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Given the chance, a reality TV show profiling our state elected officials and political appointees would surely eclipse Duck Dynasty in the ratings—except viewers outside Louisiana would swear the stories were nothing but lowbrow fiction.

When Gov. Bobby Jindal announced the appointment of Butch Browning as State Fire Marshal shortly after taking office in 2008, for example, it turned out to be one of a series of appointments that have come back to embarrass the administration [aside from the fact that the administration appears immune to embarrassment]. Yet, as with almost all the other poor choices, he is resistant to making needed changes in leadership—thereby solidifying his image as a Stand by My Man governor.

The lone exception to that mindset is Bruce Greenstein, former Secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals—but that dismissal came only after word leaked out of a federal investigation of possible improprieties surrounding a contract Greenstein awarded to his former employer.

While Troy Hebert, Director of the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) and State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson have garnered the lion’s share of negative attention, Browning, for the most part, has managed to fly beneath the radar despite several events that occurred during his watch that probably should have demanded closer examinations and, in just about any other administration, dismissal.

Over the next few days, LouisianaVoice will be conducting the scrutiny that Jindal obviously eschews as we look at some of the eye-opening events and practices within the State Fire Marshal’s office.

Browning was appointed on March 8, 2008, barely a month after Jindal began his first term. “Ensuring the safety of Louisiana children and families is an incredibly important mission and the state has benefitted from his leadership, knowledge and service,” Jindal said in a canned press release at the time.

Browning began his public career as a deputy sheriff for East Baton Rouge Parish in 1986 and was named Gonzales Fire Chief in 1998.

“I passionately share the vision of Gov. Bobby Jindal and Col. Mike Edmonson to come together as one,” he said somewhat prophetically at the time of his appointment.

Browning managed to keep his nose relatively clean for a couple of years but in mid-April of 2012 Browning resigned, albeit briefly, in the midst of a pair of simultaneous investigations of his office to accept a job in an area plant, saying the offer was “too good to pass up,” only to return—with a substantial raise in pay—less than two weeks later.

His brief retirement and return just happened to coincide with an investigation launched that, oddly enough, Browning claimed later to be unaware of and which prompted efforts in the Legislature to abolish the investigating agency, a subject to which we will return later in this series. It’s all part of the surreal Louisiana political atmosphere to which we seem to have become inured.

His problems actually originated when the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans forwarded allegations of mismanagement and fraud against Browning in late 2011.

Among those allegations were claims that Browning’s employees traveled to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in May of 2011 as one of many recovery teams dispatched there following a series of deadly tornadoes. Those employees, the accusations said, were instructed to bill the Federal Management Emergency Administration (FEMA) for 18-hour work days. The complaint said the hours were billed even though the employees took two days off to attend LSU-Alabama baseball games. It also said that while FEMA did not pay the firefighters, the state did. FEMA, however, was unable to confirm whether or not it had paid the firefighters.

Two other allegations accused Browning of suppressing a finding that a certificate should not have been issued by one of his inspectors for a carnival ride on which two teenagers were subsequently injured and that he paid two members of his office to serve as drivers and security for attendees to a National State Fire Marshal’s conference in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, it was learned that Browning was making public appearances in his dress uniform, complete with military medals from World War II and the Korean War—except for one inconvenient little oversight: he never even served in the military, much less served in either of the two wars. In fact, he wasn’t even born until well after the conclusion of both wars.

BUTCH BROWNING

Browning proudly wears military medals in this file photo.

There also is the pesky federal law called the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a federal misdemeanor for anyone to wear military commendations they did not earn.

That brought the wrath of veterans down upon Browning. “We take pride in what we wear,” said one Marine officer. “Marines don’t hand out ribbons like candy. You have to earn it.” A couple of others called his wearing the medals and ribbons “disrespectful” and U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-New Orleans) said, “There’s nothing more disgraceful than trying to present yourself as someone who served in the military when you didn’t.”

“We’ve been informed that Mr. Browning never served in the military, yet he was wearing military ribbons awarded to every branch of the military service that span World War II, the Korean war and the Kosovo campaign,” said Rafael Goyeneche, President of the Metropolitan Crime Commission who called Browning’s wearing the ribbons “problematic.”

