So what, precisely, is Alfred “Butch” Speer trying to hide?
Whatever he is hiding and the reasons behind his actions constitute déjà vu all over again.
Speer, clerk of the Louisiana House of Representatives, has refused to disclose the one-page application forms which all recipients of legislative scholarships to Tulane University must complete.
The New Orleans Advocate, WWL-TV and New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche requested copies of hundreds of the documents to see if the legislators were awarding the scholarships to relatives of fellow politicians.
A 130-year-old program allows each of Louisiana’s legislators to give one student per year a one-year scholarship—worth $43,000 annually—to Tulane. The mayor of New Orleans is allowed to give out five four-year scholarships per year.
It’s a trade-off dating back to Act 43 of 1884 that benefits Tulane financially. The school has to eat more than $6 million per year in free tuition but receives sales and property tax exemptions worth more than $23 million a year, according to one source. http://www.tulanelink.com/tulanelink/scholarships_00a.htm
Ostensibly, the scholarships are supposed to go to deserving students in the respective legislator’s district—not to legislators’ family members—but that system fell into widespread abuse and news coverage in the 1990s created a public outcry that prompted some reforms to the much-coveted legislative perk. To no one’s surprise the House in 1996 killed a bill designed to abolish both the scholarship program and the Tulane tax breaks.
Victoria Reggie, widow of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and the daughter of Crowley judge Edmund Reggie, along with her five siblings were awarded 27 years’ worth of scholarships by the late Rep. John N. John and in 1993 then-New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy gave a four-year scholarship to his son. Former New Orleans Mayor Ernest Morial likewise gave his son and daughter and the daughter of a top aide and the children of two judges scholarships and former Mayor Moon Landrieu gave a scholarship to his nephew Gary Landrieu.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune went to court—and won—in its attempts to obtain Tulane records that showed other recipients of the scholarships included the children of Sens. John Breaux and J. Bennett Johnston and U.S. Reps. Bob Livingston, Jimmy Hayes and Richard Baker.
But in 1983, Capitol News Service, operated by LouisianaVoice, broke a story that State Sen. Dan Richie of Ferriday had awarded his scholarship to a relative of State Rep. Bruce Lynn of Shreveport and that Lynn had given his scholarship to Richie’s brother.
The single-page document being sought by WWL, the New Orleans Advocate and attorney Goyeneche contains two statements: “I am related to an elected official,” and “I am not related to an elected official.” Each recipient is required to check the box next to the appropriate statement and if the student checks that he or she is related to an elected official, the student must list the official’s name and explain the relationship.
Except that Speer is trying to keep nosy reporters from taking a peek at those records.
To illustrate to what length he is willing to go to protect those records, he first responded to the requests by claiming that the forms belonged to Tulane and were not in his possession.
But then Tulane officials promptly provided the forms to the legislative bodies, leaving Speer in a quandary. No problem, Deftly sidestepping state public records laws Speer, claiming to be speaking for Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp, said he had determined the records are not public and thus, he is not required to provide them.
He even promoted himself to a judgeship on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal which ruled in the 1990s legal battle that “All records related to the contract and the giving of scholarships fall within the broad definition of public records” when he said the application forms do not come under that definition because he was told the forms are only shown to legislators who request to see them.
“Therefore, only those forms Tulane University provided to a legislator for use in awarding a scholarship are public records,” Speer said in his letter.
Wow. What a legal mind.
So, is public servant Speer protecting the public’s right to know?
You can check that box “No.”
Public servant Butch Speer is in the business of protecting legislators from public embarrassment and by all measures, he does his job quite well.
Take our own experience with Speer in July of 2012. http://louisianavoice.com/2013/09/11/deliberative-process-defense-used-to-protect-alec-records-in-texas-reminiscent-of-2012-louisianavoice-experience/
Rep. Joe Harrison (R-Gray) is the state chairman for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and in July of 2012 he sent out a letter on state letterhead soliciting contributions of $1,000 each to help defray the expenses of “over thirty” state legislators to attend a national conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Salt Lake City on July 25-28.
