Monday’s T-P story and Wednesday’s editorial about Mayor Nagin’s arts & entertainment director Ernest Collins’ inability to discern between what is ethical and what is not is a classic tale of hubris & snobbery.
Power is the ultimate test of one’s character. Sure, tragedy and disaster can be final exams; but, the bigger test is when one acquires power. Then, how well does one continue to maintain integrity?
Ernest Collins, Greg Meffert and others in the Nagin administration failed this test. And they don’t see what they’ve done wrong. Meffert chose to exhibit paranoia in assuming that people were out to get him because he was successful and because he changed things in City Hall. After all, he stepped on “their” toes–those evil, corrupt people he was called (by God some of them think) to vanquish. To his credit, he changed many things for the better. However, as his power and ability to choose contractors grew, so did the temptation to “play the game” as he once put it. He did what every corrupt politicians does–hired his friends and shared the wealth–and failed miserably at maintaining his integrity.
Collins, however, chooses spin. Ernest Collins is the consummate smooth operator and spin-meister. He always has been. But first, a little history.
I was one of the four producer/creators of LTV (Louisiana Music Television), the original music show that pre-dated Louisiana Jukebox. Bernie Cyrus, Ken (“Burt Gold”) Winters and I originally proposed the show to Ernest Collins at Cox Productions in the early 90s. He liked the idea; and, with Bernie as Executive Producer, Ken as Producer/Director and me running audio, booking bands and chefs and writing news, the show launched. Aired live on Thursday nights, the show was a raucous affair with 3 musical acts, guests, call-ins, skits, the Hostess Babes, chefs and whatever else Bernie (mostly) and the rest of us could conceive, all in the small Cox studio on Cleveland Avenue. Nobody was paid except the Cox crew who were making minimum wage.
Bernie trusted Ernest Collins. He didn’t get Collins to sign a contract specifying the chain of command despite my urging him to do so. Eventually, Ernest and his staff tired of Bernie’s impromptu approach to television. One day, Collins called us in to his office and said, “Bernie, LTV is now a Cox production. You are no longer Executive Producer.” It was the beginning of the end.
We toiled on. However, the fun was gone. As the Cox staffers became ever more emboldened, they took over more and more of the responsibilities of the show. Collins’ staffers weren’t from New Orleans and it was clear they thought Bernie was a buffoon. They even tried to “teach” him how to conduct interviews. Bernie, by this point in his life, had conducted literally thousands of hours of radio and television interviews. Bernie was (rightfully) offended, and we all became outraged at the increasing level of snobbery we encountered. We called it quits after a celebratory and star-studded 100th episode.
LTV enjoyed an unprecedented run. We showcased nearly 300 musical artists, including many legends for whom the show was their last time in the public eye. We brought great artists out of the darkness and put them into people’s living rooms. The show also aired on worldwide shortwave radio and was carried in several cities around the state and country. It was nominated for, and eventually won, a Cable Ace award.
In the end, Bernie ended up filing a lawsuit and Cox settled by admitting that Bernie owned the name and by giving the shows over to the Tulane Library. Collins and his staff then created Louisiana Jukebox, which also enjoyed a long run. He obviously took a lesson from Bernie and registered the name.
Through it all, we learned that Ernest Collins was a clever, manipulative company loyalist who was the perfect “yes man” for his boss at Cox, Ray Nagin. Collins took chances only rarely and accepted what was given to him. That he is now in trouble for having a business on the side that has received money from city government entities he helps run, reflects his biggest flaw: he assumes he such a good guy that he can’t be doing anything wrong.
In the T-P article, Collins explains that he believed he was acting ethically when he did business deals with city money, state tax breaks and other sources while being employed full time in a department overseeing and working with these same entities. And he opines that it wasn’t that much money. He says he did nothing wrong. Amazing.
Ethics laws and ethical principles are clear on the matter. He’s wrong. And he might’ve broken the law. No matter how good he is at production, no matter how good he is at administration, Ernest Collins sucks at ethics. Power tested him and he failed.
Ernest Collins seems to believe, like others in the Nagin administration, that because he was doing this, that it isn’t corrupt. After all, they are the good guys, right? Just because he worked hand in hand with Mark Smith, LIFT and whatever other corrupt manipulators he knows, doesn’t mean he’s corrupt, does it?
And why am I blogging about this? Because Ernest Collins was a player in the cabal of cretins who contributed to the dismantling of the Louisiana Music Commission. Because he’s part of the group of people who poisoned Bernie Cyrus’ and my relationship with people in politics who should have known better.
This story is far from over.