaintiffs’ counsel in the related judicial challenges brought by “concerned citizens” of New Orleans East seeking to challenge “the basis under which Waste Management sough to operate its landfill in an area of the City of New Orleans that is not zoned for such use,” Mr. Kyle Schonekas and Ms. Joelle Evans, were both secretly on retainer by the River Birch Defendants as undisclosed “lobbyists.”
Upon information and belief, the River Birch Defendants and their secret lobbyists, Schonekas and Evans, also enlisted the services of Walter Willard to assist with their litigation against the Chef Menteur landfill and challenging Mayor Nagin’s emergency authorization. Mr. Willard was retained, at least in part, to curry favor and political influence. In particular, Mr. Willard is the brother of Cynthia Willard-Lewis, then the New Orleans Councilperson for District E where the Chef Menteur landfill was located. At one point, Ms. Willard-Lewis was one of the strongest proponents and supporters of the Chef Menteur landfill because she deemed it critical to expediting the clean-up and recovery of her district in New Orleans East… Upon the retention of her brother to allegedly “assist” in the River Birch sponsored litigation against the landfill, Ms. Willard-Lewis suddenly reversed course and became a vocal opponent to the continued operation of the Chef Menteur landfill. Ms. Willard-Lewis attributes her changed position to the public outcry over health and safety concerns arising from the location of the landfill.
Ok, so at least that sounds fairly fishy. But a tipster points to the recent resignation of a Federal Prosecutor for online comments may also be instructive:
As River Birch landfill owner Fred Heebe saw a $160 million contract with Jefferson Parish slip from his grasp in December amid lawsuits and whispers of a back-room deal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone offered him some free, unsolicited advice. “If Heebe had one firing synapse, he would go speak to Letten’s posse and purge himself of this sordid episode and let them go after the council and public officials,” he wrote.
Perhaps it is no secret that Federal prosecutors are circling “council” and public officials, but it’s an awful specific mention and might point to several potential targets.
Zombie has spent years researching the intricate web of corruption in and around New Orleans, and clearly has a very good record.
Insiders speculate that if Cynthia Willard-Lewis were to win the Council At-Large race, she would have the inside track on a candidacy for Mayor of New Orleans, potentially in 2015 when Mayor Landrieu decides to run for Governor. Ms. Willard-Lewis would be a popular, city-wide African-American public official, similarly positioned to former Councilman At-Large (and convicted Federal felon) Oliver Thomas in 2007, and she could edge out all others over the next 2-3 years with smart moves on the council.
The question at hand, of course, is to what degree is Former Senator and Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis related to the ongoing Federal River Birch investigation. Maybe we don’t know, and Mayor Landrieu does. But it becomes a little hard to understand why Landrieu would involve himself in a race that poses serious credibility challenges for any future statewide races. New Orleans corruption allegations or associations have sunk statewide campaign efforts of politicians like Congressman Bill Jefferson and others. With Landrieu’s high-marks continuing with his city, is this a risk he can just afford to take? Can Democrats risk losing their one rising star over a meaningless council race in New Orleans?
It seems we are about to find out.