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Archive for the ‘Auditor’ Category

By Robert Burns

Special to LouisianaVoice

As many Louisiana Voice readers are aware, I am a former auctioneer and was appointed by Gov. Jindal to the Louisiana Auctioneer Licensing Board (LALB) during the early months of his first term. What I encountered was corruption both on the board itself and among auctioneers in the industry. I sent regular emails to the head of boards and commissions routinely expressing my shock and dismay. In less than two years, Jindal terminated my services, providing no other explanation other than, “things just aren’t working out.”

The next meeting after my termination, I began videotaping auctioneer meetings and have continued to do so to this day. I also have made occasional public records requests to view auctioneer files. My purpose in reviewing those files is that often times consumer complaints are filed and LALB attorney Anna Dow works with the complainant and the auctioneer to work the complaint out.  These solutions, however, are never even referenced to the board itself and even board members themselves are in the dark as to their existence.  Basically, Dow keeps the board members on a “needs to know basis,” and it was my experience as a board member that she deemed me to “need to know” very little. Hence, the only way anyone (board member or member of the public) can know of these complaints and other auctioneer issues is to examine the auctioneers’ files.

Louisiana Association of Professional Auctioneer (LAPA)’s founder and President, Rev. Freddie Lee Phillips, and I have been concerned about the sheer number of such complaints and some troubling details of these “workouts.”  Examples include:  One auctioneer, William Jones,  deceiving the LALB for eight years about his state of residency; National Auctioneer Association (NAA) Hall-of-Famer Keith Babb threatening a complainant against pursuing a complaint against him, and complainant Robert Kite alleging collusion and shill bidding entailing NAA Hall-of-Famer Marvin Henderson and NAA Past-President Joe Wilson. None of this type of information is available anywhere but in auctioneer files. Accordingly, we decided the best thing for us to do is conduct an audit of all auctioneer files. Because the LALB is a one-person office (with the individual almost never actually working in the office but rather working from home), we knew this should be a project extended out over a 2-3 year timeframe so as not to impose too great of a burden on the office.  Accordingly, I made this simple public records request of 12/4/14 for the first 10 files. Material gleaned from the files is incorporated into this indexed webpage of auctioneers having issues with the LALB.

The one-person executive director of the LALB, Sandy Edmonds, balked at the public records requests associated with the project.  Edmonds is the same one who has been cited by the Inspector General’s Office for payroll fraud and lying about it to investigators. Specifically, she reported both to the LALB and the Interior Design Board that she was “on the clock” even though she actually was on vacation. They subpoenaed her cell phone records, after which she refused to answer any more of their questions.

Edmonds is paid $32.67/hour, or $25, 480 for the LALB and $25/hour, or $32,500 for the Interior Design Board ($57,980 total). She received numerous pay raises which Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera characterized as illegal.

In a meeting on January 3, 2013, Inspector General Lead Investigator Tom Boulton said, “There is no such thing as a performance-based employee.  It’s illegal.” Both he and Inspector General Investigator Rob Chadwick said that they found it inconceivable that the office for both boards (it’s a shared office) is almost never occupied, and both men wanted to know how much rent was being paid for an essentially-unoccupied building.

Purpera, whose office also investigated the work setup, issued this damning report, and referred the whole matter to East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore for possible prosecution of Edmonds for payroll fraud. When Vice Chairman James Sims asked what the LALB should do about the Legislative Auditor report, Board Attorney Anna Dow relayed “nothing,” and Edmonds added, “Welcome to politics,” and indicated that Jindal himself said they were not to worry about it and that the board “cannot” recover funds which Edmonds had been overpaid. Board Chairman Tessa Steinkamp said, “We have to follow the Governor.”

Why re-hash old news?  Well, at the LALB meeting of Tuesday, January 15, 2015, Board Attorney (and convicted felon) Larry S. Bankston asked the Board to deny future requests from me and to seek “legal instruction from the court.” Notice how vague he is about the timeframe of the project (i.e. he neglects to inform the board that this is a 2-3 year project.

The board did not respond to Bankston’s request for it to resist my public records requests, but in light of Edmonds’ past employment reports issued by the Inspector General’s Office and the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office, we feel the public has a right to full disclosure about auctioneer problems, and clearly this is a legal requirement Edmunds has no intention of meeting.  She has even insisted that public records requests be subcontracted out to the Attorney General’s Office, which charges $50 per hour for that service.

