This week’s civics lesson will take a look at how ethics for public officials, much like the Golden Rule, is based in large part on who has the gold.
And apparently, if you are appointed to the LSU Board of Supervisors by Gov. Bobby Jindal, you are considered golden.
Now, with the pending approval of the takeover of two LSU-run hospitals by a Shreveport foundation, it’s déjà vu all over again—except different.
On Jan. 16, 1996, the State Board of ethics issued an opinion that Lovan Thomas, owner and publisher of the Natchitoches Times newspaper and of Springhill Press printing company, violated state ethics laws when his printing company printed a tourism brochure promoting the Cane River through the Kisatchie National Forest.
Though Thomas was a member of the Natchitoches Parish Tourist Commission, the printing project was not initially a project of the tourist commission and Springhill Press, in late 1993 charged $10,000 for printing the brochure, a practice the ethics board more than two years later ruled was an ethics violation.
On July 17, 1996, the State Board of Ethics issued a second opinion that the Times could not provide printing services for the student newspaper at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches because Thomas was a member of the Louisiana Board of Trustees for State Colleges and Universities, the governing board for the university.
Three months later, on Oct. 25, the Board of Ethics struck again. This time the board ruled that the Times was prohibited from publishing an NSU legal notice for bids on a printing contract despite a state law which required that public notices by public bodies “shall be published in a newspaper of general circulation printed in the parish in which the budget unit (NSU) is situated.”
The Times was the only newspaper of general circulation in Natchitoches Parish. Moreover, the Times was the Natchitoches Parish Police Jury’s official legal journal and it was generally understood that NSU was required to publish its legal notices in the parish’s legal journal.
The ethics board ruled that Thomas was prohibited from assisting the Times in its contract with Northwestern while receiving compensation through his publishing company.
So, instead of printing its paper at home, NSU was forced to travel 70 miles to Shreveport for the service. And instead of paying $4 a square (100 words), NSU was forced to place its legal advertisements in the Shreveport Times at a cost of about $25 per square.
Disgusted with the entire process, Lovan resigned from the Board of Trustees and the parish tourist commission.
Even then, the Ethics Board continued to thwart Thomas in his attempts to do business with Northwestern.
On May 21, 1997, the board ruled that because state law required a two-year waiting period from the date of his resignation from the Board of Trustees, Thomas and the Natchitoches Times were still prohibited from bidding on and receiving advertising contracts with the university.
But now, not quite 16 years later, and with a State Ethics Board that has been gutted by Gov. Bobby Jindal, it is somehow okay for a foundation to enter into an agreement to take over two LSU public hospitals in Shreveport and Monroe even though the vice chairman and incoming president/CEO of the foundation slated to take over the facilities also sits on the LSU Board of Supervisors which currently oversees the hospitals.
The LSU Board of Supervisors on Monday tabled until March 27 approval of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the board and the Biomedical Research Foundation (BRF) that would call for the foundation to enter into a partnership with LSU Medical Center in Shreveport and E.A. Conway Hospital in Monroe.
Willis-Knighten Health System and Christus Health Shreveport-Bossier had expressed interest in the Shreveport facility when LSU first started seeking partners with available cash in 2012.
In Monroe, negotiations had been ongoing between E.A. Conway and St. Francis Medical Center but those talks were broken off by the state last week when LSU officials suddenly decided that the grass was greener on BRF’s side of the fence.
State Sen. Francis Thompson (D-Delhi) called the BRF model “the innovative, forward-thinking model that would elevate what are already the best hospitals of their kind in Louisiana and beyond. It also keeps both hospitals under the same management umbrella, which is appropriate,” he said.
Biomedical Research Foundation currently leases research labs to the LSU System. The annual lease payments of $4 million to $5 million paid by LSU represent a major source of income for the foundation.
John F. George, Jr., M.D. is Vice Chairman of Biomedical Research Foundation and is slated to become BRF President and CEO on March 27, the same date as the scheduled vote on the foundation’s takeover of the two hospitals. The Jindal administration has dismissed any talk of a conflict of interest by pointing out that George will not receive a salary as president and CEO of the foundation, thereby allowing him to remain as a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors.
George, who made two contributions of $5,000 each to Jindal’s campaign in 2007 and 2008, according to campaign records, said he will recuse himself from the LSU board’s action on March 27.
But that Oct. 25, 1996, Ethics Board opinion would seem to indicate that recusal was not sufficient to avoid a conflict. That ruling, in addition to saying that state ethics laws prohibited Thomas from participating in the Board of Trustees’ decision to contract with the Natchitoches Times for printing services, also said the participation question “cannot be cured by recusal since (state law) prohibits an appointed member of a Board from curing a participating problem through disqualification.”
Salary or no, recusal or no, the appearance of impropriety should be sufficient in some quarters as to demand George’s resignation from the LSU Board of Supervisors in light of his cozy relationship with BRF.
But appearances, like beauty, appear to be in the eye of the beholder—in this case, Gov. Bobby Jindal.
And Jindal wrote—that is, re-wrote—the ethics rules within weeks of taking office in January of 2008, prompting the mass resignation of nine of the board’s 11 members, including board administrator Richard Sherburne, in July of that year.
So now, with watered-down rules and a puppet board, there appears to be no one left to challenge the administration’s claim of no conflict of interest.