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The Jindal administration has announced plans to jettison 24 more positions at the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) as a cost cutting measure for the cash-strapped agency but is retaining the top two positions and an administrator hired only a month ago.

The effective date of the layoffs is Aug. 15.

The latest cuts will leave only 47 employees when the agency is relocated to the Claiborne Building basement to share office space with the Office of Risk Management. The Claiborne Building also houses the Civil Service Department, the Board of Regents, the Department of Education, the State Land Office and the Division of Administration.

The layoff plan submitted to the Department of Civil Service on June 14, said there was insufficient work to justify all 71 positions.

Affected by layoffs are eight Benefits Analyst positions, three Group Benefits Supervisory spots, one Group Benefits Administrator, seven Administrative Coordinators, an Administrative Assist, two Administrative Supervisors, one IT Application Programmer/Analyst and one Training Development Specialist.

OBG Chief Executive Officer Susan West, one of those being retained, will be making a physical move back into her old offices. She previously worked for ORM before that agency was gutted by Jindal’s grand privatization scheme and she moved over to OGB.

West, who makes $170,000, and Interim Chief Operating Officer Charles Guerra ($107,000) are not affected by the layoff nor is Elis Williams Cazes ($106,000)) was appointed as Group Benefits Administrator on June 23.

Cazes was previously employed by Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Louisiana which serves as the third party administrator of the OGB Preferred Provider Operation at a cost to the state of $5.50 per month per enrollee, which computes to an amount a little north of $70 million per year.

Her position was created—and the requirements reportedly written especially to her qualifications—as the Medical/Pharmacy Administrator responsible for benefit plan management and vendor performance with the primary responsibility to “continuously monitor medical and pharmacy benefit plans to seek out modification of plans or implementation of new plans that reduce claims costs and provide efficiencies for the state and plan participants,” according to the justification given for retaining her position.

Well, we can certainly see where her position is as indispensable as West’s and Guerra’s.

All this takes place at a time whe OGB’s reserve fund has dwindled from $500 million at the time of the agency’s privatization in January 2013 to about half that amount today. Even more significant, the reserve fund is expected to dip as low as $5 million by 2016, just about the time Jindal leaves town for good.

Completing the trifecta of good news, we also have learned that health benefits for some 200,000 state employees, retirees and dependents will be slashed this year even as premiums increase.

In June, West broke the news to the OGB employees. She erroneously said the 47 remaining employees would be reassigned other duties and some might see pay reductions and that those with seniority could bump junior employees in desired positions. The Civil Service Department, however, said salaries could not be cut and bumping is no longer allowed.

Isn’t it nice to know your agency director knows the procedures?

Employees were told that letters would go out between July 1 and July 15 to those who were being laid off. On July 7, they were told the letters would be delivered by hand on Friday, July 11. None came. On the following Monday (July 14) confusion of the order of the day as Deputy Commissioner of Administration Ruth Johnson sent emails to those affected and instructed them to attend a noon meeting in the OGB board room. Upon entering the board room, each person was handed a packet that informed them that Civil Service had not approved the layoffs.

During the meeting, according to one who was there, West kept repeating, “I get this. I’ve been where you are. I get this. However, there are worse things. It’s not like losing a child. I get this.”

Way to soften the blow, Susan. You might have reminded them that the fighting between Israel and Palestine isn’t so bad because there’s also an Ebola outbreak in Africa or that while you’re losing your home to a hurricane storm surge, some people are having to endure heavy wind damage. Or better yet, take them all to a showing of The Fault in Our Stars. That’ll cheer them up.

“It was the ‘I get this’ and comparison of losing a job to losing a child that infuriated the OGB state employees,” the employee said. “This is the worst thing in their lives right  now, some are battling cancer and working; some have children and grandchildren to feed; some live paycheck to paycheck; some are taking care of the elderly and family; all have bills, rents/mortgages, school tuition, etc.”

But you really can’t blame Susan. She previously worked for ORM and was among those present when ORM Director Bud Thompson broke the privatization news to his employees by standing before them, grinning, as he said, “I still have my job.”

(Editor’s note: this is our 1,000th post since we started LouisianaVoice a little more than three years ago. We have also surpassed the one million-word milestone. That’s roughly the equivalent of 10 full-length novels.)

 

Were two separate announcements made late Friday by State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson and State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia) designed to neutralize State Treasurer John Kennedy’s calls for an investigation into the amendment to Senate Bill 294 that increased Edmonson’s retirement by $55,000 a year?

If so, Kennedy said, the tactic won’t work.

Without going through all the details of the amendment, there is one additional development that has gone unreported to this point (until it was pointed out to us first by reader Stephen Winham and then Kennedy):

Funding to pay Edmonson’s extra retirement income, which could cost the state more than $1 million over Edmonson’s lifetime, would come from the state’s Employee Experience Account (R.S. 11:1332) http://law.justia.com/codes/louisiana/2013/code-revisedstatutes/title-11/rs-11-1332 which set aside funds to provide cost of living raises for retired state troopers and survivors of slain troopers.

In other words, he would be taking from retirees, widows and orphans in order to increase his retirement from the $79,000 per year, or 100 percent of his salary, at the time he entered the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), to 100 percent of his current $134,000 a year salary.

In those two announcements, issued separately, Edmonson reversed his field and said he will not accept the increased pension benefits because “It’s been too much of a distraction.”

Riser, one of six members of the Legislative Conference Committee that brought the amended bill back to the House floor on the last day of the session, meanwhile, did an even bigger flip flop in admitting that he did indeed instruct a Senate staffer to add the key amendment to the bill authored by Sen. Jean Paul Morrell (D-New Orleans).

