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This artist is obviously a state employee or surely he would come forward and take credit for his brilliant work! Perhaps someday, after he retires, he can make his identity known so that we may pay him proper homage.

In reading Destiny’s Anvil, a novel about Louisiana politics by New Orleans writer Steven Wells Hicks, one sentence near the end of the story was so profound that it jumped off the page at us:

  • The responsibility for building and maintaining our way of open and honest government belongs in the hands of those who elect our leaders and not the leaders themselves.

The very simplicity of that one sentence, so succinct and straightforward a summation of what our government should aspire to, should be the credo which dictates the acceptance of every campaign contribution, every promise made and every action carried out by every elected official in America.

Sadly, it does not. And most certainly, it does not in Louisiana, especially where generous donors to the campaigns of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Florida, R-Anywhere by Louisiana) are concerned.

LouisianaVoice has learned that one major donor and its principals not only benefitted from several contracts worth more than $240 million, but also appear to have been given preferable treatment in the purchase of a state building at a bargain price at the expense of taxpayers.

The electorate of this state has capitulated in that responsibility, choosing instead to acquiesce to backroom deals fueled by campaign contributions and to actions concealed in secrecy and carried out for political expedience or personal gain instead of for the common good of the citizenry.

Remember last month when we wrote that Timmy Teepell in 2010 issued a directive to Tommy Teague, then the CEO of the Office of Group Benefits that a request for proposals (RFP) be crafted in such a way as to favor a specific vendor and that then-Commissioner of Administration Angéle Davis resigned shortly thereafter?

At the time, Teepell was Jindal’s Chief of Staff. The RFP was for vendors to provide health care coverage to state workers primarily in northeast Louisiana. Vantage Health Plan of Monroe subsequently landed the 26 month, $70 million contract, effective July 1, 2010. Six months later, on Jan. 1, 2011, a second one-year contract of $14 million awarded to Vantage to provide a Medicare Advantage plan for eligible OGB retirees and on Sept. 1, 2012, Vantage received yet another four-month $10 million contract under an emergency rule to provide an HMO plan to OGB members.

Since Jindal took office in January of 2008, Vantage has been awarded six contracts totaling nearly $242 million.

In addition to the claim of the 2010 directive to Teague to “write a tightly-written” RFP, LouisianaVoice has learned the Jindal administration may have deliberately circumvented the usual procedure for selling state property in order that Vantage could purchase a six-story state office building in Monroe last year.

By legislative fiat, the administration was within its legal rights to sell the State Office Building in Monroe to a chosen buyer without going through the bid process but it may have done so at a cost to state taxpayers.

Senate Bill 216 of 2013 by Sens. Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe), Rick Gallot (D-Ruston), Neil Riser (R-Columbia) and Francis Thompson (D-Delhi) passed overwhelming in both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Jindal as Act 127, clearing the way for the sale of the former Virginia Hotel at 122 St. John Street.

By law, if a legislative act is passed, the state can legally bypass the public bid process but there are several indications that the administration may well have gone out of its way to accommodate Vantage and its President, Dr. Patrick Gary Jones through the Louisiana Department of Economic Development (LED).

The cooperative endeavor agreement between Vantage and the state was executed by Vantage Executive Vice President Mike Breard and LED Undersecretary Anne Villa on Aug. 28, 2013.

Vantage paid the state $881,000 for the six-story, 100,750-square-foot building and an adjoining 39,260-square-foot lot and one-story office building. The cost breakdown was $655,000 for the hotel and $226,000 for the adjoining property.

The Virginia Hotel was constructed in 1925 at a cost of $1.6 million and underwent extensive renovations in 1969 and again in 1984, according to documents provided LouisianaVoice by DED.

But LouisianaVoice has learned that there was at least one other potential buyer interested in the Virginia Hotel/State Office Building and indeed, documents obtained from LED contained no fewer than three references to fears by Vantage officers that if the building were put up for public auction, the bids might make the costs prohibitive to Vantage.

Melody Olson and husband Kim purchased the nearby Penn Hotel for $341,000 and poured $2 million into converting it into condominiums.

The late Shady Wall, a colorful state representative from Ouachita Parish, lived in the Penn’s penthouse. (Wall once wedged a pencil between a stack of books and the “yes” button at his House desk and went home for the day, officially casting “yes” votes on every matter that came up in the chamber after his departure.) The Olsons now reside in that same penthouse.

