I've been through enough scandals involving public officials to know that, while each is different, there are definite patterns. Even when they're not strictly about public corruption.
The recent tax evasion trial of Craig Taffaro, the well-connected former top deputy at the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, is a case in point. Taffaro was convicted earlier this week of improperly deducting nearly $200,000 in fake expenses from a side business he owned with his boss, then-Sheriff Newell Normand. The two-man firm, CTNN, was set up to broker grocery sales from Pelican Marine, which was once co-owned by Taffaro's son-in-law, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, and Harvey Gulf, which is run by politically active businessman Shane Guidry.
Whether Taffaro and Norman provided any added value was a matter of dispute in the trial, but that wasn't the basis for the charges. Nor was Normand, the longtime sheriff who left office last year to become a radio talk-show host, accused of any crime.
Still, one line from Taffaro's testimony summed up why so many of these cases, and the routine behavior they unveil, are so galling.
Taffaro testified that he initially hoped to set up the business himself, but when he went to Normand, the sheriff said he'd like to get on something like that. Taffaro said his wife called him stupid for cutting Normand in, but to Taffaro there was a clear benefit.
"When you're walking up to all these boat companies, it doesn't seem bad that the sheriff is your partner," Taffaro testified. "Otherwise, you don't even get in the door."
And boom, there you have it. That's the attitude that links this joint venture with other highly problematic side-gigs by powerful people. That's why it mattered that former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson funneled business communications to government agencies and foreign contacts through his congressional office. It's why it mattered that Ray Nagin signed correspondence with Home Depot about his sons' granite business as the New Orleans mayor, at a time when the company was negotiating to put a new store in the city.
Even if it's unstated — especially if it's unstated — interactions such as these carry the whiff of implied favor or threat. And that alone is corrupting.
Taffaro's failed defense was basically that he was a buffoon who didn't understand how to keep proper records, which makes you wonder how he functioned as the second-in-command in a major public agency. But another point his defense attorney hammered was that he was just a little guy caught up in the feds' quest to land a big fish such as Normand or Nungesser.
"If your government can do that to this man, what can they do to you?" attorney Mike Magner, a former federal prosecutor, rhetorically asked the jury. "If the government has the power to put 10 to 12 agents with a microscope on this man and abuse its power, what do we have left? What has this country come to?"
That this line of argument fell flat is no wonder, because most people who'd likely land in the jury pool probably can't relate. The median household income in Louisiana from 2012-2016 was less than $46,000 annually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Taffaro and Normand each pulled down $57,000 from CTNN, in addition to their six-figure public salaries.
That's not exactly an arrangement that's available to the average person. Even if Taffaro had made a credible case that he played a needed role, and even if he hadn't claimed absurd deductions such an Alaskan cruise, which he justified to his accountant as necessary to cozy up to an evasive potential client, it would still stink.
And the actual criminality, Taffaro's conviction on 12 counts of tax evasion, filing false tax returns and failing to tax return at all? Well, that's just insult to injury.