Every branch of the military service? Well, at least he was an equal opportunity fraud, though he did explain that he received the ribbons from the Gonzales Fire Department where he served as chief before his appointment to the State Fire Marshal’s post by Jindal.

On April 18, 2012, Browning, while denying that he was the target of any investigation, suddenly announced his “retirement,” saying he was accepting a job offer as a superintendent at a petrochemical plant in Ascension Parish that he described as “too good to pass up.” His resignation was effective immediately, he said.

But passion apparently trumped too good to pass up for on April 30, just 12 short days later, he was reinstated as he gushed, “my passion is public service.”

But his return reportedly presented a problem. Sources told LouisianaVoice that when he resigned, he was paid for 300 hours of unused annual leave, or about $13,000. When he returned, he was required to repay the money but those same sources said he no longer had the money.

But records show that State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, who doubles as Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and apparently as DPS problem solver, simply bumped Browning’s salary by $8,000 per year, from $92,000 to $99,000 even though he returned at the same Assistant Secretary position as before—apparently so he could afford to repay the $13,000. How many of us would quit our jobs for 12 days in exchange for an $8,000 raise in pay?

Problem solved.

Well, not quite.

While Edmonson was laudatory in welcoming Browning back into the fold, Goyeneche was not nearly so forgiving of Browning—or of Edmonson, for that matter—and the political fallout was almost instantaneous.

Edmonson, metaphorically spreading rose petals in Browning’s path, said the DPS Internal Affairs Section had investigated the allegations and found “no factual evidence” to support the claims. “That investigation has shown me that Butch did not abuse his power or violate the public trust,” he added.

This from a man who, only two years later, would attempt to engineer a lucrative $55,000 a year increase to his own retirement through a furtive, last-minute amendment to an otherwise unrelated Senate bill steered past an unsuspecting and distracted legislature in the closing hours of the 2014 session—with the abetting of Gov. Bobby Jindal and the author of the amendment, State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia).

Edmonson said Browning’s worst sin was to sign papers as a matter routine but which he did not thoroughly read but which were done with no criminal intent or fraud. He said he told Browning he wanted him back on the job—apparently sans military decorations—after an “outpouring” of public support.

Goyeneche, meanwhile, was livid and described the expedited exoneration of Browning as “Louisiana politics at its worst” (see the LouisianaVoice masthead) and unconscionable. “I think this is a political decision and not a decision based on its merits as Fire Marshal,” Goyeneche said. “If the standard is going to be whether Butch Browning broke the law then this is a sad day in Louisiana. State police make decisions every day to discipline officers on administrative issues and this is someone who has made several managerial blunders.”

Browning, for his part, said he welcomed input that would result in positive changes. “The integrity of the Office of State Fire Marshal is one of my top priorities,” he pontificated with self-puffery. “It’s what the public expects.”

In the coming days, we will examine how Browning, with a little help from his friends, manages to continue to survive integrity breaches and how a critical report by one state investigative agency result in a legislative effort to abolish the agency—kill the messenger, as it were—rather than consider correcting deficiencies investigators cited in Browning’s office.

 

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Our October fund raiser enters its final five days and we still need assistance to help us offset the cost of pursuing legal action against an administration that prefers to conduct its business behind closed doors and out of sight of the people to whom they are supposed to answer.

We also are launching an ambitious project that will involve considerable time and expense. If Gov. Bobby Jindal does seek higher office as it becomes more and more apparent that he will, the people of America need to know the real story of what he has done to our state and its people. Voters in the other 49 states need to know not Jindal’s version of his accomplishments as governor, but the truth about:

