NEW ORLEANS — FOR radio talk-show host David Tyree, there hasn't been anything like it: a slowly unfolding story of political corruption that has clogged the lines to his popular evening show every time he goes on the air.
"You can talk about the congressional pay-raise matter, the House banking scandal, even the 1991 election here between David Duke and Edwin Edwards," said Mr. Tyree, whose show is heard on station WWL, which broadcasts across much of the South. "Nothing equals the anger people are feeling over this. It's incredible."
What has gotten people so upset and has also jammed phone lines for legislators' offices across Louisiana is a scandal many call "scholargate" or "tuitiongate," the revelation that nearly every top political figure here has, through the years, sent members of his or her family or close friends to prestigious, expensive Tulane University for free, during a time when other students without financial resources may have been denied this opportunity.
"I don't have to think very long about why we received hundreds and hundreds of calls on this," Tyree said. "This is the kind of scandal that everyone can instantly understand because everyone knows how incredibly expensive it is to go to school these days. That other kids who may not be hurting financially have gone for free has made people nothing less than furious."
Even though a law allowing politicians to award scholarships to Tulane is more than 100 years old, it wasn't until last month that tuition-waiving became a public issue when Mayor Sidney Barthelemy awarded 1 of 5 scholarships he has control over to his son. Mr. Barthelemy, who earns more than $90,000 a year in a city whose per-capita income is just over $21,000, defended his action, arguing that without such a scholarship he could not afford to send his son to Tulane.
Responding to public-information requests, however, other politicians - including United States Sens. J. Bennett Johnston (D) and John Breaux (D), and Reps. Jimmy Hayes (D), Bob Livingston (R), and Richard Baker (R), and a handful of state legislators - have also revealed that their children have received tuition-waivers to Tulane, fueling the public's outcry. Mr. Johnston was the only legislator to have sent two children for a total of eight years and cost savings of more than $138,000.
"This is a classic example of why so many people become cynical about politics," said David Vitter, a Republican state lawmaker and one of the most vocal critics of the system. "The biggest thing wrong is that it rests fundamentally on the absolute discretion of our political leaders and, to me, that just makes the possibility for abuse wide open.
"Even if you take out immediate family members," he said, "there is clearly plenty of abuse left to go around with scholarships going to the sons and daughters of elected federal officials, other state officials, and significant financial-backers. It's just an arrangement we would be much better off without."
Scholarships to Tulane sponsored by lawmakers became possible in the 1880s after the university separated from the public University of Louisiana and became a private institution. Part of a legislative agreement that was later written into the state's constitution granted Tulane tax breaks on a portion of its property, while the university, in return, agreed to give free tuition to one student from each Senate and House district.
In the years since the carving of that agreement, Tulane has grown from a small downtown New Orleans site, to a tree-lined campus that is home to a mostly white, affluent student body in the exclusive Uptown city section. With a tuition that exceeds $17,000 a year, Tulane is one of the South's most expensive private universities.
Yet, according to Tulane's senior vice president, Ronald Mason Jr., suggestions that the university has been enriched through its arrangement with the state are unfounded: "We can only get about $500,000 in property-tax exemptions, but the tuition-waivers, because they go to 144 legislators, as well as the mayor of New Orleans, cost us more than $2 million annually. So it clearly isn't a quid-pro-quo sort of deal."
Mr. Mason added that none of the current 132 students on scholarship from state legislators and 13 from the mayor's office fell below Tulane's 2.0 grade-point average for admission. "Academically, we have no problems with these students at all," he said.
"It isn't as though we took in less-qualified students to the loss of students who were more qualified. All of them met our admissions standards," Mason added.
Nevertheless, Tulane officials have agreed to change the system so that only they can select scholarship recipients, even though many lawmakers have said they would like to retain their right to pick who gets a scholarship in their own district. At the same time, the state Board of Ethics has ruled that lawmakers who award scholarships to themselves or relatives do so illegally, while the state House Executive Committee has argued for retaining the right for lawmakers to award tuition-waivers at their ow n discretion.
"Basically, what you're seeing now is a lot of public posturing, most of it in response to all of the bad publicity," said Vitter, who plans to introduce his own bill on the issue later in the year when the state Legislature is in its regular session. "But what hardly anyone is admitting is that we basically need to get rid of the entire system, just overhaul it completely. Until that happens, people here are going to stay mad, and for good reason."