On July 17, Riser emailed blogger C.B. Forgotston who had sent Riser an email asking what he knew about the origin of the amendment. Incredibly, Riser said in that email, “I first saw the amendment when I read the conference committee report drafted by staff. As the language was explained to me, I believed it fixed a retirement problem for the law enforcement community.”

Basically, it was a denial without his actually denying he knew about the amendment.

But on Friday, Riser fessed up that he did indeed instruct staff (in this case, Laura Gail Sullivan, legal counsel for the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee which Riser chairs) to add the amendment. He still, however, stuck to his story that he saw the amendment on the “last hectic day of the session” and did not know the amendment would benefit just two people—Edmonson and a Houma trooper.

No wonder he was recently named Legislator of the Year by the Louisiana State Troopers’ Association—for the third consecutive year.

RISER AND EDMONSON

Supt. of State Police Mike Edmonson, left, and State Sen. Neil Riser (BFF)

Taken together, the Friday statements by Edmonson and Riser appear suspiciously coordinated to neutralize Kennedy’s letter of one day earlier to the executive director of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) in which he posed 13 questions he said needed answers.

Riser’s belated admission of his part in the amendment addressed only one of those questions and Kennedy said Friday that the investigation “must go forward” because “we still have a bad law on the books that we have to deal with.”

That’s because Gov. Bobby Jindal put his frequent flyer miles in abeyance long enough to sign the bill into law as ACT 859, prompting some to speculate that Riser’s actions may have been dictated by the governor’s office.

Kennedy said the LSPRS board has already retained outside legal counsel to determine what legal action is available to the board which is required by law to protect the fiduciary interests of the system.

“The board will meet in August to discuss our options,” he said. “We will invite Col. Edmonson to attend to present his side of the issue. We will also invite Sen. Riser and Thomas Enright, the governor’s executive counsel.”

He said that Enright, as the governor’s legal counsel, reads every bill and makes recommendations to Jindal as to whether the bills meet legal standards and if they should be signed or vetoed.

Without waiting for that August meeting, LouisianaVoice has a few questions of our own:

  • Why did Riser first deny his culpability and appear willing to throw his legal counsel under the bus?
  • What happened to compel him to cleanse his conscience?
  • Does he feel his constituents should trust him when he comes up for re-election after this despicable lapse of moral principles?
  • Who made the decision to fund this questionable (and most likely unconstitutional) appropriation from money intended to pay for retirees’ and survivors’ cost of living adjustments…and why?
  • Did Jindal direct that this amendment be inserted on the last day of the session?
  • If not, why did Enright not catch one of several possible constitutional violations contained in the amendment?

We’re glad that Riser, even belatedly, admitted his part in this farce of legislative procedure and we feel that Edmonson did the right thing in deciding to refuse the additional retirement money.

Suspicious by nature, however, we can’t help wondering about their motivations.

 

 

State Treasurer John Kennedy has forwarded a two-page letter to the executive director of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) that itemizes 13 questions Kennedy said need to be addressed concerning the $55,000 per year pension increase awarded State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson in the closing minutes of the recent legislative session.

An amendment to Senate Bill 294, quickly signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal as Act 859, allowed Edmonson and one other state trooper to revoke their decision made at lower ranks to enter the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP). In Edmonson’s case, he entered DROP as a captain, which effectively froze his retirement calculated on his salary at that time.

He was subsequently promoted to Superintendent of State Police which carried with it a substantial pay increase that made the DROP decision a bad one—like many other state employees who made similar moves and were later promoted.

The amendment was inserted into an unrelated bill dealing with disciplinary actions to be taken with law enforcement officers under investigation by a six-member conference committee, none of whom will claim credit—or blame—for the action.

Even worse than the furtive action, most probably taken at the direction of Gov. Bobby Jindal, five of the six conference committee members appear to be unwilling to man up and discuss their actions.

Kennedy, who by virtue of his office is a member of LSPRS, wrote to Executive Director Irwin Felps:

“In furtherance of our board meeting, other discussions regarding this matter and our fiduciary obligations to all of the people the system serves, I wanted to set forth in writing, as a board member and the State Treasurer, the issues that I think must be fully investigated and answered by you, our counsel and other staff, for the board so that it can make the necessary decisions and take appropriate actions, if any, to meet its fiduciary duties. This list is not meant to be exclusive, and there may be others to be included from other members, you, counsel and others, which should be answered too and which I welcome.”

Kennedy then listed the following 13 questions which he said needed answers:

  • How many people does the act benefit?
  • Who are the people it benefits, so that they can be invited to address these issues and their involvement with our board?
  • What are all of the costs of the act to the system and its members?
  • Is it true the actuarial note setting forth the cost of the act was added three days after the bill passed and, if so, why?
  • What would be the costs to give the same retirement benefit increase resulting from the act to all troopers and their dependents that are similarly situated?
  • What is the opinion of the act of the Governor’s Executive Counsel who reviewed the bill before the Governor’s signature approving it?
  • Who sponsored the benefits-boosting conference committee amendment, so that they can be invited to address why it was offered with our board?
  • Does the amendment in question satisfy the legal requirement of proper notice for a retirement benefits bill?
  • Does the amendment in question meet the legal requirement of “germaneness” (relevance) to the amended bill?
  • Does the amendment in question violate the state constitutional prohibition against the Legislature passing a law that impairs the obligations of contracts?
  • Does the amendment in question satisfy the state constitutional requirement of equal protection of the law?
  • Does the process by which the amendment in question was adopted violate the Legislature’s internal rules or procedures?
  • What are the board’s legal options?