  • What has occurred with CNSI and Bruce Greenstein;
  • How Jindal squandered the Office of Group Benefits $500 million reserve fund;
  • The lies the administration told us two years ago about how state employee benefits would not be affected by privatization;
  • The lies about how Buck Consultants advised the administration to cut health care premiums when the company’s July report said just the opposite;
  • How Jindal attempted unsuccessfully to gut state employee retirement benefits;
  • How Jindal attempted to sneak a significant retirement benefit into law for the Superintendent of State Police;
  • How Jindal appointees throughout state government have abused the power entrusted to them;
  • How Jindal has attempted a giveaway plan for state hospitals that has yet to be approved by the federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS);
  • How regulations have been skirted so that Jindal could reward supporters with favorable purchases and contracts;
  • How Jindal fired employees and demoted legislators for the simple transgression of disagreeing with him;
  • How Jindal has refused Medicaid expansion that has cost hundreds of thousands of Louisiana’s poor the opportunity to obtain medical care;
  • How Jindal has gutted appropriations to higher education in Louisiana, forcing tuition increases detrimental to students;
  • How Jindal has attempted to systematically destroy public education in Louisiana;
  • How Jindal has refused federal grants that could have gone far in developing internet services for rural areas and high speed rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans;
  • How Jindal has rewarded major contributors with appointments to key boards and commissions;
  • How Jindal attempted to use the court system to persecute an agency head who refused to knuckle under to illegal demands from the governor’s office;
  • How Jindal has manipulated the state budget each year he has been in office in a desperate effort to smooth over deficit after deficit;
  • And most of all, how Jindal literally abandoned the state while still governor so that he could pursue his quixotic dream of becoming president.

To this end, LouisianaVoice Editor Tom Aswell will be spending the next several months researching and writing a book chronicling the Jindal administration. Should Jindal become a presidential contender or even if he is selected as another candidate’s vice presidential running mate, such a book could have a national impact and even affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

This project is going to take time and involve considerable expense as we compile our research and prepare the book for publication in time for the 2016 election.

To accomplish this, we need your help.

If you are not seeing the “Donate” button, it may be because you are receiving our posts via email subscription. To contribute by credit card, please click on this link to go to our actual web page and look for the yellow Donate button: http://louisianavoice.com/

If you prefer not to conduct an internet transaction, you may mail a check to:

Capital News Service/LouisianaVoice

P.O. Box 922

Denham Springs, Louisiana 70727-0922

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As if the administration’s handling of bogus criminal accusations against former Commissioner of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control Murphy Painter wasn’t already embarrassing enough after Painter’s acquittal ended up costing the state $474,000 in reimbursement of his legal fees and expenses, a recent civil court decision has added insult to injury.

Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa/New Hampshire/Florida/Anywhere but Louisiana) thought he could make an example of Painter over the then-ATC commissioner’s refusal to bend the rules for New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, whose family and businesses have poured some $40,000 into various Jindal political campaigns.

Painter twice rejected applications by SMG (formerly Spectacor Management Group), the Mercedes-Benz Superdome management firm, for a permit to erect a large tent at Benson’s Champions Square adjacent to Benson Towers across from the Superdome. The tent was to house beer sales by Anheuser-Busch distributor Southern Eagle and approval of the permit was sought by Southern Eagle, SMG, the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED) board and a law firm representing SMG. Altogether, the Benson family, LSED board members, SMG, its law firm and Southern Eagle had combined to pour more than $203,000 into Jindal campaigns between 2003 and 2012.

When Jindal executive counsel Stephen Waguespack insisted that the permit be expedited, Painter asked that he put his concerns in writing but Waguespack refused.

Not only did Jindal fire Painter when his commissioner insisted that the permit application for the Champions Square tent be complete and proper, he even had Painter indicted on criminal charges of stalking a female employee. Present at the firing ceremony were Waguespack, State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, and another member of the governor’s legal staff.

The subsequent criminal prosecution of Painter fell apart and his acquittal carried a stipulation that the state pick up the tab for Painter’s legal fees and affiliated costs.

Now, a civil trial jury has determined unanimously that the female former employee, Kelli Suire, defamed Painter even though the Louisiana Office of Risk Management, most likely at the insistence of Jindal’s Division of Administration, settled Suire’s claims against the state in 2011 without Suire’s ever having been required to sit for a sworn deposition in the apparent hope the settlement would bolster the state’s case against Painter.

Oops.

Painter’s defamation suit against Suire was bifurcated, meaning it was to be tried in two parts. The first part, the part just completed, was to settle the question of actual liability. Had Suire been found not guilty of defamation, the second part to determine actual monetary damages would have been unnecessary.

Unfortunately for Jindal’s chances to avoid further embarrassment over the sloppy manner in which the Painter matter was handled, such was not the case and the damages part will be tried next.

Throughout the entire matter, Painter has made clear that he wanted his day in court.