Just another episode of typical Louisiana political chicanery.

 

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A confrontation reminiscent of the one nearly 50 years ago between the managing editor (yours truly) and the family news editor at the Ruston Daily Leader has arisen between Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) and if the late Wiley Hilburn were alive today, he might well find the latest one just as amusing.

Hilburn was on hand when I needed a camera to cover a breaking news story. The only problem was, the news camera was broken and the only one available was a cheap one Publisher Tom Kelly had purchased for use by family news editor Virginia Kavanaugh for her section. “Give me your camera,” I said as I hung up the telephone and stood from my chair across from her. “I have to get a picture of a wreck on I-20.”

“No,” said Mrs. Kavanaugh. “You can’t have it. It’s for my use.”

In complete exasperation and more than a little frustrated at this unexpected lesson in humility, I looked over at Hilburn who had just walked in with a news release from Louisiana Tech University. The look I got in return told me I was on my own. “But I’m the managing editor!” I finally blurted. It was the only thing that came to mind in response to her unexpected insubordination. As I write this, I swear I can still hear Hilburn laughing at the absurdity of the scene that unfolded before his eyes. He would repeat that story for my benefit for years to come, laughing just as hard as he did that morning at the very audacity of my naïve belief that in some parallel universe, my managing editor badge trumped her title as family news editor.

And I never got that camera.

Now the PSC has ripped a page from Mrs. Kavanaugh’s playbook and it’s just as funny.

Jindal, in a desperate attempt to scrape together a few pennies to cover what at last estimate was a deficit of about $141 million, is conducting a fire sale of what state assets still remain after he disposed of state buildings and parking garages in years past to patch similar budget holes.

The administration wants to sell some 700 state vehicles, including 13 assigned to the PSC but commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday (Dec. 17) to direct the PSC staff not to relinquish the vehicles because, the commission lacks funds with which to rent cars and to sell them would hinder its work.

Jindal planned to confiscate the vehicles to be sold with the others early next year in yet another cost-cutting move. The administration says the PSC vehicles aren’t used enough to justify their upkeep.

(The same might be said for some of the governor’s highly-paid appointees. And let’s not even discuss the cost of overtime, lodging, travel and meals for state police security details that accompany the governor on all of those trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington.)

It should be noted that the $141 million shortfall was before the latest plunge in oil prices which Jindal conveniently blames for the fiscal mess in which the state finds itself—again. Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera is scheduled to give a presentation tomorrow (Thursday, Dec. 18) to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget and early indications are the governor’s office and Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols aren’t going to be very happy.

The $1.4 million anticipated from the sale of the vehicles represents a shade less than 1 percent of the $141 million deficit (which may be even more after the legislative auditor’s report) and is only a tiny fraction of the $25 billion state budget.

“Of the 13 state vehicles at the Public Service Commission, 11 of them are driven less than 15,000 miles a year,” said Jan Cassidy, Assistant Commissioner of Administration for Procurement. “The cost of maintaining underutilized vehicles is greater than the cost of reimbursing employees for travel when it’s necessary,” she said.

The $1.4 million anticipated from the sale of the vehicles would not be net since the state would be required to either pay employees for use of personal vehicles or pay for rental of cars through a contract the state has with Enterprise Car Rentals.

The administration put agencies on notice about the planned sale last week, giving them two weeks to turn over vehicles designated for auction.

“Reducing state expenses requires all state agencies to review their priorities and ensure they are spending taxpayer dollars appropriately,” Cassidy said.

One of those voting to defy the governor was Scott Angelle who once served in Jindal’s cabinet. A dispute between the PSC and the governor’s office has been simmering and the vehicle flap is only the latest issue as things have reached a boiling point.

The PSC has been critical of a recent practice by the administration and the legislature to take over funds paid to the PSC as fees by regulated companies. Members say the action amounts to an unconstitutional tax levy while the governor and legislator argue for the right to use the fees as part of the state budget. That outcome of that argument is now pending in court.

We can only assume that state police vehicles were exempt from the fire sale order. But with this administration, who knows?

Nor was there was any immediate word on whether or not the administration would attempt to seize the PSC vehicles, which would just be another log on that smoldering fire.

But somewhere within the walls of the Governor’s mansion (he’s rarely on the fourth floor of the State Capitol, we’re told), Bobby Jindal must be incredulous as he exclaims perhaps to wife Supriya or, to a curious butler, “But I’m the governor!

