Feeds:
Posts
Comments

“The integrity of the Office of State Fire Marshal is one of my top priorities. It’s what the public expects.”

—State Fire Marshal Butch Browning upon his reinstatement by Department of Public Safety Deputy Secretary Mike Edmonson—with an $8,000 per year raise in pay—just 12 days after his “resignation” in the midst of two state investigations into allegations of fraud and mismanagement.

Given the chance, a reality TV show profiling our state elected officials and political appointees would surely eclipse Duck Dynasty in the ratings—except viewers outside Louisiana would swear the stories were nothing but lowbrow fiction.

When Gov. Bobby Jindal announced the appointment of Butch Browning as State Fire Marshal shortly after taking office in 2008, for example, it turned out to be one of a series of appointments that have come back to embarrass the administration [aside from the fact that the administration appears immune to embarrassment]. Yet, as with almost all the other poor choices, he is resistant to making needed changes in leadership—thereby solidifying his image as a Stand by My Man governor.

The lone exception to that mindset is Bruce Greenstein, former Secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals—but that dismissal came only after word leaked out of a federal investigation of possible improprieties surrounding a contract Greenstein awarded to his former employer.

While Troy Hebert, Director of the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) and State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson have garnered the lion’s share of negative attention, Browning, for the most part, has managed to fly beneath the radar despite several events that occurred during his watch that probably should have demanded closer examinations and, in just about any other administration, dismissal.

Over the next few days, LouisianaVoice will be conducting the scrutiny that Jindal obviously eschews as we look at some of the eye-opening events and practices within the State Fire Marshal’s office.

Browning was appointed on March 8, 2008, barely a month after Jindal began his first term. “Ensuring the safety of Louisiana children and families is an incredibly important mission and the state has benefitted from his leadership, knowledge and service,” Jindal said in a canned press release at the time.

Browning began his public career as a deputy sheriff for East Baton Rouge Parish in 1986 and was named Gonzales Fire Chief in 1998.

“I passionately share the vision of Gov. Bobby Jindal and Col. Mike Edmonson to come together as one,” he said somewhat prophetically at the time of his appointment.

Browning managed to keep his nose relatively clean for a couple of years but in mid-April of 2012 Browning resigned, albeit briefly, in the midst of a pair of simultaneous investigations of his office to accept a job in an area plant, saying the offer was “too good to pass up,” only to return—with a substantial raise in pay—less than two weeks later.

His brief retirement and return just happened to coincide with an investigation launched that, oddly enough, Browning claimed later to be unaware of and which prompted efforts in the Legislature to abolish the investigating agency, a subject to which we will return later in this series. It’s all part of the surreal Louisiana political atmosphere to which we seem to have become inured.

His problems actually originated when the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans forwarded allegations of mismanagement and fraud against Browning in late 2011.

Among those allegations were claims that Browning’s employees traveled to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in May of 2011 as one of many recovery teams dispatched there following a series of deadly tornadoes. Those employees, the accusations said, were instructed to bill the Federal Management Emergency Administration (FEMA) for 18-hour work days. The complaint said the hours were billed even though the employees took two days off to attend LSU-Alabama baseball games. It also said that while FEMA did not pay the firefighters, the state did. FEMA, however, was unable to confirm whether or not it had paid the firefighters.

Two other allegations accused Browning of suppressing a finding that a certificate should not have been issued by one of his inspectors for a carnival ride on which two teenagers were subsequently injured and that he paid two members of his office to serve as drivers and security for attendees to a National State Fire Marshal’s conference in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, it was learned that Browning was making public appearances in his dress uniform, complete with military medals from World War II and the Korean War—except for one inconvenient little oversight: he never even served in the military, much less served in either of the two wars. In fact, he wasn’t even born until well after the conclusion of both wars.

BUTCH BROWNING

Browning proudly wears military medals in this file photo.

There also is the pesky federal law called the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a federal misdemeanor for anyone to wear military commendations they did not earn.

That brought the wrath of veterans down upon Browning. “We take pride in what we wear,” said one Marine officer. “Marines don’t hand out ribbons like candy. You have to earn it.” A couple of others called his wearing the medals and ribbons “disrespectful” and U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-New Orleans) said, “There’s nothing more disgraceful than trying to present yourself as someone who served in the military when you didn’t.”