Copies of Kennedy’s letter were sent to State Treasury Executive Counsel Jim Napper and board members of LSPRS, Louisiana State Employees’ Retirement System (LASERS), Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana (TRSL), and the Louisiana School Employees’ Retirement System (LSERS).

Records denied LouisianaVoice by House, Senate

The six conference committee members who met to iron out differences in the House and Senate versions of SB 294, to which the controversial amendment was added, include Sens. Jean-Paul Morrell (who authored the original bill), Neil Riser (R-Columbia) and Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe), and Reps. Jeff Arnold (D-New Orleans), Walt Leger, III (D-New Orleans) and Bryan Adams (R-Gretna).

We attempted to obtain records of emails between conference committee members, Edmonson, the governor’s office and the Division of Administration but the wagons were quickly circled and we got the standard runaround from both the House and Senate.

It seems by some convoluted logic that communications of legislators about legislative business that affects taxpayers is not public record.

This is the response we received from both the House and Senate:

“You request: ‘all emails, text messages and/or any other communications between Col. Mike Edmonson and members of his staff, State Sen. Neil Riser and/or any of his staff members, any other legislator and/or members of their staff, specifically Reps. Jeff Arnold, Walt Leger and Bryan Adams (and Morrell, Riser and Walsworth) and between either of these (six) members and Gov. Bobby Jindal and/or any of his staff members, including but not limited to Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols and/or any members of her staff, concerning, pertaining to or relevant to any discussion of the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), retirement benefits for Col. Mike Edmonson and discussion of any retirement legislation that might affect Col. Mike Edmonson and/or any other member of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System.’

“Any communication by or with or on behalf of a Legislator ‘concerning, pertaining to or relevant to any discussion of the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), retirement benefits for Col. Mike Edmonson and discussion of any retirement legislation that might affect Col. Mike Edmonson and/or any other member of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System’ falls under the ‘speech’ protected by LA con. art. III, § 8, clause 2: ‘No member shall be questioned elsewhere for any speech in either house.’ Our appellate courts have held that ‘the speech privilege extends to freedom of speech in the legislative forum; when members are acting within the “legitimate legislative sphere,’ the privilege is an absolute bar to interference. The courts have further held that conduct which falls within this ‘sphere’ of privilege is ‘anything generally done in a session of the House by one of its members in relation to the business before it.’ Copsey v. Baer, No. CA 91 0912, 593 So.2d 685, 688 (1st Cir. Dec. 27, 1991), Writ Denied 594 So.2d 876, (La., Feb. 14, 1992).

“Your request to review records concerning retirement legislation falls directly within the ‘sphere’ protected against disclosure by the Louisiana constitution. All of the records you request to review are privileged from your examination.”

So there you go, folks. You have no right to pry into the business of the State of Louisiana if it’s discussed by a legislator. How’s that for the gold standard of ethics and for accountable and transparent government?

Only Walsworth responds to LouisianaVoice email

LouisianaVoice also sent each of the six an identical email on Wednesday that said:

“Because there has been nothing but deafening silence from the six members of the conference committee that approved the egregious retirement increase for Superintendent of State Police Mike Edmonson, I thought I would contact each of you individually to give you the opportunity to explain your thought process in enacting this legislation to benefit only two people to the exclusion of all the others who opted for DROP but would now like to revoke that decision.

“To that end, I have several questions that I respectfully ask you as honorable men with nothing to hide to answer. Your continued silence will leave me no alternative but to believe you are not honorable men and that this action was taken in the session’s dying hours in a deliberate attempt to do an end around the public’s right to know what transpires in Baton Rouge.”

Here are the questions I posed to each man:

  • Did you introduce, or do you know who introduced, the amendment to SB 294? (If each of you denies any knowledge of this, the implication is simple: you take issue with State Treasurer John Kennedy’s contention that the amendment did not “fall from the heavens.”)
  • Did you have any contact with Mike Edmonson or any member of his staff prior to the amendment’s being added to SB 294?
  • At what point during the session just ended did the matter of Col. Edmonson’s retirements first arise?
  • Why was the full House and Senate not made aware of the wording of the amendment to SB 294?
  • Was it your intent that no one should know the real intent of amendment to SB 294?
  • Edmonson, on Jim Engster’s radio show, indicated it came up several weeks before the end of the session. If that is true, why was there a delay until the last day of the session to tack the amendment onto SB 294?
  • Did you have any contact relative to the amendment from Gov. Jindal’s office or the office of Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols?
  • If you did have contact with Mike Edmonson and/or any of his staff members, the governor’s office or Kristy Nichol’s office, would you willingly release the contents of those communications?
  • Finally, do you think it fair to do this for only two people while excluding hundreds, perhaps thousands of retirees who made similar decisions to enter DROP only to regret their decisions?

With the exception of Walsworth who responded on Thursday, the response has been a continued embarrassing silence.

Here is Walsworth’s response:

“I did not introduce the amendment.  I can only answer for myself, not others.

“I had no contact with Mike Edmonson or any member of his staff concerning this amendment.

“I believe I heard about the problems with the amendment like everyone else, through the media a couple of weeks ago.

“The last day of the session is usually very hectic.  My recollection of the events of that day was that the report came to my desk by a staffer.  I saw the amendment and asked if it effected (sic) more than one more person.

