This might be considered a break from state politics and in a way, it is. At the same time, however, there is a tenuous link—a tongue-in-cheek link, to be sure, but a link nonetheless.
It is a somewhat convoluted story centered around a former co-worker. Harley Purvis (not his real name) worked with me for about 10 years as a claims adjuster for the Louisiana Office of Risk Management (ORM). A legend in his own mind, he retired about a decade before I managed to make a less than graceful exit to watching the mail for my monthly pension check.
Harley was a hoot. He was never shy about boasting of his self-anointed title of political kingmaker (or king-breaker, depending upon which politician was the subject of the day’s conversation) during coffee breaks in the old Department of Education building.
We so looked forward to those breaks because we knew ol’ Harley would regale us with tales of his epic exploits which approached reality only in his vivid imagination. All other conversation would cease whenever he began with his obligatory “I’ll tell you one damned thing…,” because we knew he was about to bestow his unique version of the truth upon us.
He claimed to be president of the board of a country club in a neighboring parish but a single phone call by yours truly confirmed that he was neither president nor even a member of the club’s board of directors. A club member, yes. But President? you can check that box “no.”
There were normally up to a dozen—maybe even more—present at many of the breaks at which he generally held court. No one at those breaks ever challenged his claims—mostly because no one wanted to interrupt his wildly imaginative flights of fancy.
When Edwin Edwards defeated Buddy Roemer in the 1993 governor’s election, Harley spread the word that he was in line to be the next commissioner of administration.
Of course, it didn’t happen. Weeks later, after Edwards mysteriously passed over Harley in favor of another, I asked him at break what happened to his appointment. Without missing a beat, Harley simply informed us that “They didn’t get the money right.” This at a time when claims adjusters for ORM topped out at somewhere around $30,000.
When Harley’s high school class scheduled its reunion (there was no word which reunion it was, but it must have been at least his 35th or 40th), he immediately began his preparations for the big event by dying his hair jet black—with liquid shoe polish.
Predictably, the polish soon began running down the back of his neck, soaking into his shirt collar. ORM’s claims officer walked past his cubicle and, seeing the streaking shoe polish oozing down his neck, asked, “Harley, what the hell happened to you?”
He once ran for the state civil service board and after taking time off to campaign throughout the state, finished last.
Anytime anyone at break mentioned any prominent resident of the parish where his country club was located, Harley would always twist his first two fingers together, hold them up and proclaim, “We’re just like this. He always sits at my table when we have a function at the country club.”
After about the 20th time hearing this (about 20 different “tight friends”), I asked, “Harley, how many tables do you wait on at these country club functions?” That was probably the angriest I ever saw him but everyone else got a good laugh.
He once spotted an attractive lady who worked for another agency in our building. Unaware that I knew her, he confided in me that he had a date with her for the coming weekend. Intent on giving her a heads up about his misplaced narcissism, I quietly made my way to her and asked her if she knew Harley. “Who?” she said. I pointed him out and informed her that he said he had a date with her. “Oh, God, no!” she blurted. “I don’t have a date with him this weekend or ever. I have to stop this.”
I never learned what she said to him but when I later asked him how his date went, Harley said, “I cancelled it. I found out she’s married.”
For the then-approaching 1997 elections, he boasted that he had to start lining up his campaign contributions because “You have to know where to put your money. That’s how I keep my political power.”
“But isn’t it illegal for civil service employees to contribute to political campaigns?” I asked.
“Hell, I’m not stupid. I give the money to my mother and she passes out the contributions.”
“So, in other words, your mama has political influence and you’ve got squat.”
That was the second time I made him angry. “I don’t know why I even talk to you,” he muttered, walking away.
Never one to be discouraged, he nevertheless did continue talking to me, later telling me his girlfriend was moving back to Louisiana from Houston. Hooking his thumbs in his belt buckle, he drawled, “I guess I’m gonna have to call Edwin (Gov. Edwards, whom he apparently knew on a first-name basis) and get her a job at (an area university).”
A couple of hours afterward, I walked into the copy room and found a female co-worker already at the copier. As I waited my turn, I related that conversation to her in full Harley Purvis mode—right down to the thumbs in the buckle. As I embellished his drawl, I noticed her eyes widening and her mouth trying to form words.
“He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?” I asked, still imitating his distinctive cadence and inflection.
She could only nod in silent assent.
I turned and said, “Hello, Harley” and retreated to my cubicle. Nothing else one can do when busted like that.
As his retirement date approached, Harley became bolder and even more boastful with his fellow adjusters.
“When I retire, I’m gonna work as an investigator for a plaintiff attorney and I’m gonna bring this agency to its knees,” he said more than once.
Fast forward a few years and ORM becomes the first state agency to be privatized by Gov. Bobby Jindal—at a cost to the state of nearly $75 million. It was $68 million at first but the company that took over ORM, F.A. Richard and Associates (FARA) of Mandeville came back in only about eight months for a 10 percent ($6.8 million) amendment to its contract.
Then, less than a month after getting that amendment approved, FARA sold its contract to another company from Ohio which only a few months later, sold out to a New York firm—despite a clause in the state contract that strictly forbade transfer of the contract without prior written approval. No prior written approval was ever given.
Meanwhile, word coming out of ORM indicates that workers comp claims payments are about $10 million more than before privatization. So instead of the privatization saving the projected $20 million, the state now is in a $10 million hole and will now have to see a savings of $30 million to reach that $20 million estimate—and it doesn’t seem likely that those savings will ever be realized.
With a third company now serving as ORM’s third party administrator, accountability and transparency are out the window insofar as the agency is concerned.
So in retrospect, perhaps Harley was right. Maybe he was behind the privatization movement. Maybe he helped to run up the excess claims payments.
It may have taken 10 or more years, but hey, who’s to say ol’ Harley wasn’t sandbagging us all those years?
Can anyone say with any degree of certainty that he wasn’t instrumental in “bringing this agency to its knees?”