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State Rep. Jim Fannin (D/R-Jonesboro) may have inadvertently exposed the Jindal administration’s $178 million “surplus” for the fraud it is in a brief conversation with one of our readers from north Louisiana who knew the right questions to ask, LouisianaVoice has learned.

Fannin, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, delivered a “State of the State” address at the Fall Meeting of the Louisiana Retired Teachers Association in Baton Rouge on Monday and afterwards was confronted by retired teacher Kay Riser Prince of Ruston.

Rubbing her forefinger and thumb together, Riser asked Fannin, “Is Jindal’s new-found money real—that is, can the light bill be paid with it, or is all on paper?”

“I don’t know,” answered Fannin initially before he finally said it is money that was assigned to various agencies but not spent.

“When I taught at (Louisiana) Tech,” Riser responded, “we were told that if we did not spend money that had been allocated by June 30, it went back to the state.”

Fannin then admitted to Prince that was where Jindal’s “discovery” of some $320 million originated.

Prince was able to obtain an answer to a question no one else has been able to get—probably because Fannin was sent a list of funds Jindal had supposedly “swept” from some 17 agencies to arrive at his bogus surplus and when asked point blank, he acknowledged that the surplus was, at best an illusion, an accounting sleight of hand.

So now it would appear that the surplus so proudly proclaimed by Jindal is not cash after all, but an accounting entry and any available cash at the time of the under-budget expenditures (reportedly dating all the way back to 1997) has long since reverted back into the General Fund and has been spent.

In fact, if the state kept books like a business, this shell game might well have affected the retained earnings of owners’ equity and may have even resulted in Enron-like indictments.

In standard business practice, such funds would have been included as a carry-forward asset but never as revenue leading to a subsequent accounting period budget surplus. You can ask Enron’s now defunct accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, about that.

But Gov. Bobby Jindal and Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols have each seen their shadows and have retreated back into the fantasy world in which they now reside—but not before Nichols fired off a broadside at State Treasurer John Kennedy for not knowing of the existence of a nonexistent bucket of cash lying around for all these years—and they’re not scheduled to emerge until the Legislative Auditor’s report sometime in late December.

By that time, of course, Jindal will be in Iowa or traipsing around in the snows of New Hampshire in search of caucus and primary votes he hopes will catapult him into semi-serious contention for the Republican presidential nomination—an exercise our crystal ball tells us will give him the distinction of having less a chance at the nomination—or even of being picked for VP— than Alf Landon had of beating FDR in 1936 or of Barry Goldwater upsetting LBJ in ’64. Meanwhile, the looming legislative session will be but a mere distraction, and Louisiana’s financial troubles will start to become a fading bad dream for him and a mess to be sorted out by his successor.

 

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State Treasurer John Kennedy isn’t the only one who disputes the veracity—or the political motives—of administration claims of a $178.5 million budget surplus for the fiscal year that ended on June 30.

There are a couple of Kristy Nichols’ predecessors, former commissioners of administration and a former state budget officer who have been there, done that and got the T-shirts, who are genuinely perplexed and skeptical of the whimsical claims.

Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Anywhere but Louisiana), aka Booby Jindini, through Commissioner of Administration Nichols, is claiming the implausible “discovery” of some $360 million, dating back to 2002 that pulls the state from the jaws of a $141 million deficit in favor of the surplus explained thus far only as Immaculate Discovery.

LouisianaVoice, meanwhile, has learned that the true “discovered” money is more like $500 and that it actually goes back as far as 1998, near the end of Gov. Mike “the Jindal Creator” Foster’s second term. But, says Kennedy, the money has already been spent, which would make the real deficit more like $200 million, instead of the mere $141 hole claimed by Kennedy.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details and the details have not been readily forthcoming from the administration. And members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB) sat mutely Friday morning as committee Chairman Rep. Jim Fannin (D/R-Jonesboro) proclaimed that the committee would not be discussing the matter until it received a report from the Legislative Auditor’s office, probably sometime in December.

What?!!!!!!!” legislators should have sputtered, shouted and otherwise protested.

Sorry, guys, you should have stood as one and protested that the time to discuss this little matter is now and the place is right here. Right here, right now. We want, no, demand an explanation, an accounting of where this money suddenly came from and how it is that the administration did not know of its existence for the past seven years.

