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Concerned about potential taint from the metastasizing Enron scandal, George W. Bush met with reporters recently to distance himself from Enron's chairman, Ken Lay (nicknamed "Kenny Boy" by W. before the scandal). It is testament to how indelible that taint may become that Bush found it necessary to lie about his friend. He claimed that Lay supported Ann Richards in 1994 when Bush ran for governor of Texas and that he only got to know him later. In fact, Lay was a leading contributor to Papa Bush's re-election run in 1992, and by his own account was "very close to George W." Enron's PAC and executives pumped $146,500 into W.'s 1994 race (while Richards received all of $12,500 from Enron sources). Bush "was in bed with Enron before he ever held a political office," reports Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.
W. has good reasons for trying to minimize his relationship with Lay and Enron in the dying days of his father's presidency. After Clinton's 1992 victory, Enron pushed hard to exempt its energy futures contracts from regulatory oversight before the new Administration took office. The lame-duck chairwoman of Bush's Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Wendy Gramm, wife of Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm, brought the exemption to a final vote on January 14, 1993, six days before Clinton took office. Enron, a leading contributor to Phil Gramm's campaign coffers, then named Wendy Gramm to its board of directors, where she pocketed about $1 million in payments and stock benefits over the next nine years. She served on the company's audit committee and helpfully turned a blind eye to the shady private partnerships Enron set up off the books to hide debt and mislead investors. In 2000, as the Supreme Court was naming Bush President, Senator Phil Gramm slipped a bill exempting energy trading from regulation into Clinton's omnibus appropriations act, avoiding hearings, floor debate and notice. Enron was all set to operate in the dark.
What is the Enron saga about? Enron's bankruptcy, the largest in history, exposes the decay of corporate accountability in the new Gilded Age. No-account accountants, see-no-evil stock analysts, subservient "independent" board members, gelded regulators, purchased politicians--every supposed check on executive plunder and piracy has been shredded. Enron transformed itself from a gas pipeline company to an unregulated financial investment house willing and able to buy and sell anything--energy futures, weather changes, bandwidth, state legislatures, regulators, senators, even Presidents.
It is Enron's rise that lays bare the hypocrisy of modern conservatives--call them Enron conservatives. Enron conservatives fly the flag of free markets but actually use political and financial clout to free themselves from accountability, rig the market and then use their position to ravage consumers, investors and employees. These are not the small-is-beautiful compassionate conservatives George Bush advertised in the election campaign, or the tory conservatives who protect flag, family and honor. Enron conservatives make the rules to benefit themselves. "They have clout and the ability to get the rules written their way," said Stephen Naeve, chief financial officer for Houston Industries, Inc. about Enron in 1997. "They play with sharp elbows."
Ken Lay learned about regulation while working at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). After he created Enron, he lavished millions on lobbyists and campaign contributions to free Enron from regulation and to push energy deregulation. His lobbyist stable has included James Baker, Bush I's Secretary of State; Jack Quinn and Mack McLarty of the Clinton White House; and Marc Racicot, current head of the Republican Party.
Enron's lobbyists played a large role in California deregulation--setting the state up for a hit. Most experts believe that Enron, controlling about a quarter of wholesale trading in electricity with no regulatory oversight, was central to the market gaming that led to last year's "energy crisis," which cost Californians about $50 billion. For six months Pat Wood, Enron's handpicked head of FERC, refused to impose price controls. The White House, led by economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, a former Enron consultant, ridiculed the very notion. In those six months, Public Citizen reports, Enron posted increased revenues of nearly $70 billion. When the price controls were finally enacted, the "crisis" disappeared. Spencer Abraham, Bush's clueless Energy Secretary, now informs us that this is a triumph of deregulation.
Enron conservatives prefer plunder to production. Enron's twenty-nine top executives cashed in a staggering $1.1 billion in stock in the three years before the firm went belly up. Small investors got soaked, and faithful employees got stiffed. In August, after Lay and CEO Jeffrey Skilling had cashed in more than $160 million in Enron stock, Skilling abruptly resigned. Lay personally e-mailed his employees to assure them that "our growth has never been more certain." Enron then maneuvered to ban its employees from selling the Enron stock in their retirement accounts as its value plummeted, leaving thousands stripped of their life savings.