“We’ve been informed that Mr. Browning never served in the military, yet he was wearing military ribbons awarded to every branch of the military service that span World War II, the Korean war and the Kosovo campaign,” said Rafael Goyeneche, President of the Metropolitan Crime Commission who called Browning’s wearing the ribbons “problematic.”

Every branch of the military service? Well, at least he was an equal opportunity fraud, though he did explain that he received the ribbons from the Gonzales Fire Department where he served as chief before his appointment to the State Fire Marshal’s post by Jindal.

On April 18, 2012, Browning, while denying that he was the target of any investigation, suddenly announced his “retirement,” saying he was accepting a job offer as a superintendent at a petrochemical plant in Ascension Parish that he described as “too good to pass up.” His resignation was effective immediately, he said.

But passion apparently trumped too good to pass up for on April 30, just 12 short days later, he was reinstated as he gushed, “my passion is public service.”

But his return reportedly presented a problem. Sources told LouisianaVoice that when he resigned, he was paid for 300 hours of unused annual leave, or about $13,000. When he returned, he was required to repay the money but those same sources said he no longer had the money.

But records show that State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, who doubles as Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and apparently as DPS problem solver, simply bumped Browning’s salary by $8,000 per year, from $92,000 to $99,000 even though he returned at the same Assistant Secretary position as before—apparently so he could afford to repay the $13,000. How many of us would quit our jobs for 12 days in exchange for an $8,000 raise in pay?

Problem solved.

Well, not quite.

While Edmonson was laudatory in welcoming Browning back into the fold, Goyeneche was not nearly so forgiving of Browning—or of Edmonson, for that matter—and the political fallout was almost instantaneous.

Edmonson, metaphorically spreading rose petals in Browning’s path, said the DPS Internal Affairs Section had investigated the allegations and found “no factual evidence” to support the claims. “That investigation has shown me that Butch did not abuse his power or violate the public trust,” he added.

This from a man who, only two years later, would attempt to engineer a lucrative $55,000 a year increase to his own retirement through a furtive, last-minute amendment to an otherwise unrelated Senate bill steered past an unsuspecting and distracted legislature in the closing hours of the 2014 session—with the abetting of Gov. Bobby Jindal and the author of the amendment, State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia).

Edmonson said Browning’s worst sin was to sign papers as a matter routine but which he did not thoroughly read but which were done with no criminal intent or fraud. He said he told Browning he wanted him back on the job—apparently sans military decorations—after an “outpouring” of public support.

Goyeneche, meanwhile, was livid and described the expedited exoneration of Browning as “Louisiana politics at its worst” (see the LouisianaVoice masthead) and unconscionable. “I think this is a political decision and not a decision based on its merits as Fire Marshal,” Goyeneche said. “If the standard is going to be whether Butch Browning broke the law then this is a sad day in Louisiana. State police make decisions every day to discipline officers on administrative issues and this is someone who has made several managerial blunders.”

Browning, for his part, said he welcomed input that would result in positive changes. “The integrity of the Office of State Fire Marshal is one of my top priorities,” he pontificated with self-puffery. “It’s what the public expects.”

In the coming days, we will examine how Browning, with a little help from his friends, manages to continue to survive integrity breaches and how a critical report by one state investigative agency result in a legislative effort to abolish the agency—kill the messenger, as it were—rather than consider correcting deficiencies investigators cited in Browning’s office.

 

In proofreading my last post (after it went up, of course), I found an inordinate number of typos, deletions, etc. I suppose I shouldn’t write when I’m so tired and sleepy.

Anyway, for a cleaner copy, please click on http://louisianavoice.com/

I went back in and edited and while I’m not guaranteeing it’s perfect, it’s got to be better than the original.

Thanks for understanding.

Tom

Today Oct. 31) is the final day of the LouisianaVoice fundraiser for 2014. Your contribution will help underwrite our efforts to produce a comprehensive book about the havoc Gov. Bobby Jindal has wreaked.

As he put his personal political ambitions ahead of the interests of the citizens of this state, as he runs roughshod over us in complete disregard for the law in his pursuit of the Republican nomination, it’s important to remember this: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were obscure southern governors when they began their quests for the White House and no one gave either of them much chance at first.

That’s why this book could be an important chronicle of Jindal’s lies, manipulations and duplicity for the enlightenment of the rest of the country. Please help us in this endeavor. It’s important.

And even though the official fund drive ends Friday, you may donate anytime.