And while we’re at it, why is it that Fannin sudden decided to exercise his power to disallow a request by Rep. James Armes (D-Leesville) that a non-member of the JLCB, Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson), be allowed to sit in on the committee as his proxy. Legislative observers cannot recall a time when such a request was denied. Was Fannin afraid Havard might ask some embarrassing questions about the budgetary procedure?

Or was it that Havard was not among the members who had been called in a few at a time in advance of Friday’s meeting to be reminded by the administration that capital outlay projects in their respective districts could suddenly face a lack of funding for their implementation?

Regardless, it is quite obvious from our perspective that the fix is in.

Instead, committee members sat mutely as one as Fannin, desperate to hang onto his chairmanship and reportedly considering a run at the State Senate seat currently held by Sen. Bob Kostelka (R-Monroe), allowed that rather than demanding details and explanations from the administration, there was no urgency to the issue that could not wait until December.

Retired state budget officer Stephen Winham said that in his 21 years in that office, nothing of this magnitude ever occurred.

“The hidden piles of money is a myth,” he said. “There may have been hidden pockets of money before modern accounting and information technology, but it is impossible to hide money in the state treasury today.

“This has to be the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen happen with regard to the state’s financial condition and its reputation,” he said. “How can $500 million simply have been hiding in the state treasury? Do Ms. Nichols and others have any idea how her contention totally undermines the integrity of our financial system? It makes a mockery of our accounting system and our annual Comprehensive Financial Reports for the past 16 years, if not longer, and of our state itself. People already routinely suspected the numbers they were given. Now there is no reason to believe anything.

“I cannot overstate how horrible this is.”

Raymond Laborde and Stephanie Laborde agree.

Raymond Laborde (Stephanie Laborde’s uncle) served as commissioner of administration from 1992 to 1996 under former Gov. Edwin Edwards. Before that, he served five terms in the Louisiana House, serving as Speaker Pro Tem from 1982-1984 and also served as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

He was re-elected without opposition to a sixth term in 1991 but immediately resigned to become Commissioner of Administration during Edwards’ fourth and final term as governor. In 2003, Raymond Laborde was inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield.

“I haven’t seen any details yet and neither, apparently has John Kennedy,” he said.

“We had surpluses each year during my tenure, but they were legitimate surpluses. If the money was there, it should have been seen. If Kennedy’s approach is correct, there is a heck of a difference between what the administration says and what he says.”

Reminded that Kennedy has said any money found from prior years has already been spent, Raymond Laborde said, “It should have been spent.”

Stephanie Laborde served as commissioner of administration during Edwards’ third term (1984-1988) when she was Stephanie Alexander.

Her observations were supportive of Winham’s and were equally critical of the administration.

“If the surplus is real, where were those dollars when the budget was being developed 15 months or so ago?” she asked, perhaps not so rhetorically.

“That is not to say when there was not extra money,” she said. “There were times when there were more taxes collected than anticipated or when the price of oil was higher than expected but for this much in surplus funds to be lying around for years? That just didn’t happen.”

She also said the sources of such revenue would have been considered one-time money and not recurring revenue. “There is a difference of philosophy, a difference of opinion with the character of funds found in the past.

“But it still comes down to where was this money during the budget writing process, where was it, in fact, for all these years?

“If it was there, it speaks to the administration’s competence, its ability—or inability—to give us an accurate budget.

“If the money was not there as is being claimed, it speaks to something else entirely,” she said.

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            The scene is a cheesy carnival with a sleazy barker trying to coax indifferent passersby into a tent sideshow that is certain to be equal parts hype and fraudulence. You can almost hear his voice as he drones:

            “Step right up folks and see the Amazing Jindini perform his astounding, incredible, UNBELIEVABLE escapes from the perils of political reality! You won’t believe your eyes!

            “Watch and don’t dare blink as his lovely assistant, Kristy, the glib but treacherous attack lady, maneuvers Jindini into inescapable positions right here in Louisiana only to see him emerge, smiling and unruffled, somewhere in Iowa. Or will it be New Hampshire, or maybe on Fox News or even in a Washington Post op-ed?

            “And if this political life-threatening feat should somehow go wrong, if the magically transcendent budgetary numbers don’t add up, hold your breath because Kristy will find a way to blame the whole thing on Jindini’s evil nemesis John Kennedy.

            “It’s implausible, it’s dumbfounding, it’s far-fetched, but ladies and gentlemen, it’s everything you could ever imagine—and then some—in the fantasy world of the Great Jindini: deception, misdirection, transference of responsibility, denial, obfuscation. Political contributions become political favors right before your very eyes. Step right up, folks! You don’t want to miss the Amazing Jindini.”

