St. Charles head didn’t let scandal scare him away

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 25, 2004

BY KEVIN CHIRI, Publisher

HAHNVILLE – Albert Laque said that it was a love of government, and of people, that led him to enter St. Charles Parish politics back in the early 1960s.

So nearly a decade later when Laque found himself in the middle of a parish government scandal that saw a handful of police jury members go to jail, it might have been easy for the young politico to wring his hands of the whole mess.

Laque survived the scandal of kickbacks to jury members, being found innocent by both local and state juries after being charged with taking $600 as the parish administrator.

Most men would have walked away from it all, having enough of the business that has too many illegal temptations for some to handle.

But Laque wasn’t one of them, rebounding within a decade to become the parish president and continue a long career in St. Charles politics that has now led him into his 70th year of living.

The reason is simple, says Laque.

“I just love helping people. You get a good feeling when you do something for someone and know that you have made a difference to improve their lives,” he explained.

Does that mean building the hurricane levees along the Mississippi River is the kind of thing that Laque considers among his greatest accomplishments since taking office?

Yes, Laque says, that is something he is really proud of, but not necessarily the greatest. The real story behind Albert Laque might be his personal one-on-one relationship with the people he serves that has made him so popular.

“When the old lady from Norco calls me and says she is scared at night, and could I please try to get a street light by her house┼áthen we get it done, it does something for me,” the smiley-faced president notes. “I’m proud of the big things we’ve done here, but I am just as happy when I can help someone like that old lady.”

A Survivor

When you consider the life that Laque has led in St. Charles politics, one thing is obvious. He is a survivor who seems to always come out on top. It’s the old saying of who has the last laugh. In the case of Laque, it seems like it has always been his turn to chuckle when the final chapter is written in his political life.

Take his rise through the St. Charles political system.

Laque was approached by workers at Shell in 1963, asking him to run for Police Jury, even though he had no political experience. He had been elected president of operations within the union and must have been more impressive than he thought at handling problems.

“I think I was a guy who was easy going enough that people didn’t think I was an extremist. I guess I showed leadership,” he recalled.

But Laque was being asked to run against a jury member who had been in office for 37 years.

The result? He won handily and suddenly found himself vaulted into politics at the front lines.

In that position Laque became popular very quickly, so much so that he was asked to take the job as parish administrator in 1964.

“Believe it or not, one of the biggest reasons I wanted the job was because I wouldn’t have to keep working at Shell and drive across the river every day,” he laughed.

Even though that led to the federal and state charges, when he found himself in the middle of a scandal, it didn’t deter him from wanting to continue, even after several years of fighting the charges to finally have his name cleared.

Almost 10 years later in 1984 after he had worked for the parish sheriff, Laque began to feel the bug to get back into office.

“I had moved up in administration with the sheriff and liked the job a lot. But then there was this new parish president position that had started in ’84, and on the last day of qualifying for the 1988 election, I signed up,” he said.

The ironic thing is that Laque was pitting himself against Kevin Friloux, the man who had taken his parish administrator job when the charges had been levied against him many years before.

“I always remembered that Kevin had told me one day after I was fired that he hoped I didn’t get my job back since he was glad he had it,” Laque said, now smiling about it. “So it was tremendously satisfying when I went against him for parish president and won.”

Not only did Laque get the last laugh in that situation, winning the election, but he did it by taking 60 percent of the vote in a clear show of the popularity he still carried.

Laque even had one final measure of satisfaction after he lost to Chris Tregre for the parish president seat in ’92, as he came back to win it again in 2000, then win over Tregre and others in the 2004 race.

Heading the Parish

Laque still talks about the little people when asked about what has been most satisfying as parish president.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love things like building the levee, and now with the community center we are hoping to build,” he said. “But the old lady with the street light is as important as anything big we do.”

Laque admits, however, that being in his position has its drawbacks, since he is constantly sought after for solutions to every problem in the parish.

“There isn’t two days that go by without someone calling and asking for money,” he noted. “One time a lady asked me to give her $13,000 to start a business. Can you imagine that? She thought the parish was sitting here to give people money to start their own business.”

He knows that the endless situation of better drainage will never go away, nor be completely solved.

“Sometimes people expect you to do just about everything for them,” he said. “Just like the Norco flood. We have a system in place that is doing the best it can, but when we get rains like we had recently, our system can’t do anything to get the water out fast enough. But I understand people being upset when it is their house that has flooded.

“What I want people to know is that I come in here every day to do the absolute best I can to help the people of St. Charles. Why would any of us not want to help everyone the best we can? Of course we do, and I know that we are always trying to do all we can do,” he added.

Laque said that he believes some of the public simply thinks the parish, as well as the president himself, has much more power than they do.

“Anything you can think of, someone has asked me to do it,” he said. “I’ve been asked to co-sign loans for people, and I don’t even know them.”

And he says that he has noticed the more affluent residents have higher expectations than anyone, perhaps since they are paying more taxes.

“No doubt our most affluent residents are the most demanding,” he said. “But maybe it is because they are paying more taxes. I can understand that. But we are determined to do the best we can for them, as well as lower income residents.”

Beating the Rap

In 1974 Laque went through his most trying time after serving as parish administrator for six years. He was charged with taking $600 in a kickback scheme, which led to the indictment of five of the seven police jury members. Four of them pled guilty and went to jail, but Laque went to trial and was the only one exhonerated.

“They offered me a plea deal, but I didn’t do anything wrong, so I didn’t care what the outcome was, I was going to go to trial,” he remarked. “But even when you know you are innocent, something like that shocks you beyond belief.”

The local trial put him before the jury along with one jury member who didn’t take the plea deal. But he was found innocent of the charges.

Then came the state trial and Laque again was found innocent in a 20-minute verdict from the jury.

“It makes me feel good to win at two trials, which I think really proved my innocence,” he said. “And even though it all happened, I still had a love for politics and expected that I would be back one day.”

Laque was fired from his job due to the charges against him, but said he never could fight hard enough in a lawsuit against the parish since he didn’t have the resources to do so. The result was that he let it die, and moved on to working with the sheriff until returning to politics in 1988.

Raised in River Parishes

Laque has been a born-and-bred River Parishes man, coming out of high school at Hahnville High and growing up in a close family which saw his dad work as a state policeman.

He had two brothers and two sisters, and was close with his father, who died early at the age of 51 from a heart attack. His mother worked for Rheem Manufacturing.

“We were one of those kind of poor families, but always had what we needed,” he said. “But the thing I always remember about my family is how close we all were. There was no TV or computers back then, just your family. And even when my older brother moved to Houma, he always came home every weekend, even after both my parents had died. That’s how close we all were.”

Laque worked several local jobs out of high school at Lion Oil Company, and then at Rheem, before joining the Army in 1954 and serving in Germany during the Korean War.

“What do I remember the most about the war?” he asked. “It was so freezing cold and we slept in some of Hitler’s old barracks. To tell you how cold it was, our group made a skating rink out of the parade field and it only took a few hours to freeze it over when the water was put in. It was so cold your ear lobes would freeze if you didn’t keep them covered. I was really glad to finally get home.”

Today Laque is in his 46th year of marriage to his wife Dorothy, and he has three children and three grandchildren.

How long will he stick it out as the grand survivor in St. Charles politics?

“I want to finish the two levees,” he said. “And we need to improve our water works. But I’m probably done after this term┼á.probably. Well, I guess you never know what might be next for me.”