Harrison (R-Gray) mailed out a form letter on July 2 that opened by saying, “As State Chair and National Board Member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, I would like to solicit your financial support to our ALEC Louisiana Scholarship Fund.”
The letter was printed on state letterhead, which would make the document a public record so LouisianaVoice immediately made a public records request of Harrison to provide:
- A complete list of the recipients of his letter;
- A list of the “over thirty” Louisiana legislators who are members of ALEC.
ALEC membership, of course, is a closely-guarded secret but once the letter was printed on state letterhead—presumably composed on a state computer in Harrison’s state-funded office, printed on a state-purchased printer and mailed using state-purchased postage—the request for a list of members was included in the request for recipients of the letter.
Harrison never responded to the request despite state law that requires responses to all such requests.
LouisianaVoice then contacted Alfred “Butch” Speer to enlist his assistance in obtaining the records and last Thursday, July 12, Speer responded: “I have looked further into your records request.” (Notice he omitted the word “public” as in “public records.”) “Rep. Harrison composed the letter of which you possess a copy. Rep. Harrison sent that one letter to a single recipient,” Speer said. “If that letter was distributed to a larger audience, such distribution did not create a public record.
“R.S. 44:1 defines a public record as: ‘…having been used, being in use, or prepared, possessed, or retained for use in the conduct, transaction, or performance of any business, transaction, work, duty, or function which was conducted, transacted, or performed by or under the authority of the constitution or laws of this state…’
“My opinion is that the solicitation of donations for ALEC does not create a public record. The courts have been clear in providing that the purpose of the record is determinative of its public nature, not the record’s origin.”
It seems a stretch to contend that the letter went out to only recipient soliciting a single $1,000 contribution to cover the expenses of “over thirty” legislators to attend the conference.
Still, Speer persisted, saying, “…it is my responsibility to consult with Representatives and make the determinations as to what records are or are not public in nature.”
No, it is apparently Speer’s responsibility to cover the backsides of wayward legislators.
“…The contents of (Harrison’s) letter speak for itself….The origin of a document is not the determining factor as to its nature as a public record. The purpose of the record is the only determining factor. Whether the letter was or was not ‘composed on state letterhead, on a state computer, printed on a state-owned printer and mailed in state-issued envelope(s) does not, per force, create a public record. If the letter were concerning ‘any business, transaction, work, duty, or function which was conducted, transacted, or performed by or under the authority of the constitution or laws of this state,’ then such a letter is a public nature,” he said.
Speer then offered a most incredulous interpretation of the public records statute when he said, “The fact that an official may be traveling does not place the travel or its mode of payment or the source of the resources used to travel ipso facto within the public records law. The purpose of the travel is the determining factor.”
You can tell Speer is a lawyer. They love to use ipso facto whenever they can. It appears to be their way of slipping in the Latin phrase which apparently means, “I’m way smarter than you.”
“What Rep. Harrison was attempting is of no moment unless he was attempting some business of the House or pursuing some course mandated by law,” he said. “Anyone’s attempt to raise money for a private entity is not the business of the House nor is it an activity mandated by law.
“Your personal interpretation of the law is not determinative of the actual scope of the law,” he told LouisianaVoice.
Speer apparently was overlooking the fact that the House and Senate combined to pay 34 current and former members of the two chambers more than $70,000 in travel, lodging and registration fees for attending ALEC functions in New Orleans, San Diego, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Austin between 2008 and 2011.
Of that amount, almost $30,000 was paid in per diem of $142, $145, $152 or $159 per day, depending on the year, for attending the conferences. The per diem rates corresponded to the rates paid legislators for attending legislative sessions and committee meetings.
That would seem to make the ALEC meeting House business and thus, public record.
ALEC advertises in pre-conference brochures sent to its members that it picks up the tab for legislators attending its conferences. That would also raise the question of why legislators were paid by the House and Senate for travel, lodging and registration costs if ALEC also pays these costs via its ALEC Louisiana Scholarship Fund.
We have to wonder if Speer hangs out with Superintendent of Education John White to share strategy for shielding public records from the public.