Melody Olson told LouisianaVoice that she and her husband wanted to purchase the Virginia and convert it into a boutique hotel but were never given the opportunity.

“It was sold through the Department of Economic Development and never was offered for public bid,” she said. “We never got the chance to make an offer.”

One internal LED memorandum said that Vantage Health Plan (VHP) “approached LED to help arrange the sale in order to avoid typical State surplus real property requirements of public bidding. VHP fears that public bidding would allow a developer utilizing various incentive programs to pay an above market price that VHP would find hard to match.” (Emphasis added.) IMAG0379

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Another document appears to be an internal memorandum that provides an overview of a 2012 meeting about the sale. It indicates that LED Secretary Stephen Moret, Sen. Walsworth, LED Legislative and Congressional Liaison Mandi Mitchell and LED Director of Contract Performance Shawn Welcome were in attendance on behalf of the state and Dr. Jones and his son-in-law Michael Echols, Director of Business Development, representing Vantage.

Under a heading entitled Company Issues/Concerns there were these two notations:

  • “Developers have purchased and converted some downtown Monroe buildings into mixed use buildings (by) taking advantage of federal and state restoration tax credits.”
  • “Concern: Vantage is worried that if SB (state building) is offered through regular channels, developers using federal tax credits could outbid Vantage.” IMAG0377

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Finally, there was a handwritten note which described another meeting on Nov. 1, 2012. Besides the notation that “Sen. Riser supports,” there was this:

  • “Problem is option of auction—if auction comes there is possibility of tax credits allowing a bidder to out-bid.”

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Finally, there was a hand-scrawled notation at the bottom of a typewritten page containing employment estimates by Vantage through 2024 which directed that an “approach” be written “specific to Vantage.”

And while Vantage repeatedly cited concerns about other potential buyers obtaining state and federal incentives which they might use to thwart their purchase plans for the building, Vantage was not shy about seeking incentives from the state for its own benefit.

Documents obtained from LED show no fewer than 20 applications or notices of applications for various state incentive programs, including Enterprise Zone, Quality Jobs Program and property tax exemptions for renovations to existing offices in Monroe or expansion into new offices in Shreveport, Mangham, West Monroe, New Orleans and even into Arkansas.

Nor were Vantage and its corporate principals shy about flashing cash for political campaign contributions.

Campaign finance records show that Vantage its affiliate, Affinity Health Group, their corporate officers and family members combined to contribute more than $100,000 to various political campaigns, including $22,000 to Jindal and $11,000 to three of the four Senators who authored the bill authorizing the sale of the Virginia Hotel to Vantage: Thompson ($5,400), Walsworth ($4,500), and Riser ($1,000.

Unlike the Jindal administration, we are not transparent when it comes to identifying either our sources or those who support us financially.

Oh, we do report all income to the IRS, but because we are not a non-profit, we are not required to reveal our funding sources—and we won’t, for obvious reasons.

Many of our contributors are state employees and the last thing they need is for a vindictive Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Florida, R-Anywhere by Louisiana) to learn their names. Can you say teagued?

Our fund raiser continues and we still need assistance to help us offset the cost of pursuing stories the other media continue to ignore. Just as the identities sources for news tips and leads are protected as priority one, so too do we protect the names of donors.

If you are not seeing the “Donate” button, it may be because you are receiving our posts via email subscription. To contribute by credit card, please click on this link to go to our actual web page and look for the yellow Donate button: http://louisianavoice.com/

If you prefer not to conduct an internet transaction, you may mail a check to:

Capital News Service/LouisianaVoice

P.O. Box 922

Denham Springs, Louisiana 70727-0922

 

CORRECTION:

We were in error when we reported on Saturday that Rep. Jim Fannin (D/R-Jonesboro), chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB) refused a request by Rep. James Armes (D-Leesville) that Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson) be allowed to serve as his proxy at last Friday’s JLCB meeting in Baton Rouge.

LouisianaVoice was unable to contact any of the principals involved over the weekend but we spoke with Armes on Monday and he informed us that it was not Fannin, but House Speaker Chuck Kleckley (R-Lake Charles) who declined, or simply failed to act on, Armes’ request.