Enron conservatives aren't limited to the Houston boardrooms. Enron conservatives in the Administration pushed through the $15 billion airlines bailout that included zero for workers. Enron conservatives in the House passed the "stimulus" package that featured tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy while scorning unemployment insurance and healthcare assistance for those losing their jobs. Enron itself was slated to receive $254 million from retroactive repeal of the minimum corporate tax. Enron conservatives in Congress passed the President's tax cut, which showered almost half its benefits on the wealthiest 1 percent. And they even repealed the estate tax, insuring that Lay and his fellow executives could pass along their ill-gotten gains intact to their heirs.
Enron conservatives aren't all Republicans. Enron's deregulation plans, and its contributions, were popular with the Clinton White House. Enron gave $10,000 to the New Democrat Network, the money wing of the Democratic Party. With his employer, Citigroup, owed at least $750 million by Enron, Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin didn't hesitate to call Treasury to suggest it intervene to forestall the downgrading of Enron's credit rating.
But the leading Enron conservative is W. himself. After all, Bush made his own fortune with inside connections while other investors in his company were getting soaked. Lay and Enron were Bush's leading supporters, contributing $113,800 directly to his campaign and another $888,265 to the Republican National Committee, an arm of the campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Bush repaid Lay and other "Pioneers"--those who raised $100,000 or more for his campaign--with his shameful tax plan. He continues to push for a stimulus plan that benefits corporations over workers. He is pressing Congress to pass the Enron energy plan, which features massive subsidies to energy companies and further deregulation. And while the White House has begrudgingly admitted to six meetings between Enron representatives and the Cheney energy task force, it continues to stonewall efforts by the General Accounting Office to find out who met with Cheney to draw up the plan.
Public Citizen reports that Enron set up a staggering 2,832 subsidiaries, with almost a third located in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens. On taking office, the Bush Administration announced that it was abandoning Clinton efforts for a multilateral crackdown on these havens, saying, in Treasury Secretary O'Neill's words, that the Administration will not "interfere with the internal tax policy decisions of sovereign nations."
The Administration crows that there is no smoking gun vis-à-vis Enron. We'll see. But the real scandal is not what was done illegally but what was done under cover of law. Enron conservatives don't violate the rules; they change the rules to suit themselves.
As Bush was distancing himself from his old friend Kenny Boy, one of the President's first regulatory acts in office went into final effect: the repeal of the Clinton rules that allowed the government to deny contracts to companies that are repeat violators of workplace safety, labor, environmental and other federal laws. Enron conservatives don't see why corporate lawlessness should get in the way of federal largesse. After all, in this Administration Enron's rise and fall are seen, in the words of Treasury Secretary O'Neill, as a "triumph of capitalism."
When George W. Bush was first running for governor of Texas, Washington editor David Corn took a look at Bush family activities on behalf of Enron in Argentina--itself now suffering the results of untamed financial markets. We reprint this November 21, 1994, article to show how Enron's connections with the Bushes stretch not just to Washington but around the world.
Several years ago, says Rodolfo Terragno, a former Argentine Cabinet Minister, he received a telephone call from George W. Bush, son of the then-Vice President. When he hung up, Terragno was annoyed, he recalls, for the younger Bush had tried to exploit his family name to pressure Terragno to award a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Enron, an American firm close to the Bush clan.
During this past year, as George W. campaigned across Texas to replace Governor Ann Richards, he portrayed himself as a successful businessman who relied on "individual initiative," not his lineage. Contacted in Buenos Aires, Terragno, now a member of the Chamber of Deputies, offered an account that challenges Bush's campaign image.
In 1988, Terragno was the Minister of Public Works and Services in the government of President Raúl Alfonsín. He oversaw large industrial projects, and his government was considering construction of a pipeline to stretch across Argentina and transport natural gas to Chile. Several US firms were interested, including the Houston-based Enron, the largest natural gas pipeline company in the United States. But Terragno was upset with the corporation's representatives in Argentina. They were pressing Terragno for a deal in which the state-owned gas company would sell Enron natural gas at an extremely low price, and, he recalls, they pitched their project with a half-page proposal--one so insubstantial that Terragno couldn't take it seriously. Terragno let the Enron agents know he was not happy with them.
