One of the primary functions of the State Ethics Board, on paper at least, is to guard against conflicts of interests on the part of state employees and appointive and elected officials.
So what happens when a member of the State Ethics Board has a conflict of interests?
If you are an appointee of Gov. Bobby Jindal, the answer is: apparently nothing.
Nothing, that is, until you are called out by a member of the media.
Then you quietly resign.
Scott Schneider, vice chairman of the Louisiana Board of Ethics, submitted his resignation just weeks after the Tribune, a newspaper serving the African-American community of New Orleans published a story in its May/June issue headlined “Kira, Kira on the Wall” which explained Schneider’s own conflict of interests in ruling on an Aug. 21, 2012, conflict of interest decision about Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) member Kira Orange Jones.
New Orleans attorney James Babst had sought the opinion on behalf of client Jones because of her position as executive director of Teach for America (TFA) which holds a lucrative contract with the Louisiana Department of Education.
Ethics Board staff attorneys informed the board that the state Code of Governmental Ethics would prohibit Kira Orange Jones, while she serves as a member (of BESE), from providing compensated services to Teach for America at a time when TFA has or is seeking a contractual, business or financial relationship with either the Louisiana Department of Education (DOE) or the Recovery School District (RSD),” the Tribune said.
Enter Schneider to save the day for Kira Orange Jones, Superintendent of Education John White and Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Schneider argued against the staff recommendation, ultimately prevailing with the logic that Jones was merely head of the New Orleans office of TFA and not the entire organization.
In a three-page letter from staff attorney Tracy Barker, the Ethics Board noted that while TFA has contracts with DOE in amounts exceeding $50,000 and that while BESE is required to approve and sign the contracts, and that as a member of BESE, Jones voted on those contracts, somehow no conflict existed.
The legislation cited by the board said there is no conflict so long as the following criteria are met:
- The employee must be a salaried or wage-earning employee;
- The employee’s salary must remain substantially unaffected by the contractual relationship;
- The public servant (BESE member Jones) must own less than a “controlling interest” in the company, and
- The public Servant (Jones) must be neither an officer, director, trustee, nor partner in the company.
So just what part of “executive director” did the Board of Ethics not understand?
That, it turns out, might be the key. Babst, it seems, merely identified his client as an employee of TFA, being careful to note that she did not sit on the board of directors of the national TFA but apparently neglecting to identify her as executive director of the New Orleans office.
And it seems reasonable to assume that whether or not she continues to receive paychecks would hinge in great part on her success in placing TFA teachers in public and charter schools in the New Orleans area through those lucrative contracts with DOE. So much for her salary remaining “substantially unaffected” by the contractual relationship.
And what was Schneider’s motivation in coming to the defense of Jones even as Ethic Board staff attorneys were ready to point out the obvious conflict?
Well, it seems that The Tulane University Cowen Institute’s partnership with TFA last year boosted Tulane to fifth in the nation in the number of university graduating seniors applying to TFA.
Schneider serves as an associate general counsel for Tulane University but somehow never deemed that fact and Tulane’s association with TFA important enough to inform the Ethics Board staff or to recuse himself from the discussion.
Ethics Board—Schneider—Tulane—TFA—Kira Jones—BESE;
BESE—Kira Jones—TFA—Tulane—Schneider—Ethics Board.
Hmmm. Either way you look at it, it fails to pass the smell test.
Ironically, way back in September of 2008, when Jindal announced his appointment of Schneider, he did so with a strong statement about conflicts of interest.
Mary Dumestre had just resigned from the board, saying she wanted to avoid a potential conflict with her appointment and her private law firm work.
That prompted Jindal to stress how important it was “that ethics board members are completely free of any and all conflicts of interest.”
So, perhaps Gov. Jindal can explain how BESE President Chas Roemer continues to be able to take part in discussions and to vote on matters affecting charter schools while his sister, Caroline Roemer Shirley, serves as Executive Director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.
Or how the President and CEO of Biomedical Research Foundation of Northwest Louisiana, which is taking over the LSU Medical Center in Shreveport and the LSU-run E.A. Conway Medical Center in Monroe, can simultaneously serve on the LSU Board of Supervisors which negotiated a blank contract with the Biomedical Research Foundation for that takeover.
The only reasonable explanation for all these things—and we have given this a lot of thought—is that Gov. Jindal simply holds the Louisiana electorate in contempt, in total disdain—inconvenient distractions, as it were, to be mollified only when politically expedient to do so.