Simply click on the “Donate” icon at the right and make your contribution via credit card. If you don’t see a “Donate” button, it’s probably because you receive our email alerts to new posts. Go to http://louisianavoice.com/ and look for the “Donate” icon.

If you prefer not to contribute electronically, you may mail your check to:

Capital News Service/LouisianaVoice

P.O. Box 922

Denham Springs, Louisiana 70727-0922

LouisianaVoice has obtained a copy of Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s letter to Susan West, CEO of the Louisiana Office of Group Benefits (OGB) in which he threatened to initiate legal action to prevent the destruction of documents by OGB.

OGB, meanwhile, says it has “ceased destruction” of all records subsequent to the Sept. 3 receipt of Schedler’s letter.

Schedler took the action after he learned that some original claim records “may have been destroyed” by OGB without following proper established procedures for doing so.

LouisianaVoice has learned that Liz Murrill, formerly the executive counsel for the Division of Administration which has jurisdiction over OGB, was terminated after she refused to sign off on the order for the records destruction.

Schedler’s letter of Oct. 17 also accused OGB of failing to provide a status and location of original claim records subject to his request of Sept. 30. He said the agency was required to provide a written response by Oct. 6, but failed to do so.

That would be consistent with DOA’s practice of delay, delay, delay and sometimes deny in response to requests for public records. LouisianaVoice has made frequent requests for records only to see compliance by DOA occur at a snail’s pace, if at all. The standard response to such requests is that DOA is searching for the records and will review them for “exemptions and privileges.” Here is a typical response to one of our requests—made on Sept. 30, 2014:

From: DOAPUBLICRECORDS [mailto:DOAPUBLICRECORDS] Sent: Tuesday, October 28, 2014 11:36 AM To: ‘azspeak@cox.net’ Subject: Public Records Request re OGB

Pursuant to your public records request, we are still searching for records and/or reviewing them for exemptions and privileges. Once finished with the review process, all non-exempt records will be made available to you.

That’s a full month, as of today, and still no records.

“The Office of Group Benefits operates under a binding retention schedule that requires all health claims to be kept for the life of the agency and to be imaged upon arrival,” Schedler’s letter says. “The schedule also provides that, after three years, original claim records may be microfilmed and shredded—but the records may only be shredded after receiving written approval from Carrie Fager Martin, the Records Management Officer Statewide.

Schedler said he “has reason to believe” that some records may have been destroyed “without prior approval and in direct violation” of Louisiana statutes and OGB’s own retention schedule. “When actual, impending, or threatened destruction of records comes to the attention of the Secretary of State’s Office, I am bound by law to initiate action through the attorney general to protect or recover the affected records, or to pursue any other redress provided by law,” he wrote.

“Please be advised that your failure to respond to my Sept. 30 inquiry on the status of original claim records now requires me to inform the attorney general of their potential destruction and (to) initiate action through his office to protect any records that may have been destroyed in violation of OGB’s retention schedule.”

Bill Guerra, Interim Chief Operating Officer for OGB, responded to Schedler’s letter, also on Oct. 17, saying, “We are in compliance with your request. We have ceased destruction of original claims records effective upon the Sept. 3 receipt of your Aug. 28 correspondence.

Guerra said and further questions should be directed to either him or West.

Click here to see both letters:

DOCUMENT LETTERS

The final two days of the LouisianaVoice fundraiser for 2014 are today and tomorrow (Oct. 30 and 31). We promise no pleas for contributions before the end of the year and, if all goes well, not until sometime late next Spring. That’s right: our pestering you for contributions will actually end before we hear the last of those very annoying, irritating, seemingly endless negative ads for Mary Landrieu and Bill Cassidy.

We’re still a little short of our goal (but not by much) which will help underwrite our efforts to churn out a comprehensive look at Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration which we anticipate will be out in time for his final push for the GOP presidential nomination.

But first things first: Dayne Sherman of Hammond, a prolific and talented writer, has just published his latest book, Zion, and the first five persons to contribute to our fund drive, beginning at noon today, will receive a free, signed copy of Dayne’s book. The amount does not matter; it can be $1, $5 or $50 or more. We’re just trying to help Dayne promote his new book about religion, family, friendship, deception and evil. Set in rural Louisiana, it’s a story of a war fought over the killing of hardwoods in Baxter Parish. The story begins in 1964 and ends a decade later but the Hardin family, faithful members of Little Zion Methodist Church, will carry the scars for life.