It was then, Terragno says, that he received the unexpected call from George W. Bush, who introduced himself as the son of the Vice President. (The elder Bush was then campaigning for the presidency.) George W., Terragno maintains, told the minister that he was keen to have Argentina proceed with the pipeline, especially if it signed Enron for the deal. "He tried to exert some influence to get that project for Enron," Terragno asserts. "He assumed that the fact he was the son of the [future] President would exert influence.... I felt pressured. It was not proper for him to make that kind of call."
George W. did not detail his relationship with the pipeline project or with Enron, according to Terragno. The Argentine did not know that Enron and the Bush set are cozy. President Bush is an old friend of Kenneth Lay, Enron head for the past ten years and a major fundraiser for President Bush. After the 1992 election left Secretary of State (and Bush pal) James Baker jobless, he signed as a consultant for Enron. An article by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker last year disclosed that Neil Bush, another presidential son (the one cited by federal regulators for conflict-of-interest violations regarding a failed savings and loan), had attempted to do business with Enron in Kuwait. The Enron company and the family of its top officers have donated at least $100,000 to George W. Bush's gubernatorial campaign.
Shortly after Terragno's conversation with George W., more Bush-related pressure descended on him, the former minister claims. Terragno says he was paid a visit by the US Ambassador to Argentina, Theodore Gildred. A wealthy California developer appointed ambassador by President Reagan, Gildred was always pushing Terragno to do business with US companies. This occasion, Terragno notes, was slightly different, for Gildred cited George W. Bush's support for the Enron project as one reason Terragno should back it. "It was a subtle, vague message," Terragno says, "that [doing what George W. Bush wanted] could help us with our relationship to the United States."
Terragno did not OK the project, and the Alfonsín administration came to an end in 1989. Enron was luckier with the next one. The pipeline was approved by the administration of President Carlos Saúl Menem, leader of the Peronist Party and a friend of President Bush. (The day after Menem was inaugurated, Neil Bush played a highly publicized game of tennis in Buenos Aires with Menem.) Argentine legislators complained that Menem cleared the pipeline project for development before economic feasibility studies were prepared.
Replying to a list of questions from The Nation asking whether George W. Bush spoke to Terragno about the pipeline project and whether he had any business relationship with Enron, Bush's gubernatorial campaign issued a terse statement: "The answer to your questions are no and none. Your questions are apparently addressed to the wrong person." This blanket denial covered one question that inquired if George W. Bush had ever discussed any oil or natural gas projects with any Argentine official. George W.'s response on this point is contradicted by a 1989 article in the Argentine newspaper La Nacion that reported he met that year with Terragno to discuss oil investments. (The newspaper noted that this meeting took place in Argentina, but Terragno says he saw Bush in Texas.)
Theodore Gildred, a private developer again, is traveling in Argentina; his office says he is unavailable. An Enron spokesperson comments, "Enron has not had any business dealings with George W. Bush, and we don't have any knowledge that he was involved in a pipeline project in Argentina."
In late August, several members of the Chamber of Deputies--Terragno not among them--submitted a request for information, calling on President Menem to answer dozens of questions about the business activities of the Bush family in Argentina. (In 1987, Neil Bush created a subsidiary of his oil company to conduct business there. In early August, a Buenos Aires newspaper reported that on a forthcoming trip to Argentina the former President would lobby the Menem government to allow a US company to build a casino there. The onetime President said this was not true.) One of the deputies' queries was, Does Menem know whether George W. Bush attempted to capitalize in Argentina on his father's position? So far Menem has not responded.
The rise and fall of the house of Enron should trigger comprehensive investigations--civil, criminal and Congressional. The full scope of relations between Enron and its cronies in the Bush Administration must be dragged out into the sunlight. Miscreants should be prosecuted, and fundamental reforms enacted to bring corporations back to public accountability.
Desperately trying to put a lid on the cascading scandals, White House spokesmen have insisted that since Bush officials did nothing when Enron chairman Ken Lay warned them about its impending collapse, there is no political scandal, only a financial one. Don't fall for that.