“The staffer said yes. I knew that in the past we had given this provision to several retirement systems. So I signed the report. Sen. Jody Amedee’s child was in the hospital and as Vice Chair of Senate Gov. Affairs Committee, I was in charge of the Senate going into Executive Session to handle appointments. To be honest, I do not recall what the author said when he presented SB 294 on the floor.

“I had no contact from anyone in Gov. Jindal’s office or Kristy Nichols’ office.

“It has been many years since I was on the retirement committee.  I have always been an advocate that retirees should have more choices. They should have more control of their retirement. I am sorry that this effected (sic) just these 2 individuals. I thought it would effect (sic) more.”

But the sorriest, most pathetic, most despicable thing about this entire sordid mess is that members of that conference committee are perfectly willing to throw a female staff attorney under the bus to protect their own pitiful hides.

Laura Gail Sullivan is the legal counsel for the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee her name is at the top of the page of the conference committee report.

Given the fact that Sen. Neil Riser was on that conference committee and, as Chairman of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, it doesn’t take a genius to come up with a pretty good guess as to who instructed Sullivan to insert the amendment.

But the fact is that with the exception of Walsworth—if he is to be believed—not one of the committee members came to Sullivan’s defense. They choose instead to let a subordinate who was following orders take the heat.

Their action, or more accurately, inaction, is the very definition of hiding behind a skirt.

These are men who will run for cover and let a staff member take the heat for their actions. And the fact that not one of them has the backbone to come forward, makes them, in our opinion, the lowest form of humanity to dare call themselves public servants.

It is our fervent hope that in 2015 they will draw formidable opponents who will be more than happy to let voters know the gutless wonders these cowards turned out to be and who will rat them out for the rodents they are.

Anyone who still wonders why Gov. Bobby Jindal trots around the country uttering his venom-laced attacks on Washington in general and the Obama administration in particular should understand something. It’s all about politics; he is simply pandering to what he perceives as his base which is, at best, an illusion.

His foaming at the mouth courtship with his invisible support group is something like playing with an imaginary friend. In Jindal’s case, we have it on pretty good authority that he had two imaginary friends as a child but they would go to the other end of the playground and never let him join them. You will notice he never shows up in any of the lists of potential major GOP presidential candidates. That’s because the Republican Party just doesn’t want to play with him.

We have to give Jindal credit for one thing, however; he backs his rhetoric with action.

In his steadfast resistance to anything Washington, we have seen him:

  • Reject $300 million in federal funding for a Baton Rouge to New Orleans high speed passenger rail connection because he doesn’t want federal control;
  • Pretend to reject $98 million in federal stimulus funds for recovery from the 2008 recession while quietly taking the funds and handing out checks to municipalities during his highly-publicized visits to Protestant churches in north Louisiana;
  • Reject $80 million in federal funding to expand broadband internet service into rural areas of the state, primarily in north Louisiana;
  • Reject $15.7 billion in federal Medicaid expansion funds because he incorrectly claimed it would cost Louisiana taxpayers up to $1.7 billion over 10 years. He provided no figures to back that claim but did defiantly say Obama “won’t bully Louisiana.” Meanwhile, more than 200,000 low-income Louisiana residents are still without medical insurance.
  • Reject the Common Core State Standards Initiative after previously voicing his wholehearted support for the standards, again saying, “We won’t let the federal government take over Louisiana’s education standards.”
  • Prevail upon the legislature to reject an increase in the minimum wage, to reject tightening regulation of payday loan companies, to ban discrimination against gays, and to reject support of equal pay for women—most probably because all such proposals have the ugly thumbprints of Washington all over them.

So, taking into account his polarizing negativity against Washington, it’s pretty easy to see that things might have been different if we’d never had this little demagogue as governor.

But then we got to wondering how Louisiana might have fared down through the years if we had always been saddled with a Jindal on the fourth floor of the State Capitol. We would probably have beaten South Carolina in being the first state to secede from the Union.

But for the sake of simplicity, let’s just go back to Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. That’s pretty fair because U.S. Sen. Huey Long (whom Jindal often seems to be trying to emulate) was about as anti-New Deal then as Jindal is anti-everything federal is today. Moreover, the nation was reeling from the Great Depression, thanks to Wall Street’s greed, just as America was suffering from the Recession of 2008, thanks in large part to Wall Street again gone amok.

Works Progress Administration projects:

  • Big Charity Hospital in New Orleans where many Louisiana physicians received their training for decades (including Congressmen Bill Cassidy and Charles Boustany, Jr.);
  • Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) which brought electric power to Louisiana’s most rural farm communities (and without which, to paraphrase the late comic Brother Dave Gardner, they’d all be watching TV by candlelight);
  • State Capitol Annex across Third Street from the State Capitol;
  • More courthouses were constructed under the program from 1936 to 1940 than in any other period in state history. They include courthouses in the parishes of St. Bernard, Natchitoches, Iberia Parish, Caldwell, Cameron, East Carroll, Jackson, Madison, Rapides, St. Landry and Terrebonne.
  • Mumford Stadium, Bradford Hall and Grandison Hall at Southern University;
  • Himes Hall, the faculty club, and the geology building at LSU;
  • Two buildings at what is now the University of Louisiana Monroe, three on the McNeese campus, seven each at Southeastern Louisiana University and Louisiana Tech, a water tower at Grambling State University, eight additions at Northwestern State University and 12 at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, all of which significantly extended the reach of higher education in the state.
  • Scores of new elementary and high schools (including this writer’s Alma Mater, Ruston High School), as well as high school science labs, gymnasium-auditoriums, home economics cottages, athletic fields, music rooms and vocational education shops;
  • New buildings for the Hansen’s Disease Center at Carville;
  • The Huey P. Long Bridge in New Orleans;
  • Extensive improvements and updates to the French Market in New Orleans;
  • Expansion of the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans;
  • Paving of 40 miles of roadway on Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City as well as the clearing of 15 miles of bayous and drainage canals and the rehabilitation of 43 wooden bridges on the base;
  • Improvements to the 1,300-acre City Park in New Orleans;
  • The Louisiana State Museum in Shreveport;
  • Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans;
  • The old City Hall in Denham Springs;
  • Construction of the Louisiana State School for the Deaf (now housing an administration building for the Baton Rouge Police Department);
  • Post offices in Hammond, Plaquemine, Arabi; Arcadia, Bunkie, Donaldsonville, Eunice, Haynesville, Jeanerette, Leesville, Oakdale, Rayville, and Monroe;
  • Conversion of a Baton Rouge swamp into the University Lakes around which many LSU professors, former U.S. Congressman Henson Moore and current Congressman Bill Cassidy now reside;
  • Eradication program to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes near the New Orleans lakefront.