PowerPoint Presentation

Here’s how it will work: click on the “Donate” button at the right and make your contribution via credit card. If you don’t see a “Donate” button, it’s probably because you receive our email alerts to new posts. Go to http://louisianavoice.com/ and look for the “Donate” icon. Be sure to send us, in a separate email, your mailing address so that we may provide it to Dayne for shipment of your book. Dayne will not keep, sell or otherwise share your information. In fact, it will be destroyed once your book is shipped.

If you prefer not to contribute, not to worry: you can still get the book free on Kindle through Saturday, Nov. 1. Here’s the link:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OWN9S5Y/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_IDzuub0M6B8EY

If you don’t wish to pay electronically, you may mail your contribution to:

Capital News Service/LouisianaVoice

P.O. Box 922

Denham Springs, Louisiana 70727-0922

The controversy surrounding the sweeping changes being proposed for the Office of Group Benefits just got a little dicier with new information obtained by LouisianaVoice about the departure of Division of Administration executive counsel Liz Murrill and the possibly illegal destruction of public records from the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) and the involvement of at least two other state agencies.

While it was not immediately clear which OGB records were involved, information obtained by LouisianaVoice indicate that Murrill refused to sign off on written authorization to destroy documents from OGB.

We first reported her departure on Oct. 14 and then on Oct. 22, we followed up with a report that Murrill had confided to associates that she could no longer legally carry out some of the duties assigned to her as the DOA attorney.

But now we learn that the issue has spilled over into two other agencies besides OGB and DOA because of a state statute dealing with the retention of public documents for eventual delivery to State Archives, a division of Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s office.

Reports indicate that Schedler became furious when he learned of the destruction or planned destruction of the records because records should, according to R.S. 44:36, be retained for three years and then delivered to the state archivist and director of the division of Archives, records management and history. https://www.legis.la.gov/legis/Law.aspx?d=99704

Schedler reportedly became so upset with the decision to destroy the records that he copied Attorney General Buddy Caldwell with a letter he wrote to Nichols directing that DOA comply with the statute but Caldwell for his part, refused to intervene, saying he did not want to become involved.

If that indeed is the case, then LouisianaVoice goes on record here and now as contending that Caldwell is unfit to serve in that capacity and should resign immediately.

We made every effort to allow Caldwell to respond. We called his office and asked to speak to Buddy Caldwell or his son, Assistant Attorney General David Caldwell. We were told, “We don’t put calls through to them; we take a message and they may call you back.” They never did. We also spoke with AG Press Secretary Laure Gerdes and explained the story we were working on and told her if we did not hear back from Caldwell, we would suggest that he was unfit to serve as AG. Again, we never heard back from either Caldwell.

The attorney general simply cannot cherry pick which laws he feels should be enforced and to allow the destruction of vital public documents, particularly at a time when so much raw emotion has erupted over changes to the OGB benefit structure. To sit idly back and allow the administration to flout the law in the faces of 230,000 OGB members, retirees and beneficiaries is unconscionable and if Caldwell allows such action without at least advising DOA of the consequences he is not worthy of calling himself a public servant. He should take his Elvis impersonation act back to Tallulah.

And if Caldwell is reluctant to give legal advice to DOA, then Hillar Moore, as District Attorney for the 19th Judicial District, has all the statutory authority required to prosecute state officials should he ever decide to exercise that authority. The state government, after all, is domiciled in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Too much is at stake and those records could hold the key to the motives behind the administration’s decision to dramatically increase co-pays and deductibles. LouisianaVoice made requests for certain OGB records on Oct. 14 and those records have yet to be produced by DOA. We have no way of knowing if the records we requested are part of those documents which were ordered destroyed but if so, we plan to initiate legal action against the state promptly.

DOA has been habitually reluctant to produce public records at our request in a timely manner and this action could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Without the support and backing of the state’s highest legal authority, we are powerless to force compliance other than through the courts.

But the question that should be uppermost in the minds of Louisiana’s citizens is this: If those records were important enough to fire an attorney over her refusal to sign off on their destruction or for that attorney to place her career in jeopardy over that same issue, we are more curious than ever to know the contents of those documents—and we have the right to know.

And even more significant in this entire affair, if Liz Murrill did in fact refuse to compromise herself and her reputation by refusing to sign off on an illegal act, then we can only say good for her! She has shown far more integrity than our attorney general.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,718 other followers