Updated: Aug 5, 2021
In recent days I’ve been thinking a lot about Louisiana Law Men and the extraordinary impact they can have on citizens’ lives. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about Jeff Landry, Louisiana’s current Attorney General who has distinguished himself by, among other things, suing repeatedly to kill the ACA and its Medicaid Expansion – in effect repeatedly litigating to take health care away from thousands of people in this state. He also seems to be breaking a state law that requires the AG to do his job in a full-time manner. Landry interprets this legal requirement loosely enough to allow him to run two outside businesses of his own and to accept a compensated seat on the Board of Directors of major donor Shane Guidry’s company. He also appointed Guidry as a “special agent/investigator” for the AG’s Office. For more on Landry and Guidry see:
Given the kind of shameless self-dealing and arrogance exhibited by so many politicians past and present, one ought not be surprised. But Louisiana has had a particularly dazzling roster of doozies in the A.G.’s office, including Jack Gremillion, of whom Gov. Earl Long once said, if you want to hide something from [him] put it in a law book. Like Attorneys General, District Attorneys, who are also state officials, can use their offices to achieve outcomes that are, arguably, as political as much as they are about pursuing criminals or paying attention to the letter of the law.
To offer a timely example, Landry seems to have sucessfully pressured my own institution’s supine upper management NOT to require Covid-19 vaccines for incoming students this fall; a decision which I sincerely believe will have dire if not deadly consequences in the weeks to come.
On Monday, however, Landry outdid himself in the shameless department once again. According to the Advocate story linked below, a couple of hours before our current governor John Bel Edwards (a VERY conservative Democrat) held a factually horrifying press conference about the current Covid-19 surge in Louisiana, Landry sent his employees an email offering them information about how to get around Covid-related requirements or restrictions, including mask mandates, by documenting their religious or philosophical objections. He even helpfully attached templates for the use of his employees (and, presumably, anyone they forwarded those emails to). And, if you might think this improper, Landry clarified that he was not giving anyone legal advice, just passing along helpful information. Bless his heart.
I’m not gonna’ go on about Landry ad nauseum (no real point –his record speaks for itself loud and clear). But thinking about the unholy duo of Landry and Guidry put me in mind of two other Louisiana Law Men who oversaw the administration of “justice” in New Orleans for much of the 1960s.
I refer to District Attorney Jim Garrison and his Chief Investigator from 1962 to 1965, Pershing Gervais. Garrison is a polarizing figure, mostly related to his pursuit of an alleged cabal of New Orleans-based conspirators in the Kennedy assassination, but his appointment of Gervais to be his Chief Investigator is one of the most quixotic decisions he made in his first term. The two men are pictured below from the June 8, 1963 Saturday Evening Post. Check out Gervais' shoes!
For one thing, Gervais – who supervised a staff of active duty policeman assigned to the D.A.’s office – was a disgraced former policeman. Gervais was dismissed from the force in 1953 for alleged criminal activities as well as infractions internal to police culture; namely stealing a week’s worth of graft intended for his entire station house and using it to fund a weekend trip to NYC for himself and his girlfriend. His wife was probably as mad at him as his fellow cops! Here is how I describe him in my forthcoming book Cruising for Conspirators:
“When Gervais had been on the force in the early 1950s he, like most of his peers, had been a head-cracking, graft-taking, informant-working, criminal-associating, and, on occasion, evidence-planting cop. After his dismissal, he fought hard to be reinstated and continued to do so until his final court challenge was turned back by the Louisiana Supreme Court 1955. All the while, the industrious and intriguingly-connected Gervais managed to stay busy."
How? Well, he helped run some pretty seedy bars, one of them aptly called the Bucket of Blood. And, at the time Garrison tapped him to be his Chief Investigator, Gervais was associated with a gay-friendly bar in the French Quarter called the Gaslight Lounge. If you think that the association between the D.A.’s chief investigator and a gay bar is a lot to take in circa 1962, once ensconced in the D.A.s office, some of Gervais’ actions beggar the imagination. One example involves officers supervised by Gervais taking part in a scheme to engineer and then film a sexual encounter between two men, one a bail bondsman the D.A. considered a political enemy. Gervais helped in the operation by drafting a Gaslight Lounge regular to do the honors of getting the bail bondsman into a compromising position.
Gervais’ blatant disregard for certain aspects of the law also played a key role in setting off a series of vice raids in August 1962, many of them initially directed at gay bars, including the Gaslight Lounge. Over time that campaign would come be to characterized as Jim Garrison’s War on Bourbon Street, but the origins of the vice campaign are far more complex and, at least in part, related to infighting within the D.A.’s office. I cover these events in detail in the book. I also reveal whether Garrison was aware of or involved in any of Gervais’ questionable activities.
There was so much wild material about Gervais that I couldn’t fit into the book, including his late 1950s foray into acting. Damn Citizen, the film in which he appeared, was based on the memoirs of Francis Grevemberg, Superintendent of the Louisiana State Police (1952-1956). Grevemberg gained a reputation as an inveterate enemy of gambling interests AND an upright lawman (a rarity in Louisiana law enforcement in those days). His story is compelling, but the movie is pretty clunky. Yet it did include some interesting cameos and casting choices including Gervais, who was brilliantly cast as a bad cop; a role which surely wasn’t much of a stretch. He is the figure at center with his gun drawn below.
There is significant evidence that Garrison and Gervais engaged in activities that were, at best, questionable. Their partnership also provides a precedent for evaluating the current alliance between A.G. Landry and his part-time employer and special investigator Shane Guidry.
Sadly, in Louisiana there is a long history of law enforcement officials abusing the public and the public trust, sometimes in the service of raising profiles for future electoral runs. Like Garrison was, Landry is popular with certain segments of the electorate and, in some respects at least, quite effective at enlarging the boundaries of his authority. Louisiana Law Men are empowered to make consequential - sometimes even life and death - decisions for the people they are sworn to serve. Currently, by exerting raw political power and offering baldly dubious interpretations of state and federal law, Landry has discouraged state institutions like LSU from adopting vaccine mandates for incoming students (or anyone) this fall. I hope his success in this area doesn’t result in needless suffering and more avoidable deaths, but I’m doubtful.
Down the road I’m certain some Louisiana historian will write a wild and wooly account of Landry’s time in office. Meanwhile, If you want to know more about Garrison and Gervais, I hope you’ll read Cruising for Conspirators – coming Sept. 14 from the University of North Carolina Press and available for pre-order now wherever books are sold.
Y'all take Care - and GET VACCINATED!