Huey Long did everything in his power to throw up roadblocks to FDR. His reasons? He planned to run for President in 1936 and he needed to incite opposition to Roosevelt and Washington in order to build a national political base. In fact, before his death in September of 1935, Long was quite effective as fewer than three dozen PWA projects were fully authorized for the state.

Sound familiar?

Following Long’s death and with his obstructionist policy abandoned by his successors, FDR funneled $80 million into Louisiana for roads, bridges, water and sewerage systems, parks, playgrounds, public housing, library and bookmobile programs and literacy drives. That’s $80 million in 1930s dollars. About what it would take to fund that proposed broadband internet expansion for rural north Louisiana today.

So, let’s ask Jindal to hop into our time machine and travel back to September 1935 where he will run and be elected governor just in time to revive the Kingfish’s anti-Roosevelt rhetoric.

Big Charity Hospital? Who needs it? But wait. Jindal wouldn’t have that facility today to give away in his privatization plan yet to be approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). And without Big Charity, there probably never would have been similar state hospitals in Houma, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Alexandria, Shreveport or Monroe to close or privatize.

All those courthouses? Shoot, just drop them in the Capital Outlay bill and sell some more state bonds. We can always raise the state’s debt ceiling.

As for all those buildings on the university campuses across the state, hasn’t anyone been paying attention? We’re cutting funding for all that. Who needs public colleges anyway? Let the students get a student loan and go to ITI Technical College.

And Ruston High School? We’ll just turn that into a charter and issue vouchers to the white kids—the smart rich ones.

All those New Deal programs created jobs for Louisianians? Well, so what? There probably wouldn’t have been an unemployment problem in the first place if the workers weren’t so greedy back then and would’ve agreed to work for 15 cents an hour. That’s what happens when you raise the minimum wage.

Fast Forward 30 years

And lest we forget, we probably need to include a couple of programs President Lyndon B. Johnson rammed through Congress.

The Civil Rights Bill opened the door of opportunity for African Americans as nothing since the Emancipation Proclamation had done. And of course there was bitter opposition right down to passage—and beyond. There are those, some in elective office, who would repeal the act today, given the opportunity. The irony is that LBJ had opposed every Civil Rights measure in Congress when he was a senator but when he ascended to the presidency upon JFK’s assassination, he told one supporter, “I’m everybody’s president now.”

And, of course, there is the precursor to the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare.

Of course, that would be that radical Social Security Amendment of 1965 which created Medicare and Medicaid.

There was rabid opposition to Medicare by Republicans and the American Medical Association which insisted there was no need for the federal government to intervene in the relationship between patient and physician. Today, if any politician ever tried to terminate Medicare services, he would have a blue-haired riot on his hands and rightly so.

Medicare now provides medical insurance to 50 million elderly Americans and Medicaid does the same for another 51 million low-income or disabled Americans.

Perhaps someone should ask Republican Congressmen Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge (6th District and a candidate for U.S. Senate against incumbent Mary Landrieu) and John Fleming of Minden (4th District), and Charles Boustany, Jr. (3rd District) each of whom is a physician and each of whom opposes Obamacare, what percentage of their income as practicing physicians walked in the door as Medicare or Medicaid patients?

Then check with Jindal to see how that squares with his opposition to the welfare state and such socialistic practices.

One of the most frustrating things in writing about this administration is obvious wrongdoing is reported and nothing is done.

In Bobby Jindal we have a governor who is constantly bitching about Washington in general and the Obama administration in particular while turning a blind eye to corruption, profiteering and ethical violations within his own administration.

You would think that the man who, upon taking office in 2008, said, “We have zero tolerance for corruption” would make at least a token effort to keep his house in order.

Instead, he gutted the enforcement authority of the State Ethics Board, ran off members of the board, and commenced to allow his political pals to run unchecked.

The sordid episode of State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson and the manner in which he was allowed to increase his state pension by nearly 70 percent is just the latest in a sorry laundry list of loose enforcement of ethics rules in this administration.