The liability trial was heard in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana before Judge Shelly Dick and a seven-person jury. Following a three-day trial, the jury took about three hours.

Painter was represented at trial by attorney Al Robert, Jr., and Suire by Jill Craft.

The issues in the case first arose on Aug. 16, 2010, soon after Suire filed a complaint with the Louisiana Office of Inspector General (OID) alleging a myriad of allegations against Painter. The lead OIG investigator at the time, Shane Evans, now employed by the East Baton Rouge Coroner’s Office, testified that he met with Suire and that he personally chose to use the words “stalking” and “harassing” to describe the nature of Suire’s complaints in his application for a search warrant.

Painter also has a civil lawsuit pending against OIG which alleges the agency’s investigation, which began in August of 2010, was improperly conducted.

Robert said the jury’s verdict confirmed the finding of an outside investigator hired by the Louisiana Department of Revenue (DOR) under which ATC operates. The investigator determined that Painter’s actions did not violate DOR anti-harassment policy. Moreover, when questioned by the DOR investigator, Robert said, Suire “admitted that Painter did not make unwelcome sexual advances toward her and that he did not request sexual favors or engage in verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature toward her. Inexplicably, the Office of Inspector General ignored this investigation when it chose to move forward with its investigation of Mr. Painter,” he added.

“This has been a long, four-year ordeal to clear my name of the lies and untruths that Ms. Suire—and those working with her—used to damage my character and reputation,” Painter said.

In her instructions to the jury, Judge Dick said defamation requires proof of a false or defamatory statement made to a third person or persons. “A person who utters a defamatory statement is responsible for all republication that is the natural and probable consequence of the person’s statement,” she said.

Suire, in her defense, did not deny making the statements but said rather that her statements were subject to “privilege,” or inadmissible, Judge Dick said, acknowledging that Suire’s communications did in fact “occasion a conditional or qualified privilege.”

Therefore, in order for Painter to prevail, she said, he “must prove that (the) defendant abused this privilege by acting with actual malice.” Such a finding, the judge said, would require that Suire either knew the matter to be false or acted in reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity.

Suire currently resides in Florida.

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Not only does Troy Hebert berate, intimidate, harass and even fire personnel, he keeps the pressure on even after they’re gone.

Hebert, director of the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, has already been shown to be an egotistical administrator who insists that his underlings rise and greet him with a cheery “Good morning, Commissioner,” whenever he enters a room.

He has contracted with 17-year-old girls in efforts to entrap bar owners into selling alcohol to underage patrons.

He has said he would rid his agency of all black employees and indeed, has already had to settle one lawsuit with an African-American former agent whom he fired and is currently facing litigation from three others.

He has ordered an investigation into the background of LouisianaVoice’s Editor and even boasted that he could have LouisianaVoice’s computer hacked if he so desired.

He even threatened criminal trespass charges against a woman who took his crippled Great Dane dog home in the belief it had been abandoned.

But most demeaning of all, he forced agents to write essays as punishment as if they were school children.

In short, he has run his agency with the impunity of an out of control despot, instilling fear in his staff…because he can. And he has done so without the slightest fear of restraint or discipline from his boss, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Anywhere but Louisiana).

Take the case of former agent Jeffery McDonald.

A veteran of 18 years in law enforcement, McDonald was summarily fired by Hebert for failure to answer charges against him that included a claim that his GPS indicated he was in one place for two hours when in fact he had been riding for five hours with another agent.

His fate was sealed, apparently, in a staff meeting in Baton Rouge when he disagreed with the ATC attorney who indicated she thought it unfair that ATC agents could have a take-home vehicle and she could not. Hebert at the time was attempting to institute a competition whereby top-rated agents would get a take-home vehicle. “They were pitting agents against each other in an unfriendly manner that was detrimental to morale,” McDonald said.

But prior to that, about two years ago, is when the real trouble started and typical Louisiana politics entered the picture.

McDonald and a Tensas Parish sheriff’s deputy raided a restaurant that was selling liquor without benefit of having obtained a permit to sell alcohol.

McDonald wisely turned the liquor over to the deputy for safekeeping at the sheriff’s office. Later, after a local mayor and a state legislator got involved, McDonald was contacted by his superiors and told “to return the evidence and to not file misdemeanor charges” against the owner of the establishment.

