NOTE: The following is an account of the stonewalling and violation of state law by the State Division of Administration (DOA) experienced by LouisianaVoice publisher Tom Aswell in an effort to obtain public records from DOA:
The email from the Commissioner of Administration’s office was apparently sent to several state agencies in the Claiborne Building on Tuesday.
It’s contents were terse and to the point:
• Subject: Commissioner’s Suite
Due to a recent incident in the Commissioner’s suite, no one without proper access will be allowed into the area. If you need to see me or anyone else in legal, you must first call/e-mail to let us know you are coming over. You will not be buzzed into the area without first notifying us.
Unfortunately, this also includes student workers who come by on a regular basis to bring/and pick up documents.
Well, henceforth I guess it is okay to refer to me and LouisianaVoice as “Recent Incident” because that email from the still unknown author—I suspect it came from legal counsel David Boggs’ office—was about me.
First, some background.
I have historically encountered an almost incredible resistance on the part of this administration to release public records. If it’s not the claim of exemption under the tired blanket excuse of “deliberative process,” it’s the interminable delay due to the more recent explanation that “We are still searching for records and reviewing them for exemptions and privileges.”
Well, that handy little tactic of blowing smoke up my toga has allowed DOA to camp out on our request for weeks in open violation of the state’s public records law.
So, after submitting requests for records dating back to March 6 and March 10, I got tired of waiting and made a little trip to the Claiborne Building behind the State Capitol. That’s where DOA Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols parks her desk name plate—for now. She seems to move around a lot.
I walked up to the guard desk and signed in the visitors’ log book, indicating that I intended to visit DOA on the seventh floor. That’s what I wrote: Agency—DOA; Floor—7. It’s on the book, neat and proper. But then I told what could be construed as a little white lie when I informed the guard I was visiting another office first. Except it wasn’t a lie. I did drop by the other office to say hello to a couple of old friends.
Then I rode the elevator up to the seventh floor, walked to the commissioner’s office and rang the bell (the door is locked and visitors must be admitted by electronic control). The door clicked immediately and I entered and walked up to the receptionist’s desk.
“I’d like to see David Boggs, please,” I said with all of my Southern polite upbringing. (I had no quarrel with the receptionist; she’s one of the thousands of rank and file employees that Gov. Jindal holds in utter contempt so if anything, I empathize with her and others like her who most likely have not had a pay raise in something like four years now.)
After I explained that I was there to obtain public records, she picked up the phone and called someone—I assume Boggs’ office and explained that I wished to speak with him. She said a few words, listened for a few moments and then turned back to me. “How did you get here?” she asked.
A little irritated now, I said, “I walked in the front door downstairs.”
“No, how did you get up here?”
“I took the elevator.”
Somewhat exasperated at my not-so-artful dodging, she said, I mean, how did you get past the guard station? You’re not supposed to be up here.”
“Well, I signed in, told the guard I was going to another agency, which I did, and then I came up here.”
“Sir, you know that’s not the proper way to do things. You can’t just walk in here like that. You have to check in…”
“…Check in with the guard and call up here and we’ll send someone down to see you.”
“What? I’m already here now. Why can’t that ‘someone’ just come out and talk to me?”
“Because that’s not how we do it. Go downstairs, call up and we’ll send someone down to see you.”
Thoroughly agitated and by now having abandoned my genteel Southern upbringing, I stormed out muttering to myself about Darwin being correct after all and went back to the guard station downstairs. I dutifully placed my call and whoever answered (I don’t think it was the same person), said someone would be down to see me shortly. I told her to be sure to send someone in authority (as if that person even exists in this administration).
After about 15 minutes, a uniformed guard, a very polite and soft-spoken gentleman who had been at the guard desk the entire time, approached me to say DOA had just called him and instructed him to take my printed request and delivered it upstairs.
“No, sir,” I responded. “I want the custodian of the records who by law is required to provide me with the requested records.”
The guard smiled and said, “I’m only doing what I’m told. I work for them.”
“I understand that, but you’re not the custodian of the records,” I told him as I started dialing. As the phone rang, I further told the guard, “I want you to understand that I’m not offended in any way by you and I hope I haven’t offended you. It’s just that you are not the one with authority to release the records.”
“I understand,” he said, smiling.
I finally got yet another person (I think; I really could not distinguish the voices) and explained what I wanted. If I was angry before, the response I got sent me through the roof.
“Sir, we cannot give you the records today because we have to do stuff to them.”
“What?! I requested these records more than a month ago! What do you mean you can’t give them to me?”
“Sir, we have three days in which to give you the records…”
“No! No, you do not! The state public records law stipulates that you must allow me to examine and copy the records upon my appearance at your office. You do not have three days.” (If a record is unavailable, the custodian of the records has three days in which to respond in writing as to why the record is not available and to say when it will be available. That’s the only reference to three days in the statute.) http://www.tulane.edu/~telc/html/prr.htm
“Not only that,” I continued, “even if you did have three days, I submitted the requests on March 6 and March 10. Today’s the 16th of April. I think you’ve exceeded your mythical three-day time frame.”
“Sir, you are not allowed up here. We will get the information to you when we can.”
At that point, all I could do was go home and try to cool down. That didn’t happen. I’m still angry at a governor who could lie so convincingly about being “open and transparent” and yet allow this kind of thing to take place. And worse, I’m still angry that there are those who still believe the Jindal Lie.
And about that email: I guess it’s only appropriate that the building go into lockdown any time I cross the Amite River from Livingston Parish into Baton Rouge. At nearly 70 years of age and with a 180-pound body of sagging flesh draped across brittle bones, I guess I make a pretty imposing sight for Bobby Jindal, et al. (Of course, a Shih Tzu puppy could intimidate this governor.) Obviously I’m some kind of ogre against whom the state must be protected at all costs. A clear and present danger, as it were.
Borrowing a line from the intro of the Kingston Trio 1959 hit song, The MTA: “Citizens, hear me out. This could happen to you.”
Perhaps that is why State Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard (I-Thibodaux) has introduced HB 19 this year in an effort to make records in the governor’s office more accessible to the public.
Richard, you may recall, is the one who sounded the alarm about the state’s failure to receive Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) approval of Jindal’s plan to privatize and close state medical facilities—a failure that Richard said could cost the state another $800 million in Medicaid funding.
HB19, co-authored by State Sen. Rick Gallot (D-Ruston), would make “all records of the governor’s office subject to public records laws”—with the usual exemptions for sensitive documents recognized for other agencies throughout local and state government, of course.
Richard is simply attempting to remove the cloak of secrecy that has existed since Jindal pushed through legislation in 2007 right after taking office that he said strengthened the state’s ethics laws but which in reality, gutted the ethics laws, diluted the Ethics Board’s authority and made records in the governor’s office off limits.
If you truly care about this state and sincerely wish to see a more responsive government in Baton Rouge, you might wish to send an email or make a telephone call to your legislators and talk up Richard’s bill.
Right now, even if it passes, it’s certain to be vetoed by Jindal. Only a groundswell of public support for the bill will convince the legislature to approve the bill and prevail upon Jindal to sign it into law.