We have already written about some of these:

  • Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) member Kira Orange Jones simultaneously serves as executive director of Teach for America (TFA), which in turn, has been issued contracts worth more than $3 million with the Department of Education (DOE) since she became a member of BESE in 2012. BESE is the governing board for DOE and as such, must approve all contracts with the department.
  • The resignation of the vice chairman of the Louisiana Board of Ethics only weeks after the Tribune, a newspaper serving the African-American community of New Orleans published a story in its May/June 2013 issue headlined “Kira, Kira on the Wall” which explained Schneider’s own conflict of interests in ruling on an Aug. 21, 2012, conflict of interest decision about Orange Jones.
  • BESE President Chas Roemer consistently votes on issues concerning charter schools even though his sister, Caroline Roemer Shirley, is executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools which much apply to BESE for approval of charters and other matters concerning charter schools, including funding.

And while we have not written about it, BESE member Walter Lee of Mansfield, who recent retired as Superintendent of DeSoto Parish Schools, is currently under investigation for allegations that he billed both the school board and BESE for travel expenses to and from BESE meetings in Baton Rouge and for lodging while in Baton Rouge.

Now, thanks to public records we belatedly obtained from the Division of Administration, we learn that another BESE member’s company has reaped more than $1.5 million from contract work his company performed on behalf of a dozen South Louisiana school boards and the Recovery School District in 2013 and 2014.

Hunt Guillot and Associates (HGA) of Ruston previously held two state contracts since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that together totaled more than $38 million. The latest, for $20 million, expired on June 30 but is expected to be renewed.

Jay Guillot, of the 5th BESE District, is an HGA partner.

The HGA contract is with the Louisiana Office of Community Development for “grant management activities for infrastructure and other projects undertaken as a result of damages incurred as a result of Hurricanes Katrina/Rita and to a lesser extent, as a result of Hurricanes Gustav/Ike,” the contract details contained on the state’s LaTrac web page which lists active and expired state contracts and contractors.

Though the funds to pay HGA are federal funds allocated through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, the company’s contract is with the state and the state cuts the checks to HGA from the state’s CDBG funds.

Much of HGA’s work involved other branches of parish governments but in our search of records we found no fewer than 138 billings to school boards and the RSD totaling $1.58 million since January 2013. Of that amount, 17 separate invoices totaling $488,000 (30.9 percent of the total billed) was for the RSD.

The Department of Education has responsibility for the oversight of RSD and cannot be considered separate entities for purposes of say, a lawsuit against the RSD. At the same time, BESE is the governing authority over DOE, thereby creating a straight line of authority between BESE and the RSD as well as the dozen school boards for whom HGA also performed work.

School boards for whom HGA performed services and the amounts billed from January of 2013 through May of 2014 are as follows:

  • Plaquemines: 17 billings for $342,726;
  • Cameron: 16 invoices, $227,126;
  • St. Tammany: 16 invoices, $142,598;
  • Orleans: 17 invoices, $116,507;
  • Jefferson: 17 invoices, $97,598;
  • Calcasieu: 16 invoices, $64,813;
  • St. Charles: 14 invoices, $56,390;
  • St. Bernard: 12 invoices, $29,539;
  • Terrebonne: three invoices, $9,202;
  • Lafourche: four invoices, $2,968;
  • Washington: five invoices, $2,222;
  • Lafayette: one invoice, $50.

Incredibly, with only a month left in its contract, HGA managed to allocate just enough work to almost exhaust the contract amounts for eight of the parish school boards and the RSD.

The last billing made available to us was for work done through May 25, 2014. Following are the total amounts billed through May 25 (with a month remaining on the contract) with the total allocated under HGA’s contract for the corresponding parish in parenthesis:

  • RSD: $786,988 ($817,567);
  • Orleans: $237,766 ($255,519);
  • Jefferson: $205,748 ($205,750);
  • Plaquemines: $831,968 ($826,970);
  • St. Bernard: $195,996 ($196,877)
  • St. Tammany: $377,372 ($382,863);
  • St. Charles: $147,763 ($148,353;
  • Calcasieu: $112,295 ($116,171);
  • Cameron: $629,750 ($639,031).

Section 1113 of The Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics prohibits public servants and their family members from entering into certain transaction. That section says:

  • “No elected official or public employee or member of such public servant’s immediate family, or legal entity in which he has a controlling interest shall bid on or enter into any contract, subcontract, or other transaction that is under the supervision or jurisdiction of the public servant’s agency.

That’s plain enough but for those wanting further clarification: “controlling interest means any ownership in any legal entity or beneficial interest in a trust, held by or on behalf of an individual or a member of his immediate family, either individually or collectively, which exceeds 25 percent of that legal entity.”

We do not know for certain what Guillot’s percentage of ownership is but inasmuch as his name is listed as a partner on the company letterhead we would assume he would meet that criterion.

And while the HGA contract is not specifically with DOE or BESE, the $1.5 million in work done for the local school boards and the RSD seems at best to skirt the edge of a conflict of interests for Guillot.

 

Editor’s note: House Speaker Chuck Kleckley (R-Lake Charles) has refused a request by Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite) for an investigation into the $55,000 per year pension increase sneaked onto an unrelated Senate bill during the final day of the recent legislative session. State Treasurer John Kennedy, however, thinks such an investigation is not only appropriate but necessary.

 

By State Treasurer John Kennedy

Unless you just parachuted in from Mars, you’ve probably seen media reports about the retirement bill recently passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor (Act 859) that boosts the retirement benefits for a small number (allegedly two) of Louisiana State Police Troopers.  The benefits-boosting provision, again according to media reports, was added to an unrelated bill on the last day of the legislative session by a six-person conference committee that did not meet publicly.  All six of the conferees say they did not sponsor the amendment.