“I told them I didn’t have the liquor, that I had turned it over to the sheriff’s office,” he said.

State law says a law enforcement officer must be given 30 days in which to obtain legal counsel if he desires before his final termination. “But they didn’t do that,” he said. “They notified me on May 16 and ordered me to meet them on May 22 for an internal investigation,” he said. “I told them my attorney was out of town and I asked for a later meeting. I was on sick leave with a heart condition at the time. They never got back with me until they sent him his recommended termination notice on June 4. “It was hand delivered by state police on the 5th and they gave me until June 10 to respond but I was undergoing treatment was unable to respond by their deadline. They came to get my equipment on the 11th without providing the legally required seven days from receipt of notification,” he said.

“When they terminated me, they said I had not responded in a timely manner even though they did not give me the legally-required seven days.”

Frustrated with dealing with Hebert and his rules which seemed to change daily, McDonald put in for retirement. His retirement was approved on Aug. 22.

On Aug. 30, he wrote Hebert and the human resources departments of the Department of Revenue and ATC to request a retired ID commission card as allowed under state law.

A retiring agent is supposed to receive the commission upon retirement and McDonald did so eight days after his retirement went through.

Hebert, reportedly upset that McDonald was allowed to retire before he could fire him, has not responded to McDonald’s request.

Without his commission, McDonald cannot legally qualify to carry a firearm as a retired peace officer.

It’s not the first time a commission has been held up. Hebert’s policy regarding the commissions is all over the road; he issued one on the same day one agent retired while another who retired at the end of 2011 was forced to make several phone calls before getting his commission. A third waited eight months and before being given instructions to follow a vague, non-existent policy that including writing a letter to Hebert. Even after writing the letter and sending Hebert a copy of the federal Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act which explains the right to the commission, it still took intervention on the part of a state senator to finally obtain the commission.

Such is the manner in which Troy Hebert runs his shop.

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“We’ve really done a lot…thanks to CPRA (the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority).”

—House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rep. Gordon Dove (R-Houma), who also is a member of the CPRA, commenting prior to his vote in favor of an amendment to SB 469 which would make the prohibition against suing oil companies for damages to the state’s wetlands retroactive to include the year-old lawsuit against 97 oil companies by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E). (While he was busy patting himself on the back for his accomplishments in protecting Louisiana’s wetlands, one of his trucking companies was being cited by the State of Montana for dumping radioactive waste in that state.)

 

“This bill  is a 110 percent get out of jail free card.”

—SLFPA-E attorney Gladstone Jones, offering his opinion of SB 469 during Sunday’s committee hearing.

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Looking back on the LSU Hospital privatization fiasco, it becomes easy to point the finger of blame in several directions.

And to a lesser extent, though by no means blameless, is the Louisiana Legislature.

The legislature has been complicit in many of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s other misadventures, most notably the unorthodox—and, it turned out, unconstitutional—method of funding the governor’s school voucher program. Lawmakers fell all over themselves in 2012 in approving that little scheme that eventually blew up in everyone’s faces when the courts rejected the manner in which Act 2 diverted money from local school districts to cover the cost of private or parochial school tuition.

In fact, Jindal’s entire education reform package, passed in such haste in 2012, quickly grew to more resemble a train wreck than legitimate reform.

But the legislature, even though it never drew a line in the dust even as it capitulated to Jindal at every turn, in the final analysis, had little say-so about nor any recourse in preventing the wholesale giveaway—disguised as privatization—of the six hospitals, a maneuver that imploded Friday with the decision by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to reject the deals that would have turned over to private operators the LSU medical centers in Shreveport, Monroe, Lafayette, Houma, Lake Charles and New Orleans.

Even as Jindal’s rubber stamp LSU Board of Stuporvisers was rubber-stamping a contract containing 50 blank pages in the infamous conflict-of-interest deal handing over University Medical Center of Shreveport and E.A. Conway Medical Center of Monroe to the Biomedical Research Foundation of Northwest Louisiana (BRF), legislators were voicing concerns over the warp speed at which the administration was moving to ram the agreement down the throats of an unsuspecting public.

In fact, a resolution passed unanimously in the Louisiana Senate at the urging of Sen. Ed Murray (D-New Orleans) called for the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget to agree on the privatization plans before any details were to be finalized. A similar resolution was also passed in the House.