More accurately, it appears now that Kleckley may have indicated he would consent to Armes’ request but either had a change of heart or simply did not follow up. “When I spoke with the speaker, he told me he would take care of it,” Armes said today. “I was unavailable and unable to attend, so I called him (Kleckley) and asked that Rep. Havard be allowed to serve as my proxy. Normally when a member cannot attend, we will try to get someone from the Baton Rouge area to attend and Rep. Havard is only a few miles outside Baton Rouge.

While it may not have been Fannin who dropped the ball on approving a proxy for Armes, it was Fannin who informed committee members after they had convened that the issue of the $178.5 million budget surplus claimed by the administration would not be taken up pending a report by the Legislative Auditor’s office. That report is expected sometime in December. Meanwhile, the state is in budgetary limbo over whether there is a surplus as claimed by Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols or a $141 million deficit as claimed by State Treasurer John Kennedy.

The administration’s sudden “discovery” of $360 million (accumulated since 2002), which it says brought the state out of a $141 million hole to a surplus of $178.5 million has drawn fire from two former commissioners of administration, Raymond Laborde of Marksville and his niece, Stephanie Laborde of Baton Rouge. Raymond Laborde was commissioner during former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ third term of office and Stephanie Laborde (at the time Stephanie Alexander) served during Edwards’ fourth and final term. Both, along with Kennedy, indicated it was highly improbable that that much money could have remained hidden for so long a time.

One source has put the amount closer to $500 million but added that the money has already been spent. If so, that would put the deficit closer to $300 million than the $141 million initially claimed by Kennedy.

State Treasurer John Kennedy isn’t the only one who disputes the veracity—or the political motives—of administration claims of a $178.5 million budget surplus for the fiscal year that ended on June 30.

There are a couple of Kristy Nichols’ predecessors, former commissioners of administration and a former state budget officer who have been there, done that and got the T-shirts, who are genuinely perplexed and skeptical of the whimsical claims.

Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Anywhere but Louisiana), aka Booby Jindini, through Commissioner of Administration Nichols, is claiming the implausible “discovery” of some $360 million, dating back to 2002 that pulls the state from the jaws of a $141 million deficit in favor of the surplus explained thus far only as Immaculate Discovery.

LouisianaVoice, meanwhile, has learned that the true “discovered” money is more like $500 and that it actually goes back as far as 1998, near the end of Gov. Mike “the Jindal Creator” Foster’s second term. But, says Kennedy, the money has already been spent, which would make the real deficit more like $200 million, instead of the mere $141 hole claimed by Kennedy.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details and the details have not been readily forthcoming from the administration. And members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB) sat mutely Friday morning as committee Chairman Rep. Jim Fannin (D/R-Jonesboro) proclaimed that the committee would not be discussing the matter until it received a report from the Legislative Auditor’s office, probably sometime in December.

What?!!!!!!!” legislators should have sputtered, shouted and otherwise protested.

Sorry, guys, you should have stood as one and protested that the time to discuss this little matter is now and the place is right here. Right here, right now. We want, no, demand an explanation, an accounting of where this money suddenly came from and how it is that the administration did not know of its existence for the past seven years.

And while we’re at it, why is it that Fannin sudden decided to exercise his power to disallow a request by Rep. James Armes (D-Leesville) that a non-member of the JLCB, Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson), be allowed to sit in on the committee as his proxy. Legislative observers cannot recall a time when such a request was denied. Was Fannin afraid Havard might ask some embarrassing questions about the budgetary procedure?

Or was it that Havard was not among the members who had been called in a few at a time in advance of Friday’s meeting to be reminded by the administration that capital outlay projects in their respective districts could suddenly face a lack of funding for their implementation?

Regardless, it is quite obvious from our perspective that the fix is in.

Instead, committee members sat mutely as one as Fannin, desperate to hang onto his chairmanship and reportedly considering a run at the State Senate seat currently held by Sen. Bob Kostelka (R-Monroe), allowed that rather than demanding details and explanations from the administration, there was no urgency to the issue that could not wait until December.

Retired state budget officer Stephen Winham said that in his 21 years in that office, nothing of this magnitude ever occurred.

“The hidden piles of money is a myth,” he said. “There may have been hidden pockets of money before modern accounting and information technology, but it is impossible to hide money in the state treasury today.