It’s important we get the facts about what happened, how and why for two reasons.  First, fairness.  Whether you are a prince or a pauper, a king or a pawn, our retirement laws should apply equally to everyone.  Second, cost.  Louisiana’s four state retirement systems have a $19 billion deficit (called an unfunded accrued liability, or UAL, in accounting terms), which according to Standard & Poor’s is the sixth worst in America.  That means the present and projected future assets of the systems are $19 billion less than the retirement payments promised by law and guaranteed by taxpayers and the state constitution.  The Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) has a $323 million UAL.

I sit on the Board of Trustees of the LSPRS as State Treasurer.  My fellow board members and I take seriously our fiduciary obligation to protect the system’s assets for the 933 active state troopers, 893 retired troopers and 341 troopers’ survivors.  We have directed our legal counsel to investigate the facts surrounding the passage and signing of Act 859 and report back to us within the month.  We have asked for the answers to the following nonexclusive questions:

  • How many people will Act 859 benefit?
  • Who are the people who will benefit, so they can be invited to speak to the LSPRS Board to explain their side of the story?
  • What is the cost of Act 859 to the retirement system and its members?
  • Is it true that the actuarial note discussing the cost of Act 859 was added three days after the bill passed and, if so, why?
  • What would it cost to give the same retirement benefit increase to all troopers and their dependents who are similarly situated?
  • Who sponsored the benefits-boosting amendment, so they can be invited to speak to the LSPRS Board to explain why they offered it?
  • Does the amendment satisfy the legal requirement of proper notice for a retirement benefits bill?
  • Does the amendment meet the legal requirement of “germaneness”(relevance) to the amended bill?
  • Does the amendment violate the state constitutional prohibition (art. I, §23)against the Legislature passing a law that impairs the obligation of contracts?
  • Does the amendment satisfy the state constitutional requirement (art. I, §3) of equal protection of the laws?
  • Does the process by which the amendment was adopted violate the Legislature’s internal rules?
  • What are the Board’s legal options?

Let’s get the facts.  I do not believe the LSPRS Board of Trustees will tolerate preferential treatment to the detriment of other active and retired troopers and their families, if indeed that is what is found to have happened. 

Editor’s note:

The following is a guest column offered by Baton Rouge teacher Fred Aldrich who, along with thousands of others, listened Monday as Superintendent of State Police Mike Edmonson appeared on the Jim Engster Show to defend the amendment tacked onto an unrelated bill on the final day of the legislative session which will give Edmonson an additional $55,000 (not $30,000 as first reported—we’ll explain at the end of Aldrich’s guest column) upon his retirement—a nice bonus unique to Edmonson and one other state trooper.

 

I am a long-time listener to NPR station WRKF, and I listen to the Jim Engster show whenever possible. I don’t always agree with Jim or his guests, but I usually don’t find my disagreements worthy of a response. Today was an exception.

The comments of Jim’s guests are not the opinions of Jim or WRKF, but unfortunately those comments may be spin and/or misinformation which listeners will take as truth.

State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson was on the show this morning. I have great respect for the state police, and I have considered Edmonson one of the good guys in the Jindal administration. This morning’s interview, however, was problematical for me in several ways.

Engster congratulated Edmonson for having the fortitude to come on the program at a time when the superintendent is facing a lot of heat statewide. His performance suggested that he has paid attention during the years he has also served as a prop for the governor. He sounded earnest, sounded passionate, and sounded determined to serve his troopers and the people of the state. So far, so good, but that’s not why he’s on the hot seat. No one questions his dedication.

As a teacher with 38 years of experience in Louisiana and one who participated in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) about the same time as he did, my understanding and experience with the program are much different from what Edmonson expressed on the program. He wanted to dispel “inaccuracies” with “facts,” but in my estimation he mostly promulgated misinformation, to wit:

  • The retirement systems which offer DROP are not “different” retirement systems than they were at the time he or anyone else went into DROP. DROP was simply a program within these retirement systems which was offered to employees for a few years, theoretically to provide valued employees an opportunity to continue working while putting three years of retirement checks in an interest-earning escrow account that could not be accessed until the employee finally retires, as which time federal laws regarding taxes and withdrawals apply. Though officially retired, the employee continued to draw his regular pay while payments were made into his DROP account. These three years do not count as service credit toward figuring eventual retirement benefits.
  • Despite Col. Edmonson’s casual use of the word, no one was “forced” into DROP. It was a choice for anyone with 30 years of service, or 25 years of service for those 55 years old or older. Those who chose to not enter DROP simply continued to work, with the three years counted as regular service credit, and allowed the employee to draw the retirement benefits he/she accrued upon final retirement. Had Col. Edmonson, and myself, and others, chosen to not participate, his, and our, retirement benefit would have been what it took him a specious legislative effort to attain.
  • The form that each DROP participant had to sign made the options and possible outcomes very clear. It states, in no uncertain terms, that the employee understands that his basic retirement benefit is frozen at that time, that the decision is irrevocable, that service credit past the exit from DROP is calculated in a different manner, and that DROP may not be the best option, depending on future circumstances. It urges employees to consider their decision carefully and seek financial counsel before they choose to enter the program.
  • The articles I’ve read and the radio program in particular fail to mention the three years of retirement pay in Col. Edmonson’s DROP account plus the accrued interest and whether he plans to return that money to the system if he gets his new benefit. In my case, and I was in DROP at the same time as Edmonson, my account balance has nearly doubled in ten years. (And my eventual retirement benefit will be approximately 65% of what it would have been had I not chosen to go into DROP.)
  • Col. Edmonson misstated the application of the $30,000 yearly bump that has been mentioned. No one I know of has claimed that this is a bonus on top of his new yearly retirement benefit. It is the difference between the benefit that he is entitled to as the result of his voluntary participation in DROP and his new benefit, courtesy of a friendly conference committee.
  • Blaming the confusion at the end of the legislative session for the “misunderstanding” is ridiculous. It’s beyond obvious that he and his allies (which could range from the governor down to legislative staffers) gamed the system and took advantage of this dysfunctional process for his benefit, then blamed the process for a misunderstanding.
  • As for the integrity in which Col. Edmonson bathed himself and the commiseration he offered a caller who found herself in a similar retirement situation, he could have demonstrated his concern by including all DROP participants in his legislation. I, and several of my colleagues, (and apparently many others) have tried to lobby for the same remedy that Col. Edmonson and his allies sneaked through (Let’s call it what it is.) We have met the runaround
  • from every source we’ve approached, and we’ve accepted that most of us will have been long dead before anything actually could be done.