Resolutions are just that: resolutions, with no power of law. Jindal said—and an attorney general’s opinion supported the position—that legislative approval was not required in order for the LSU Board to agree to lease the hospitals. An attorney general’s opinion, like a legislative resolution, does not carry the weight of law, but does give the governor stronger footing.

Jindal, for his part, made it abundantly clear that he would move the privatization plan forward with or without legislative support. He said the legislature did not have the authority to vote down the proposals—in effect, saying his administration was ready to ram through the proposals without regard for even a pretense of democratic procedure.

Of course he did say that he would agree to take any advice from the legislative committees into consideration. “If they propose changes to the law, we’ll look at that legislation,” he said.

But we all know what happens to those who have the temerity to disagree with Jindal, don’t we? They’re summarily teagued, as in Tommy Teague, erstwhile Director of the Office of Group Benefits (OGB), who was shown the door on April 15, 2011, when he didn’t jump on board the OGB Privatization Express quickly enough. Six months before that, it was his wife Melody was fired from her state job after she testified before the Commission for Streamlining Government. More than a dozen met the same fate, including LSU President John Lombardi and at least four legislators who found themselves suddenly removed from their committee assignments for “wrong-headed” voting.

But easily the most significant, most ill-advised, most flagrant, most unwarranted demotions were those of two respected doctors who didn’t bite when Jindal dropped his privatization bait into the water—doctors any organization would be proud to have on staff (and now, two such organizations indeed have them after in sheer frustration, they finally left Louisiana).

LSU Health Care System head Dr. Fred Cerise and Interim Louisiana Public Hospital CEO Dr. Roxanne Townsend were demoted just days apart in 2012—Cerise in late August and Townsend in early September—following a July 17 meeting at which former Secretary of health and Hospitals (DHH) Alan Levine first pitched a plan to privatize the state’s system of LSU medical centers.

Levine was at the meeting on behalf of his firm, Health Management Associates (HMA).

Also present, besides Cerise, Townsend and Levine were then-LSU President William Jenkins, DHH then-Secretary Bruce Greenstein, LSU Medical Center Shreveport Director Dr. Robert Barish, HMA CFO Kerry Curry, LSU Health Science Center Shreveport Vice Chancellor Hugh Mighty and LSU Board of Supervisors members Rolfe McCollister, Bobby Yarborough, John George (remember that name) and Scott Ballard. LSU Health Science Center New Orleans Chancellor Larry Hollier and Vice Chancellor for Clinical Affairs at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans Frank Opelka participated by teleconference.

The meeting was held in the LSU president’s conference room.

Both Cerise and Townsend expressed reservations about Levine’s proposal but several members of the LSU Board of Supervisors who were present at the meeting “indicated they want LSU’s management to pursue this strategy,” according to a summary of the meeting prepared for Jenkins by Cerise.

Along with his two-page summation of the meeting, Cerise also submitted a third page containing a list of five concerns he had with the privatization plan pitched by Levine. It was that list of concerns which most likely got Cerise teagued as head of the LSU Health System via an email from Jenkins.

Levine, according to Cerise’s notes, recommended as an initial step that LSU sell its hospital in Shreveport (LSU Medical Center) and use the proceeds to “offset budget cuts for the rest of the LSU system.”

He suggested that the buyers would form a joint venture with LSU, invest capital into the facility and develop a strategy for LSU “to more aggressively compete in the hospital market.”

“The LSU board members present indicated they want LSU’s management to pursue this strategy,” Cerise’s notes said. “Greenstein stated that LSU should look to generate two years of funding to address the state funds shortfall in the system through the sale of Shreveport’s hospital.”

It was at that point that Cerise indicated his concern that such a strategy would take time to develop and that LSU would likely need to go through a competitive public procurement process and “likely legislative approvals.”

It was subsequently determined that legislative approval was not legally required; all that was required was for the legislature to be informed of the administration’s actions.

“There appeared to be agreement that LSU develop a plan that would not result in closure of hospitals,” Cerise’s notes said. “When the question was posed to the group, ‘Will LSU close hospitals,” George responded, ‘We hope not.’ The clear message was that the board members did not want LSU to proceed with any hospital closures at this point.”

