Louisiana’s Superintendent of Education doesn’t seem to be very smart. But don’t worry, he appears to have plenty company.
Paul Pastorek, originally appointed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco and retained by Bobby Jindal, is quick to blame the teachers of any school or school system that is shown to be failing.
But when test scores improve, guess who takes full credit? Okay, that was too easy.
But to repeat, he doesn’t seem to be very smart, especially for a lawyer, the occupational genus from which he was plucked to save Louisiana public education.
Taking the typical legal approach, Pastorek, without ever admitting actual culpability, earlier this month said he would repay the state $4,185 for dozens of private trips taken in a state vehicle by Paul Vallas, head the department’s Recovery School District. Both Pastorek and Vallas have insisted they were unaware that it was improper to take the Dodge Durango out of state on personal business, including several trips to visit family in Chicago. It was on one of the Chicago trips that Vallas wrecked the state car, the incident that led to the discovery of its out-of-state use.
What part of “improper use” don’t they understand?
In June, Higher Education Commissioner Sally Clausen resigned after it became public that she had furtively retired in August of 2009 without informing the Board of Regents, her bosses, only to be rehired after missing exactly one day of work. While entirely legal, the resulting flak caused her to become, in her own words, a “constant distraction.” The retire-rehire move netted her a $90,000 payout for unused sick leave and vacation time and entitled her to an annual pension of $146,400 on top of her regular salary.
It is still not certain as to who was responsible for “re-hiring” her. The Board of Regents is the hiring authority for the commissioner’s position and no member of the board has ever acknowledged knowing of her move in advance or indeed, for a full nine months after the fact. And she couldn’t very well re-hire herself, given the fact that she had resigned her position.
For questionable actions that may not necessarily be illegal but which have raised eyebrows for their apparent indiscretion, one need only pick a year. Take 2005, for example. In March of that year, Commissioner of Insurance Robert Wooley apparently felt his department needed a $40,000 special Harley-Davidson edition Ford truck, complete with heated seats, a camper package, diesel engine, red flames painted on the side, and a CD changer.
Wooley said he saw the vehicle on a car lot and wanted it so he traded in a year-old Eddie Bauer-designer edition Ford Expedition with only 30,000 miles on it. “I ain’t going to jail,” Wooley sniffed. “I sleep well every night.”
Edwin Edwards went to jail. So did former Commissioner of Elections Jerry Fowler and Commissioners of Insurance Sherman Bernard and Doug Green. Likewise Agriculture Commissioner Gil Dozier, three consecutive sheriffs in St. Helena Parish, and several judges in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. Former Congressman William Jefferson appears headed for jail for corruption and Federal Judge Thomas Porteous just underwent a rigorous impeachment trial with the U.S. Senate expected to render its verdict by Thanksgiving. Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown also went to jail but on the flimsiest of charges, that of lying to the FBI in an informal interview.
Senator David Vitter and former Congressman Bob Livingston both became involved in extra-marital affairs. Vitter’s was with a prostitute and Livingston’s affair was revealed at the same time he was calling for Bill Clinton’s resignation over the president’s Monica Lewinsky scandal. Livingston subsequently resigned from Congress only to emerge as a major player among the K Street lobbyists in Washington.
Vitter was considered vulnerable until Chet Traylor, a former Louisiana Supreme Court justice, decided to run against him and in so doing ended up making Vitter look good by comparison. Not only did Traylor have an affair with a Winnsboro legislator’s wife, but after they married and she later died, he began an affair with his stepson’s ex-wife. Traylor, who initially was considered a viable candidate, ended up with about 7 percent of the vote in the Republican primary.
In August, a federal jury in Shreveport convicted former State Senator Charles Jones of Monroe of tax evasion.
Just last week New Orleans Deputy Mayor Greg St. Etienne resigned. Hired by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to supervise the city’s chief financial office, he is accused of misuse of $500,000 in federal loans at a nonprofit organization he once ran.
Then there is Eddie Jordan, the man who put Edwin Edwards away.
