James Gill: Crooks sometimes sell out for very little

What a lousy deal. It worked out to roughly a day in prison for every five dollars.

And Quincy Richard never got to spend the bribe, because the FBI relieved him of it as soon as he stepped outside. It was only $5,000 anyway, so we are confronted yet again with the mystery of why so many politicians are prepared to risk everything for not very much.

Say what you like about former Gov. Edwin Edwards and former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, but at least they sold their souls for serious money. Small-town officials may have much less scope for graft than governors and congressmen, but that’s all the more reason to sit down and figure if the game is worth the candle before grabbing the moolah.

For every Edwards or Jefferson there seem to be dozens of pikers, and not all of them are country politicians. We have seen state and New Orleans city officials sent up the river for trifling sums too. Richard, though, is tinpot through and through. He tried his puny shakedown as a member of the St. Landry Parish School Board. For an insight into the psychology of corrupt politicians, he is the perfect case study.

All politicians, even honest ones, tend to have a high opinion of themselves, so the public welfare may not always be their primary concern. Still, they generally have conscience enough not to betray their trust for personal profit, and, if that doesn’t work, a fear of getting caught generally will.

In the conscience department, the likes of Richard are no less deficient than the big-timers, and possibly even more so. Edwards and Jefferson exploited the power of high office to extort money from wealthy individuals who were looking to make a buck themselves. Richard tried to rob the kids for whose education he was responsible in an impoverished parish.

He did not even pretend that he was sorry about that. In sentencing Richard to 33 months last week, federal Judge Richard Haik noted he had shown “no remorse whatsoever” and “an arrogance that this court cannot disregard.” You’d need a professional shrink to figure out what makes this guy tick. Crooked pols are generally smart enough to fake a conscience after they get caught.

They presumably never figure they will get caught, which, in Richard’s case, was pretty dumb. That he was a crook had been public knowledge since 2004, when he pleaded guilty to buying one of those fake degrees that an enterprising assistant registrar at Southern University sold at bargain prices. Richard paid $1,500 for a transcript showing his wife had a master’s degree. That was a very thoughtful present, for his wife was a public school teacher.

Richard paid a fine and had to step down from the school board, but he ran again two years later and won his seat back. If the voters of St. Landry Parish are a forgiving bunch, they are evidently not keen students of state law. As a convicted felon, Richard was required to wait 15 years before running for office again.

St. Landry Parish District Attorney Earl Taylor cottoned on last summer, filed a motion in state court and Richard was ordered off the board again. He filed an appeal and stayed put, although he was in much deeper trouble by then and awaiting trial for bribery.

When a new superintendent was about to be appointed in 2012, Richard and another school board member, John Miller, told one of the candidates, Joseph Cassimere, that he could have their votes for $5,000 each. When he got the job, they would bump up his salary to cover the cost.

Cassimere went to the FBI and was wearing a wire when he handed the money over in an Opelousas restaurant. Richard and Miller were nabbed on the way to their cars in the parking lot. Richard, in relinquishing his envelope stuffed with cash, told the FBI he had planned to buy new tires and rims for his Corvette. When time came for a decision on a new superintendent last May, Miller was absent and Richard, his tires by now presumably somewhat bald, voted against Cassimere.

Richard chose to go to trial last August, which was another stupid call. Miller, having pleaded guilty and gotten off with 10 months of home confinement, was among the witnesses testifying against him.

At his sentencing Tuesday, Richard did not offer an apology but said Cassimere “has been a friend and will always be a friend.” Cassimere, who failed to get the superintendent’s job, must have wondered if Richard is crazy when he heard that. The question in all this may not be what Richard was thinking but whether he was thinking at all.

James Gill’s email address is jgill @theadvocate.com.