Since that meeting, Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge and W.O. Moss Medical Center in Lake Charles have each closed.

“I am asking that you share this memo or at least the substance of it with the full board to ensure they are informed and that their direction to us that we delay definitive budgetary action until the end of August to better assess the likelihood of a Shreveport sale with a statewide distribution of the proceeds is clear and unambiguous,” Cerise said in his memorandum to Jenkins.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Jenkins called for the creation of a task force to include then-Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater, Greenstein, George, Yarborough, McCollister, Ballard, Mighty, Barish, Hollier, Cerise and Townsend.

But in a matter of weeks, Cerise and Townsend were removed from their respective positions and reassigned and Opelka was promoted to Cerise’s position.

Last May, only months before he resigned to take a position in Texas, Cerise was invited by Sen. Murray to testify at a meeting of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. What ensued speaks volumes about the administration’s penchant for secrecy and its intolerance for dissenting viewpoints and is illustrative of Jindal’s general arrogance and disdain for the legislative process.

The committee wanted more information about the proposed privatization of the LSU system’s hospitals and the obvious choice as the most knowledgeable witness was Dr. Fred Cerise, whose integrity is the very antithesis of Jindal’s.

So, naturally, Cerise was barred from testifying. Dissenting opinions—even intelligent, reasoned ones—are not welcomed by this governor who simply cannot bring himself to listen to the advice of others. Murray said he was told that Cerise’s request for a personal leave day to testify was denied. Murray was joined by several other senators in complaining that the denial of an information request from a lawmaker was inappropriate.

Board members, Dr. John George and Ann Duplessis, apparently with straight faces, disavowed any knowledge about Cerise’s not being able to attend the meeting and promised to look into the matter and report back to the committee.

Amazingly, lawmakers appeared to ignore that conflict of interest we alluded to earlier even as the LSU Board of Stuporvisors unanimously approved that contract. No one uttered a peep as that same Dr. John George of Shreveport, sitting as a voting member of the LSU Board, cast his vote.

The CEO of BRF, which awarded the contract for the Shreveport and Monroe medical facilities, is (trumpet fanfare) that same Dr. John George but not to worry: Jindal assured us there was no conflict of interest there.

Almost lost in all of this is the fact that more than 5,000 employees were laid off as a result of the privatizations which now have been disallowed. And for that, we look to the Louisiana Civil Service Commission as the third culprit behind Jindal and the LSU Board of Stuporvisors.

After all, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

The Civil Service Commission, which must approve any layoff plan, first rejected the administration’s privatization by a 4-3 vote but agreed to reconsider the proposal when the administration said it would provide additional information.

The next week, the board met again and commission member D. Scott Hughes of Shreveport apparently saw the light and inexplicably switched his vote from no to yes. More importantly, two other members, Dr. Sidney Tobias of LaPlace and commission Chairman David Duplantier of Mandeville, took the easy way out: they simply did not attend the meeting and the final vote that put 5,000 employees on the street was 3-2 in favor of Jindal.

Granted, commission members don’t receive a salary for their service but if Hughes could drive in from some 250 miles away—even with his yes vote—then surely commission Chairman Duplantier and Tobias could have, should have, found a way to drive in from about 75 and 50 miles out, respectively.

On a matter of such import, their no-show was nothing less than gutless and both should resign from the commission. They agreed to serve and their votes on this issue were of extreme importance—to the administration of course, but especially to those 5,000 employees whose livelihoods depended on the whims of seven five people they’d never met.

And then there’s that almost overlooked matter that’s lost in all the frenzy—one of utmost urgency: where will the state’s poor now seek medical care?

And the fingers of blame point directly at Jindal, the LSU Board of Stuporvisors, and the Civil Service Commission.

So now, after the approval of a contract with its 50 blank pages, after the termination of all those employees, after Jindal’s flimflamming his way around the legislative process, after the demotion and eventual loss of two valuable members of the medical profession, after DHH Kathy Kliebert’s assurances (as late as last week) that everything was just peachy, another wing of Jindal’s house of cards has come tumbling down.

If this is indicative of the way he runs a state—and all the evidence says it most assuredly is—imagine how, as president, he would fare in a faceoff with Vladimir Putin—even with the help of Jimmy Faircloth.