The largest scandal, as Robert Borosage suggests on page 4, is not just what was done illegally but what was done legally--for example, the failure of Bush Cabinet members to warn small investors and employees that Enron was going down and that its executives were bailing out. Or the slick way Enron gouged billions from Western energy consumers while its planted head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Pat Wood, ignored the pleas of Western governors for price controls. Or Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's torpedoing of the Clinton Administration's attempt to regulate offshore tax havens, a direct benefit to Enron, among others. Or Enron officials' six meetings with Vice President Cheney to help shape Bush's energy plan. What is Cheney hiding by refusing to reveal the names of those FERC met with?
Clearly, the full range of Administration contacts with Enron should be probed. This will reveal how crony capitalism works and what must be done to curb it. Congress must begin the hard task of rebuilding the legal framework for corporate accountability. As William Greider writes on page 11, Enron's demise reveals that all the supposed checks on executive plunder--accountants, stock analysts, independent board members, regulatory agencies--were either short-circuited or inactive. We need bold reform now. And Congress should take a close look at pensions, boosting defined-benefit plans and returning 401(k) plans to the supplement they were intended to be. And of course Enron once again illustrates the corrosive corruption of big-money politics.
With the House and the White House in Republican hands, Democrats in the Senate, sadly, will have to take the lead in ferreting out the facts and defining the necessary reforms. "Sadly" because too many Senate Democrats mirror Republicans in pocketing corporate bucks and parroting the deregulation/privatization line that comes with them. The chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, Joseph Lieberman, was leader of the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council and a founder of New Democrat Network, the proud recipient of Enron contributions. Last year Lieberman blew off the probe of Enron's connections to the California energy crisis. He now has another chance to show if he stands with his voters or his contributors.
Enron's bankruptcy is the largest in US history, but it is not unique. It is a product of the conservative offensive to unfetter corporations by dismantling hard-won public protections. Given that freedom, Enron's executives--and their brethren--gouged consumers, fleeced investors, even betrayed their own employees. It's time for Congress and the people to put an end to Enronomics and call corporate marauders to account.
If you believe President Bush, Kenneth Lay--one of his top financial backers and his "good friend"--was merely an equal-opportunity corrupter of our political system, buying off Democrats and Rep
On August 21 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a struggling oil-refinery town on the Texas border, Wilbert Rideau walked to the center of the modern courtroom, hobbled by shackles. The man Life magazine called "the most rehabilitated man in America" lifted up his furrowed brow and looked at the judge. And stillness came over the crowd of mostly elderly blacks, as Rideau pleaded not guilty to a murder committed forty years ago.
Interest in the case lies not in Rideau's innocence or guilt. On numerous occasions he has accepted responsibility for murdering a woman after robbing a bank in 1961. Rideau, 59, received the death penalty, but by an accident of history, lived to become a famous journalist. As editor of a prison magazine called The Angolite, he has won almost every journalistic award and become a national expert on prison life; he's been "Person of the Week" on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and a pundit on Nightline--all from behind prison bars in Angola, Louisiana. In 1994 Rideau's lawyers, in a last-ditch effort to free him, filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court. In December 2000 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans found that the original prosecutor of the case had excluded blacks from the grand jury in blatant violation of the Constitution, and ruled that the state must retry Rideau or release him.
This year Rideau is set to stand trial in the same Louisiana town where he was first convicted forty years ago. Many thought that Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish would look the other way rather than reprosecute an age-old case with lost evidence and a manifestly rehabilitated defendant. Rideau's lawyers have said he would settle by pleading guilty to manslaughter and walk away with more time served than all but four convicted murderers in Louisiana history. But the state won't offer any deal.
The reason can be found in Lake Charles, a town where redemption may not be possible when a black man kills a white woman. Powerful people in the parish have blocked Rideau's release, whereas other inmates sentenced for similar crimes have received parole. During Rideau's time in Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, nearly 700 convicted murderers have been freed. Four pardon boards have recommended Rideau for release--but two governors have denied clemency. "Why Not Wilbert Rideau?" was the title of a 20/20 segment exploring why he has not been able to get parole. "I think he is a con artist," said District Attorney Rick Bryant. "He's a master manipulator of the media and people who have supported him."