Jordan, who succeeded Harry Connick as Orleans Parish district attorney, became embroiled in controversy almost from the day he took office. He summarily fired all his white assistant district attorneys who promptly filed suit. A jury found in favor of the fired workers and awarded them $3.7 million.
Jordan also came under heavy criticism for releasing suspects in high profile murder cases and in one instance, a suspect sought by police fled to Jordan’s home. In 2007, he released a suspect in the murders of five teenagers, saying that his office was unable to locate a key witness in the case. The New Orleans Police Department promptly produced the witness, who was in their custody all along. Later that same year, Jordan resigned.
But those are the high-profile cases. It’s those lawmakers and agency heads who try to fly just below the radar who sometimes are exposed as guilty of at least questionable behavior.
Whether it’s a legislator voting in favor of a bill that would benefit him financially or a pair of legislators swapping out Tulane scholarships in order to circumvent the prohibition against awarding the scholarships to family members, there are numerous conflicts of interest that often go unreported. Many public officials simply ignored that stipulation and put entire families through Tulane with the scholarships. (The families of former Crowley Judge Edmund Reggie and former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu come to mind.)
But what could any more of a conflict than a legislator’s making it a common practice to sue the state? It would be akin to a member of the board of Wal-Mart, IBM, or Exxon suing their companies on behalf of clients who walk in off the street.
It’s assumed that legislators take an oath to protect the state fisc, or treasury, but that almost seems mythical these days. But don’t try to tell State Sen. Rob Marionneaux (D-Livonia) that. Not only does he sue the state on a regular basis, but he recently found himself in hot water when he attempted to negotiate a settlement between LSU and his client, Bernhard Mechanical. The State Board of Ethics said Marionneaux told LSU representatives that Bernard would accept $7.1 million from LSU and that he would secure a legislative appropriation of an additional $5.5 million.
The board further said that Marionneaux violated the law by not notifying the board that he was representing Bernard Mechanical. Marionneaux countered by saying he was not required to do so. He elaborated by saying the reporting requirement does not apply to lawyers who are legislators.
In June, however, even as the ethics board was investigating him, Marionneaux attempted to slip language into a bill that would eliminate requirements that he disclose his representation of Bernard to the board. The bill failed.
Perhaps then, it should be no surprise that Pastorek, who said he gave permission to Vallas to use the vehicle on the trips, said of the repayment, “I don’t think legally, technically, I have to, but my feeling is we need to get this behind us and move forward.”
A legislative auditor’s report said Vallas, who doesn’t fly, used the state-owned SUV for dozens of visits to family in Illinois and along the Gulf Coast from the time he was hired in July 2007 through April 2009. Vallas admitted to auditors that 31 of his 41 trips out of Louisiana were not work-related.
Vallas no longer has a state vehicle. Instead, he has been given a $2,200 per month car allowance in addition to his $252,689 yearly salary.
Considering the number of trips taken and time away from the office for Vallas, plus repairs to the Durango, Pastorek may have gotten off light with paying $4,185 (gasoline alone should have exceeded that amount).
If that’s not sufficiently magnanimous of Pastorek, a week later he graciously declined a pay raise after receiving a favorable review of his job performance by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education but not before making it clear that he had earned the increase had he opted to take it.
It may have come as a surprise that he was even eligible for a pay increase when state classified workers were denied raises by the governor earlier this year. Pastorek, as a political appointee, is unclassified or non-civil service. His salary is $287,907, plus a housing allowance of $57,240 and a car allowance of $31,800. A 6 percent raise would have meant an additional $22,616 in annual compensation for Pastorek.
All things considered, it’s probably no surprise that a writer for the Chicago Tribune rated Louisiana worse than Illinois in public corruption.
Maybe new Southern University President Ronald Mason Jr. knew what he was doing when he brought his own lawyer onto the Southern payroll even as the university was laying off 50 employees.
Mason came to Southern from Jackson State University in Mississippi and brought both his Chief of Staff Evola Bates ($150,000 per year) and Executive Counsel Byron Williams ($120,000).