Such is the descent into the cheap theatrics of political rhetoric and finger-pointing from the Jindal administration these days as Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Anywhere but Louisiana), through Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, attempts to deflect the blame for fiscal recklessness onto State Treasurer John Kennedy—or anyone else who dares get in the way.

The latest twist in what is the ongoing soap opera of the Jindal administration, Nichols has claimed that a $178.5 million year-end surplus has suddenly materialized, seemingly out of nothing more than the sheer will of Jindal to appear as a fiscal guru in his tragicomic pursuit of the White House.

LouisianaVoice, meanwhile, has learned that a national bond rating company isn’t buying into the rosy fiscal picture painted by the Division of Administration (D)A) and in fact, feels that by all previous measures, a budget deficit as claimed by Kennedy is the more likely scenario.

When Kennedy challenged the surplus figure, claiming instead that the state in reality had a $141 million deficit, Kristy’s vitriol was unleashed on the Treasurer in quick measure, claiming that Kennedy was responsible for “sweeping” agency funds that have not been appropriated or spent by the end of each fiscal year. She added that while the Treasury had used the money for cash flow, it never included it in the year-end report presented to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB).

Nearly seven years into Jindal’s term, Nichols opined that it was “disappointing” that Kennedy never reported these balances to the public.

That, of course, should raise the obvious question of why no one in Jindal’s cadre of sycophants has raised the issue before now.

At the same time, Nichols denied Kennedy’s claim that the administration had changed the accounting system from accrual to cash. Bear in mind, however, it was this same Nichols who told the House Appropriations Committee on Sept. 25 (just before she ducked out to take her daughter to a boy band concert in New Orleans) that it was Buck Consultants who recommended a decrease in premiums for Office of Group Benefits members when the actual report submitted by Buck did nothing of the sort.

Kennedy, for his part, released a prepared statement on Wednesday, saying that as Treasurer, he is constitutionally responsible “for the custody, investment and disbursement of state funds. It is a job that I take very seriously. At least three times a year, the Treasury sends a comprehensive report to the administration about every penny, nickel and dime in the state general fund and the Treasury is audited every year by the legislative auditor.”

Kennedy also said that as Treasurer, he is not responsible “for ensuring that the administration is truthful with legislators and the public about the amount of money that can be appropriated from the state general fund. It is the administration’s responsibility to take our reports and tell legislators and the Revenue Estimating Conference about any and all available money instead of creating a secret slush fund.”

Kennedy said it is clear that the state spent more money than it brought in during the fiscal year that ended on June 30. “We have a $141 million deficit,” he said. “It’s also clear that the administration wants to use its own secret slush fund to resolve the problem while blaming others for the mess.” He called the administration’s figures “a manufactured surplus.”

“I don’t blame them,” he added. “I wouldn’t want to be held responsible for the bad budget practices that drove the Office of Group Benefits into financial ruin, drained the Medicaid Trust Fund for the Elderly, and crippled our universities. As Treasurer, I’ll continue to be a watchdog over the people’s money.” He said if the Legislature wants him to take charge of the budget, “I am more than happy to take on those responsibilities.”

Legislators will get a chance to ask their own questions when the JLCB convenes on Friday in the Capitol.

Meanwhile, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said there no way of knowing if the administration’s claim of a $178 million surplus is valid until a thorough audit has been conducted.

“This is a different way of looking at what is surplus,” he said. “The bottom line is…until we have audited it, I can’t tell you if it’s a good number or bad number or what.”

In contradicting Nichol’s claim that the accounting system was changed by the administration, Purpera said the new figures represents a sudden departure from the method employed since 1997. “This is not the way they have calculated it before,” he said.

Even the administration could not verify the source of the surplus, saying only that it was “not exactly clear, but we are confident it is there,” according to DOA communications director Meghan Parrish.

Jindal desperately needs to avoid the prospect of a budget deficit if he is to continue his quest for the presidency. A budget hole at this juncture would severely wound, perhaps mortally, his oft-repeated claim that he has balanced the Louisiana budget every year of his administration.

That threat alone would go far in explaining the administration’s sudden frenzy in spinning a favorable fiscal tale contrived to propel him into the White House via fantasy land—or Iowa or New Hampshire.

Just another day in the wacky world of Jindini escapism, folks.

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