The vehemence stems in part from the fact that Rideau is a prosecutor's nightmare. This is the fourth time the parish has tried him. Each time Rideau is convicted, he appeals and exposes shameful structural flaws in how the justice system here really works. And he's doing it again. This past November 29 the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down the parish's process for selecting judges in capital cases, which the court faulted for allowing judge-picking, a practice used by prosecutors to obtain judges favorable to the state. The prosecution had filed its new case against Rideau when the only ball left in the bingolike hopper was the one for Michael Canaday, a white judge who had never before tried a felony. After watching Judge Canaday in court, Marjorie Ross, 68, a retired department store salesperson, said, "I look back forty years ago and things haven't changed. It's because of this." She pointed to her dark-skinned face.
But the new judge, selected "at random" with all seven balls in the hopper, happens to be one Wilford Carter, who is black and was elected from a black district with many voters fixated on this case. It's a boon that has become Rideau's signature--the grace of luck appears just when it seems to have run out. "The fact that I excelled beyond anybody's wildest expectations not only vindicated official decisions but increased the hostility of my enemies," Rideau said in a series of telephone interviews. "Everything I became, everything I have achieved, has been in spite of this unholy force from Lake Charles dedicated to destroying me and denying me the ability to be anything more than the criminal they wanted me to be."
His crime has been hard for the town to forget. According to the original prosecutor, Frank Salter, on February 16, 1961, Wilbert Rideau, then 19, knocked on the door of the Gulf National Bank at closing time. Bank manager Jay Hickman unlocked the door. He knew Rideau as the errand runner at Halperin's, the sewing shop next door, who would fetch sodas for bank employees, until the relationship became too friendly for the whites. "We stopped [asking him for sodas] because he started talking," said victim Dora McCain in her trial testimony, "calling us by our first names. So we just--we just got a refrigerator for the bank." That day, Rideau produced a gun and demanded that Hickman empty the money drawer. Rideau put $14,000 in a gray suitcase (leaving $30,000 on the floor and in coffers) and forced Hickman and two women bank tellers into a car. They drove to a country road in a wooded area, where Rideau lined up his three hostages and began firing. One bullet landed in Jay Hickman's arm. Hickman rolled off into a bayou out of sight. The two women fell to the ground with gunshot wounds. Julia Ferguson, 49, cried out, "Think of my poor old daddy," who lived with her. "Don't worry, it will be quick and cool," Rideau allegedly said before slitting her throat and stabbing her in the heart. Ferguson died at the scene. Rideau approached the other teller, Dora McCain, a pretty twentysomething with a well-known family, who lay face down. He kicked her in the side three times to see if she was dead. When she didn't cry out, Rideau took the car and left. Two state troopers stopped Rideau in his car as he was leaving town. They found the suitcase with the money in the back seat. (Rideau's counsel declined to comment on the facts before trial.)
That year, the first of three all-white, all-male juries convicted Rideau and sentenced him to death. Rideau appealed on grounds that a TV station, KPLC-TV, had secretly filmed the sheriff posing questions to Rideau, who had no access to a lawyer, and aired his mumbled answers as a confession. The US Supreme Court slammed the parish's "kangaroo court proceedings" and found that the broadcast had unfairly prejudiced the jury pool. The Court reversed the conviction and said Rideau could not be tried anywhere within the reach of KPLC. In 1964 at a second trial, in Baton Rouge, the jury deliberated for fifteen minutes before deciding to give him the electric chair. Rideau appealed again, and a federal court overturned his conviction on grounds that the state court had rejected jurors with doubts about the death penalty, in effect stacking the jury with death penalty proponents--a violation of due process. In 1970 at a third trial, in Baton Rouge, the jury took eight minutes to give Rideau the death penalty. His appeals were unsuccessful, and he returned to death row--just in time to benefit from Furman v. Georgia, the 1972 Supreme Court decision that temporarily found the death penalty unconstitutional. As a result, every death-row inmate in America, including Rideau, had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
Rideau won't comment on the crime because he is facing a new trial. But he agreed to talk about the person he was at the time and how he has changed. Though he usually speaks quickly, in perfect sentences, his cadence is deliberate in describing the man he was when he entered prison. "I wouldn't recognize him today," he said. "I was typical in a lot of ways. I was another dumb black, immature, angry. Not even aware that there is a world bigger than me." He says he had a fairly normal childhood, moving to Lake Charles when he was 6. "My home life wasn't the best," Rideau says. "But that doesn't say much because a lot of people's family lives weren't." His problems, he says, began during adolescence. "People used to pass by and they would throw Coke bottles and spit and holler at you," he says. "You could be walking by with your girl and they would call at you talking about you--'Hey nigger, blah blah blah, whatever.'" Rideau knew it wasn't directed at him alone. But he took it as "the end of the world." "I saw whites as enemies responsible for everything wrong with my world. Whites created this bizarre segregated world where racism ruled," he says. In his segregated school, he dismissed the hand-me-down books from white schools, which held forth ideas of "rights" and "how life was so wonderful." Though he had a straight-A average, he quit school in the eighth grade because he saw no use for an education. "I wanted to be a spaceman like Flash Gordon," he says. At 13, he began a series of low-paying jobs and spent most of his time in pool halls and gin joints. "I didn't even know the name of the governor of the state," he said. "I was totally out of it."