“This has to be the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen happen with regard to the state’s financial condition and its reputation,” he said. “How can $500 million simply have been hiding in the state treasury? Do Ms. Nichols and others have any idea how her contention totally undermines the integrity of our financial system? It makes a mockery of our accounting system and our annual Comprehensive Financial Reports for the past 16 years, if not longer, and of our state itself. People already routinely suspected the numbers they were given. Now there is no reason to believe anything.

“I cannot overstate how horrible this is.”

Raymond Laborde and Stephanie Laborde agree.

Raymond Laborde (Stephanie Laborde’s uncle) served as commissioner of administration from 1992 to 1996 under former Gov. Edwin Edwards. Before that, he served five terms in the Louisiana House, serving as Speaker Pro Tem from 1982-1984 and also served as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

He was re-elected without opposition to a sixth term in 1991 but immediately resigned to become Commissioner of Administration during Edwards’ fourth and final term as governor. In 2003, Raymond Laborde was inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield.

“I haven’t seen any details yet and neither, apparently has John Kennedy,” he said.

“We had surpluses each year during my tenure, but they were legitimate surpluses. If the money was there, it should have been seen. If Kennedy’s approach is correct, there is a heck of a difference between what the administration says and what he says.”

Reminded that Kennedy has said any money found from prior years has already been spent, Raymond Laborde said, “It should have been spent.”

Stephanie Laborde served as commissioner of administration during Edwards’ third term (1984-1988) when she was Stephanie Alexander.

Her observations were supportive of Winham’s and were equally critical of the administration.

“If the surplus is real, where were those dollars when the budget was being developed 15 months or so ago?” she asked, perhaps not so rhetorically.

“That is not to say when there was not extra money,” she said. “There were times when there were more taxes collected than anticipated or when the price of oil was higher than expected but for this much in surplus funds to be lying around for years? That just didn’t happen.”

She also said the sources of such revenue would have been considered one-time money and not recurring revenue. “There is a difference of philosophy, a difference of opinion with the character of funds found in the past.

“But it still comes down to where was this money during the budget writing process, where was it, in fact, for all these years?

“If it was there, it speaks to the administration’s competence, its ability—or inability—to give us an accurate budget.

“If the money was not there as is being claimed, it speaks to something else entirely,” she said.

Unlike the Jindal administration, we don’t claim to have a mysteriously appearing surplus in our budget here at LouisianaVoice.

In fact, our financial resources are stretched quite thin in our efforts to keep our readers current on events in Baton Rouge that affect their lives every day.

Like many of our readers, I am a retired state employee who is on a fixed income. I established LouisianaVoice as a means of keeping the citizens informed of what really goes on with your state government and the ones you elect to represent you.

Our fund raiser continues and we still need the assistance of our regular readers to help us offset the cost of pursuing stories the other media continue to ignore.

Many of you have responded but we still have a considerable ways to go in order to keep up with our mounting expenses that include gasoline burned traveling this state to meet with confidential sources, to pay for copies of records and for legal costs when they are incurred as we are sometimes forced to call on the courts to help us enforce compliance with the state’s public records laws.

We have had one contribution made in the memory of the late John Hays of Ruston, one of the premier investigative reporters in the history of Louisiana journalism. Another was made in honor of my late journalism professor at Louisiana Tech, Wiley Hilburn. To say I was moved by those gestures would be an understatement.

If you are not seeing the “Donate” button, it may be because you are receiving our posts via email subscription. To contribute by credit card, please click on this link to go to our actual web page and look for the yellow Donate button: http://louisianavoice.com/

If you prefer not to conduct an internet transaction, you may mail a check to:

Capital News Service/LouisianaVoice

P.O. Box 922

Denham Springs, Louisiana 70727-0922

 

Call it what you will—strong-armed politics, intimidation, extortion, blackmail or bribery—the result is the same: the fix appears to be in on the administration’s claim of a $178.5 million budget surplus developed by a “new and improved” accounting procedure.

Except the numbers don’t seem to add up to a surplus, but rather the possibility of an even greater deficit that first indicated by State Treasurer John Kennedy.

LouisianaVoice has learned that the $320 million in mystery money suddenly discovered by the administration and trumpeted by Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols may actually be $500 million or more. But even that may be suspect in the way it affects whether or not there is an actual surplus or in reality, a deficit.