Unfortunately, we’re not in the governor’s loop and teachers with 35-50 years of experience who make less than half the salary of Col. Edmonson don’t have the same voice. His assertion that everyone should get the same consideration that he does begs the fact that all troopers, state workers, and teachers don’t have the same political connections and the same willingness to go through this foul-smelling process to enrich themselves.

This is my understanding based on my experiences with DROP and my following of Edmonson’s gift from the conference committee. If anything is factually incorrect, I will readily stand corrected. As a reaction to what happened, I remain convinced that the whole action smells. There are many hard-working, conscientious, productive people in state government, law enforcement and education, who don’t get special treatment through a disgusting legislative process.

            In addition to Mr. Aldrich’s comments, we have some comments and additional information of our own to add:

During his appearance on the Jim Engster Show, Edmonson who last week said he never asked for the legislation and did not know about it, acknowledged that an unidentified” staff member” brought the matter to his attention and he authorized the effort to go forward. He also told Engster that the issue of the special legislation actually arose several weeks before the end of the session.

That being the case, why was it necessary to wait until the last day of the session, when the pace becomes hectic and confusing, to insert the amendment into a benign bill completely unrelated to retirement (the bill, Senate Bill 294, dealt with disciplinary procedures for law enforcement officers under investigation)? That tactic alone smacks of covert intent designed to keep the measure from the prying eyes of the media and public.

Edmonson, during his interview, acknowledged that when he voluntarily (and the word voluntarily should be emphasized here) entered DROP, he was a captain earning $79,000 per year in salary. By entering DROP, his retirement was frozen and would be calculated on that salary. The trade-off was that he earned a higher salary.

But he probably did not foresee his advancement to Superintendent of State Police at a salary of $134,000.

Based on a formula multiplying his salary by the number of years of service by 3.33 percent), he would have retired at 100 percent of that $79,000 salary instead of 100 percent of his higher salary of $134,000 after 30 years.

Until the passage of the secretive-shrouded amendment to SB 294, that is. The amendment will mean an additional $55,000 per year to Edmonson during his retirement years—$134,000 (100 percent of his current salary).

Should Edmonson live for 30 years after retirement, that’s an extra $1.14 million in retirement benefits.

The amendment prompted one retired state trooper, Jerry Patrick, to express his embarrassment “that one of our troopers was so selfish that he would tarnish the badge that I and so many others worked and sacrificed to honor.”

Patrick said that it was “no stretch to believe that the governor’s office was directly involved in requesting this for a member of the governor’s cabinet.”

To that end, LouisianaVoice has made three separate public records requests. The first was to the Louisiana State Police communications director (which was handed off to the agency’s legal team) requesting the opportunity to review “all emails, text messages and/or other communications” between Edmonson, his staff, State Sen. Neil Riser, his staff, and the governor’s office pertaining to any discussion of DROP and/or retirement benefits for Edmonson and any discussion of retirement legislation that might affect Edmonson.

We made similar requests of both the House and Senate for any similar communications between members of the conference committee that approved the special amendment, Edmonson, the governor’s office and Laura Gail Sullivan, legal counsel for the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee. Riser is chairman of that committee and was on the conference committee that inserted the amendment for Edmonson.

Through the grapevine, we have learned that Sullivan has already invoked the sacred attorney-client privilege to prevent releasing any of her emails. But that objection is questionable at best inasmuch as Edmonson is not her client. Neither is the governor. Nor is, for that matter, Riser.

Of course, she will probably include Riser by extension by virtue of his chairmanship of the committee for which she works but Riser, should he have nothing to hide, could always waive the attorney-client privilege.

If he does not, and if Sullivan does resist releasing the contents of her emails, we can only assume the obvious: there is something contained in those messages that the principals would rather we not know.

And to quote my favorite poet and playwright Billy Wayne Shakespeare of Denham-on-Amite from my favorite play, Hamlet Bob: “Ay, there’s the rub.”

But we are confident they would never try to hide anything from the public. This administration, after all, is the gold standard of ethics, openness and transparency. Gov. Jindal himself has said so on countless occasions in his many out-of-state appearances.

Oh, but wait. We also learned on Tuesday that House Speaker Chuck Kleckley (R-Lake Charles) has refused a request by State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite) for a full investigation of the secretive amendment. Kleckley said that because it was a Senate bill to which the amendment was attached, it becomes a matter for the Senate to investigate. Apparently, Kleckley neglected to note that three members of the conference committee that approved the amendment were House members.

Kleckley’s dancing around the issue, folks, is what is known as the Bureaucratic Shuffle.

 

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