Eventually, he became an errand runner in the fabric shop, his last job before being sent to Angola. In prison, he noticed the strange ethics of prison life, starting with white guards who smuggled him novels and science texts. "I read a library on death row," he says. And in a Baton Rouge jail, where he stayed for part of his appeals, Rideau lived in the segregated white section as punishment for leading a "strike" in protest against prison conditions--flooding the commodes and burning mattresses. When Rideau led white prisoners in a strike as well, the prison put him in solitary confinement. And to Rideau's shock, whites began secretly sending him food and kind words. "Whites started taking care of me," he said.
Within the first year of his life sentence, Rideau asked to join the then-all-white newspaper, the Angolite, only to have administrative officials turn him down. "I read in the paper that they couldn't find a black who could write," he says. The rejection stung. Over the past decade, he had penned a book-length analysis of criminality and corresponded with a young editor at a New York publishing house, who tutored him in the art of writing. Rideau rounded up an all-black staff and started The Lifer, which chronicled stories like that of a group of elderly women who brought a truckload of toilet paper to the prison and were turned away. Eventually, the administration put him out of business. "They threw me in the dungeon saying I was advocating insurrection," he says. White prisoners petitioned a black senator to demand Rideau's release from solitary confinement. "Along the way, the whites that I initially saw as enemies befriended me and fought for me, not blacks," he says. "That experience caused hell with the way I saw things."
In 1975, the warden made Rideau editor of the Angolite as part of compliance with a federal court order mandating integration of the segregated Angola prison. A year later a new warden, C. Paul Phelps, arrived and offered to strike a deal. Phelps promised that the Angolite would operate under the same standards that applied to journalists in the free world--he could print whatever he could prove--so long as Rideau would teach him about life at Angola. Over the years, the two men had many philosophical and political discussions. And they ate together in the dining hall. "He told me that like begets like," Rideau says. Phelps permitted Rideau to become a public speaker, a reward for well-behaved prisoners to travel and explain the dangers of prison life to youth at risk. And with his new freedom, Rideau jettisoned a longtime plan to escape. "The thing that is most respected in prison is character, loyalty, keeping your word," says Rideau. "These are things that are highly valued in the real world, but they are really, really valued in ours." This and the passage of time have changed him. "Part of it is just growing up," he says. And growing up has meant a realization that he may die in prison. Since 1997 Rideau has been president of the Angola Human Relations Club, which cares for elderly inmates by providing such essentials as toiletries, warm caps and gloves, and which buries the dead.
After Rideau became editor of the Angolite, the paper changed from a mimeographed newsletter into a glossy magazine exposing systemic problems and an emotional inner life. One story revealed that the Department of Corrections had doled out money for AIDS programs that were never implemented. Another issue featured pictures of inmates after electrocution--a portrait so horrifying that Louisiana changed its method to lethal injection. The magazine has won seven nominations for a National Magazine Award, and Rideau has won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the George Polk Award and an Academy Award nomination for The Farm, a documentary film about Angola that he co-directed. He co-edited a book, Life Sentences (Random House). He addressed the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1989 and 1990. And he's a correspondent for National Public Radio's Fresh Air program. While Lake Charles watched, the man many faulted with ushering in an era of crime became a nationally respected writer and commentator. "There's no way you're going to give life back where it's been taken," Rideau opined on Nightline in 1990. "But you--you just try to make up.... When it's all over and done with, Wilbert Rideau will have tried."
