Best of #StateReads: Inside Deals for Louisiana Oil Leases Last Decades

  • May 09, 2012
  • By Daniel C. Vock

This week's collection of #StateReads covers a shady Louisiana oil lease from the Great Depression that still benefits the descendants of Governor Huey Long and his allies, a Big Tobacco effort to enlist state fire marshals in the fight against self-extinguishing cigarettes and the wide-open campaign finance rules in Missouri.

These examples of extraordinary journalism about state government were recommended in tweets using the #StateReads hashtag on Twitter and in email submissions to dvock@stateline.org.

“‘Dirty Deeds' cost Louisiana hundreds of millions” — Fox 8 (WVUE)  

The descendents of legendary Louisiana Governor Huey Long and his political cronies continue to reap the rewards — measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars — of insider deals on state oil leases made in the 1930s, reports Fox's Lee Zurik (@LeeZurik) in a four-part series. “If a governor did today what was done in 1936 and got interest in a contract he awarded,” Zurik reports, “he would likely go to prison.” But royalties from oil leases in state waters continue to flow to more than 200 recipients scattered across 21 states, and the state of Louisiana has not challenged the arrangement. In fact, several members of the agency that oversees the leases were not aware of the lease arrangements that benefited the descendants of Long and his allies.

“Big Tobacco wins fire marshals as allies in flame retardant push” — Chicago Tribune 

When fire safety groups called for self-extinguishing cigarettes to prevent deadly house fires, Big Tobacco needed allies to push a different strategy of making furniture less flammable. So the tobacco companies turned to the National Association of State Fire Marshals, report Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe (@SamRoe) of the Chicago Tribune. A former tobacco executive named Peter Sparber helped the fire marshals push for fire-retardant furniture and become a more powerful lobbying force, especially on Capitol Hill, all while Sparber was secretly getting paid by the tobacco lobby. Their clout helped stall state laws for “fire-safe” cigarettes until the national tobacco settlements dismantled the industry-funded Tobacco Institute. Shortly after that, many states passed laws requiring fire-safe cigarettes.

“Missouri Politics: Hiding big donations is easy and legal” — KCUR  

“Missouri is the only state,” reports Steve Bell of the radio station KCUR (@KCUR), “where someone could donate $1 million to a political campaign, cover it up, and not have broken the law.” Plus, Missouri has no campaign contribution limits, no limits on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and no power of the legislative ethics commission to launch investigations on its own. The courts threw out one rewrite of the state's campaign finance laws, and observers say the chances that any of the bills that would tighten the existing rules passing this legislative session are dim.

“Civil War shipwreck in the way of Ga. port project” — The Associated Press 

The damage done by General William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea is still being felt today, when it threatens to delay a much-hyped dredging of the port in Savannah, Georgia. The city is trying to deepen its harbor to make it possible for a new class of container ships to unload there, but a Civil War era wreck stands in the way, writes Russ Bynum (@RussBynum) of The Associated Press. Confederate sailors scuttled the CSS Georgia in 1864 to prevent it from being captured by Sherman's approaching army. Now, officials plan to spend $14 million to raise it from the bottom of the Savannah River.

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