As an indication that the administration was taking care of business, LouisianaVoice also learned that members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB) had been called in by the governor’s office in groups of two and three over the past several days for “come to Jesus” meetings in order to dissipate opposition to the administration before it can develop.

In those meetings, committee members supposedly were not-so-subtly reminded of pending capital outlay projects in their respective districts that could sudden be placed in peril should the wrong questions get asked in committee.

But hey, folks, if you think the Jindal administration is the gold standard of ethics and wouldn’t really do that, you are so very wrong. Nothing that has taken place over the past six-plus years that would invalidate a comparison to Huey and Earl Long.

The circling of the wagons even went so far as JLCB Chairman Jim Fannin’s (R-Jonesboro) refusal of an otherwise routine request by one committee member to allow a fellow House member represent him as a proxy at today’s (Friday, Oct. 17) meeting in order to ensure there would be no surprises at the meeting.

Committee chairmen must approve a request from any committee member to have a non-member of that committee sit in as his or her proxy.

Even the meeting itself appeared to be a sham. When the committee convened at 9 a.m. Friday, Fannin announced he would not take up the issue over the budget surplus/deficit until the legislative auditor could provide a report on the financial picture.

It is extremely rare for a committee chairman to deny a request for a proxy, but when Rep. James Armes (D-Leesville) asked that Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson) be allowed to sit as his proxy, Fannin refused. Efforts by LouisianaVoice to reach Havard for a comment were unsuccessful.

But if you watched any of the proceedings of the House Appropriations Committee on Sept. 25 which met to hear testimony about the proposed changes to the state’s group benefits plan, it’s easy to understand Fannin’s actions.

Fannin also chairs the Appropriations Committee and during that Sept. 25 meeting, Havard asked some pretty tough questions of Nichols and OGB CEO Susan West.

Havard probably represents more state employees as constituents in East and West Feliciana parishes than any other representative outside Baton Rouge because of the presence of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and the Louisiana War Veterans Home and East Louisiana State Hospital in Jackson. So naturally, he would be concerned about the hardship the OGB changes are going to impose on state employees and retirees.

Accordingly, it was only natural that Fannin would not want any surprises during the committee hearing which turned out to be no hearing at all so Armes’ otherwise routine proxy request was rejected out of hand.

Fannin, who several months ago, switched from Democrat to Republican and is firmly ensconced in the Jindal camp (though it’s difficult to understand why anyone would throw his lot in with this governor whose popularity in Louisiana rivals only that of President Obama—other than his apparent desperation to hang onto his chairmanship), so it’s understandable, in a quirky sort of way, that he would do the administration’s bidding.

In fact, LouisianaVoice has also learned that Fannin has a report from the administration that contains a year-by-year breakdown as to where the mystery dollars came from to make up the surprise surplus.

That report is not public and Fannin is supposedly the only legislator who is privy to its existence and its contents.

The numbers, we are told, go all the way back to 1998, during the latter part of the Mike Foster administration, instead of to 2002 as originally reported, and the money consists of self-generated funds the Foster, Blanco and Jindal administrations never recognized for appropriations.

So, when Jindal faced a real deficit at the end of the fiscal year just ended on June 30, he scraped the bottom of the barrel, figurative and literally, to come up with the funds and voila! The amount was more in the neighborhood of $500 million instead of the $360 first reported.

The problem is, however, the $500 million may have already been spent and if so, it would create an actual deficit of some $360 million instead of the $141 million initially claimed by Kennedy. And it certainly would not create a surplus.

And taking the scenario to its logical conclusion in this Alice in Wonderland world of Louisiana politics, State Treasurer John Kennedy, the one person who should be the one kept abreast of all budgetary developments, the one person responsible for accounting for every dollar spent, is being kept in the dark along with other legislators who would like to have some answers.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, instead of sitting at her desk and sniping at Kennedy for questioning her numbers, could just as easily pick up the phone and call Kennedy to invite him over, or even offer to walk across Third Street, take the elevator up to the third floor of the State Capitol, and sit down with the Treasurer and explain how the administration arrived at its numbers.

A truly transparent, ethical and accountable administration owes the citizens of this state that much at a minimum.

But don’t hold your breath.

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