One blistering August afternoon in Lake Charles, I locked my keys in my rental car and called "Pop-A-Lock" for help. As owner Jim Rawley jimmied the lock, he recalled the night Rideau committed the crime. Rawley was in high school then. His friends wanted to kill Rideau and mobbed the courthouse. "There was a group of vigilantes among us," he says. "I can't remember the specifics. But I remember the atmosphere. Macho kind of stuff, except that we were scared too." Years later, Rawley became a Calcasieu Parish deputy and knew Rideau, who was awaiting trial in the Lake Charles jail, as "a troublemaker." Once, he says, a friend and fellow officer "beat the hell out of [Rideau]" for being "belligerent and uncooperative." When asked if he thought Rideau had changed, he said, "By all appearances he has rehabilitated himself, for lack of a better word. He seems to be a different man than he used to be. But that doesn't negate what he did.... It doesn't change the fact that he was convicted three times. He has never claimed that he didn't commit the crimes. He is fortunate he didn't receive the death penalty." He also said Rideau is a burden to the courts and should stop appealing his case. "If he's a different person he needs to go through the pardon board," he argued. But everyone knows that governors have blocked his release. Rawley shrugs, "It's already been decided, then."
Rawley's reaction was typical of whites I met. Rideau's good actions matter little next to the fact that he escaped the death penalty, as if death had somehow been cheated. And one has to wonder if there isn't some jealousy of his fame in the world outside Lake Charles. Elliott Currie, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Berkeley, calls the unceasing and vindictive punishment of those who have committed bad acts, without regard for the genuineness of their remorse or rehabilitation, "punitive individualism." Law-abiding people don't want prisoners to have anything they can't have--thus the 1994 elimination of Pell Grants (federal educational scholarships) for prisoners and the conflicts over whether taxpayers should pay for weightlifting equipment for prisoners. Rideau represents the extreme of this line of thinking: Most of us are never going to get to be on Nightline. Why does this murderer get to do it? Many white observers view the legal mistakes in his case as technicalities, and his appeals a waste of taxpayer money. After the arraignment, a blue-blazered security guard grabbed my hand very tightly and muttered, "If I killed your grandmother could you rehabilitate her?"
And the more well-known a defendant, the more the public focuses on preventing release. In this sense, Rideau is not unlike famous white prisoners who can't get a break despite impeccable prison records--like Kathy Boudin, the former Weather Underground radical, denied parole last August for a 1981 murder conviction; or Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer executed in 1998, even after the victim's brother begged Texas Governor George W. Bush to pardon her. Their violent offenses do not elicit leniency. "It's not that people are afraid he is going to do it to her again," says Currie. "They are saying, 'Anybody who does this can't be free again; in our moral universe that can't happen.'" This attitude pervades public policy. Federal laws passed in 1994 provide matching funds to states to keep violent criminals in prison longer by denying parole.
But perhaps the biggest strike against Rideau is his race: No black man convicted of murdering a white person in Lake Charles has ever been released from prison, according to The Rideau Project, a research effort at Loyola University in New Orleans (see www.wilbertrideau.com). Whether or not people were alive at the time of the crime, feelings seem to be as strong as they were forty years ago. A 33-year-old white saleswoman at an electronics store, who asked not to be identified, said, "He should die the same death like everyone else," adding that she had to put her kids in private schools because of the "kids who cause trouble." She then mouthed the word "blacks." Her co-worker, a 30-year-old white man, used lynching imagery to say he agreed: "They should have swung him a long time ago." But then he asked, "What did he do?"
This is what gives District Attorney Rick Bryant his mandate. He's up for re-election in November, which means trying Rideau during campaign fundraising season. In two conversations, one at his desk and a second in a downtown bar, he said that even if Rideau were rehabilitated (and he wouldn't admit this), he would reprosecute. "He did the crime, didn't he?" Bryant refuses to recognize his own prosecutorial discretion, implying that he actually doesn't have the power to decide not to prosecute. This may be true, but only in the sense that his political survival in this majority-white town depends on a conviction. "They are trying to make me into a glorified pardon board. I am not a pardon board. I am a DA. Like I should be God of this case! Like I don't care! Or that I should decide he's a good guy in prison! That is not my job. The only reason I would not retry him is if there is no evidence, he's innocent or the victims want his release," he says. I suggest that his job is to seek justice, not just to convict, and that a retrial can only divide the town. "They line up and tell me to keep him in prison," Bryant says.
Of course, there are those--mostly black and some influential whites--lining up on the other side, too. Cliff Newman, an attorney and Democratic state senator from 1980 to 1988, once lobbied the governor to keep Rideau in prison at the behest of Dora McCain, the only victim who is still alive today. In the following years, Newman met Rideau in Angola at the prison rodeo and followed his story in the media. Today Newman has changed his mind: "From a political point of view it is not popular to ever say a murderer should be released. But I am not in politics anymore. And I am not going to be. Everyone is capable of rehabilitation."
Even conservative whites are hard pressed to argue that Rideau is not a different man today. Bill Shearman, owner of the town's conservative weekly newspaper, said, "Well, yeah, I think Rideau is rehabilitated," explaining that his view isn't representative. "Only a scant minority realized he has changed." Jim Beam, 68, a columnist of the American Press, the conservative daily that has opposed Rideau's freedom, admitted, "If you asked me if he's rehabilitated I would say yes." And Peggi Gresham, retired assistant warden and Angolite supervisor for twelve years, said, "I am not a bleeding-heart liberal. I don't think that everybody should get out. But when a person is as successful as some individuals are they can get out and have a good life. Wilbert is one of those people."
Young black professionals I met generally thought Rideau should be released because he has changed but see his plight as a remnant of past prejudice that doesn't really concern them. Rideau's real support in Lake Charles has come from the local NAACP and black press who believe that Rideau didn't commit the crime alone and is part of a larger conspiracy. "Blacks don't rob banks and they don't commit suicide," says Lawrence Morrow, publisher and editor of the black magazine Gumbeaux. Rideau had a good job, they argue, at a time when it was difficult for blacks to find jobs, and he took only $14,000, leaving $30,000 in the bank. Joshua Castille, 73, a retired black law enforcement officer, had drinks with Rideau the night before the crime and saw no peculiar behavior. He believes Rideau acted in concert with bank manager Hickman. Even back then, he said, a bank would never open its doors after closing hours. For a black person? "For anyone," he says. "They just wouldn't do it." The contrasting perceptions of the Rideau case among blacks and whites is emblematic of the different ways the two groups view crime, as well as issues like the death penalty. "Blacks are more likely to understand that people like Rideau are less likely to have committed the crime because they are monsters than because of circumstances that put them in that situation-- 'there but for their fortune go I,'" says Currie. "And they know that the criminal justice system has been pushed toward punishing blacks more than whites for as long as the justice system has existed."
Rideau's trial could go either way. On the one hand, Lake Charles elects its judges and Judge Carter is accountable to a black constituency that cares about this case enormously, which could mean openness to arguments about prosecutorial vindictiveness. On the other hand, when Carter's son, then 16, was charged with second-degree murder, he received a plea deal from Bryant reducing the charge to manslaughter--which, critics say, could predispose the judge to be friendly to the prosecution. And while, after so many years of appeals, the evidence is mostly lost, Dora McCain's lawyer, Frank Salter, the original prosecutor, said she would testify, which could mean a conviction based on her testimony alone (McCain did not respond to interview requests). Rideau's lawyer is the formidable George Kendall of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, but it isn't yet clear how Judge Carter feels about counsel who swoops in from New York.
Rideau says if he does get out, he wants to leave Louisiana and write two books. "And neither one of them is about me," he says, explaining that he hopes to redefine criminality. "But I am telling you they are going to give me the Pulitzer Prize for this." It's hardly what Lake Charles wants to hear. When does he believe punishment should stop? "Whatever it should be, it should be," he says. "But it should be equal."
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