 

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An interesting civil trial is transpiring at the 19th Judicial District Court. Though estimates vary, if the plaintiffs prevail, about one taxpayer in five in the Greater Baton Rouge area may eventually wind up with a surprise check in the mail.

The trial involves a group of taxpayers, now represented as a class, who have sued the Amite River Basin Commission (ARBC) over what they claim are vastly overpaid property taxes covering construction of the Comite River Diversion Canal. The project was originally envisioned after the massive 1983 flood which resulted in significant backwater flooding long after rains had stopped. The concept behind the project involves providing a sort of relief valve (the Canal) to divert water from the Comite River into the Mississippi River. By lowering the water level of the Comite River, water levels would also be lowered in the Amite River basin in flood-prone areas such as Port Vincent and French Settlement.

What is in dispute is the amount of funding for which the ARBC (through local property owners) is responsible. The original estimate of the project’s construction costs was approximately $120 million (the current estimate is $199 million). Of that $120 million, the Army Corps of Engineers (through the Federal government) was to be responsible for 70% of the construction costs, or $84 million. The remaining $36 million cost was originally designated to be $30 million to the State of Louisiana, and $6 million to the ARBC.

A sidebar to the whole affair is how a Baton Rouge lawyer is legally or ethically able to represent ARBC when he also served as the plaintiff attorney in litigation against the state that could ultimately cost the state from $60 million to $70 million.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have indicated that $6 million was the full extent of the construction costs for which the ARBC was responsible. To date, by way of a 3-mill property tax approved by voters in the District in 2000, combined with a renewal (at 2.65 mills) of that tax in 2010, plaintiff attorneys say about $24.5 million has been collected to date. The suit seeks a refund of the alleged $18.5 million overpayment.

At various stages in the trial, plaintiff attorneys have accused ARBC Executive Director Deitmar Rietschier of financial mismanagement and voter deception in order to “keep a project alive that is on life support.”

The attorneys have argued that Rietschier has an ulterior motive for over-collecting on the tax in order to fund his own $93,000+ annual salary along with his executive secretary’s $38,000 salary.  The board’s executive secretary, Toni Guitrau, also happens to be the Mayor of the Livingston Parish Village of French Settlement.

So, basically, the trial boils down to the claim that taxpayers of the district have been tricked into paying around $1.1 million in salaries for Rietschier and Guitrau during a period for which no funding has been appropriated for the project’s continued construction.

Plaintiff attorney Steve Irving argued that it is virtually impossible to accurately estimate the final cost of the project or if, it may even be completed.

Defense attorney Larry Bankston says there never was any intent to cap the ARBC’s contribution to construction costs at $6 million. He argues that the Canal project remains viable and is fully ongoing. He indicated that he has eight more witnesses to call.

Bankston’s roles as both plaintiff and defense attorney in cases involving the state would appear to pose a conflict of interests. Currently, he is:

  • Legal counsel to the State Auctioneer Licensing Board under a $25,000 contract;
  • Defense attorney for ARBC in its ongoing litigation over the overpayment of taxes to that board;
  • Plaintiff attorney in ongoing litigation against the Louisiana Department of Agriculture, and the state’s Rice Promotion Board and Rice Research Board over claims of excessive assessments against the state’s rice farmers.

Employing the doctrine that “the state is the state is the state,” it would appear that Bankston may have a conflict of interests under the code of ethics which governs attorney representation.

But as we discovered years ago, nothing is ever cut and dried in the legal world. And it’s obvious those in charge of attorney ethics or either ignorant of the subject or protective of their peers—or both.

And so it is with this question. We contacted a number of organizations, including the Attorney Disciplinary Board, the Louisiana Civil Justice Center, and the State Bar Ethics Council and each one punted. Eric K. Barefield of the State Bar Association’s Ethics Council did finally respond to our email question about the propriety of working both sides of Litigation Street but his answer did little to shed light on the issue:

“Thank you for your inquiry. The Louisiana State Bar Association’s Ethics Advisory Service is designed to provide eligible Louisiana-licensed lawyers with informal, non-binding advice regarding their own prospective conduct and/or ethical dilemmas under the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct (the “LRPC”).  According to limitations set by the Supreme Court of Louisiana, we are not permitted to evaluate contemplated disciplinary complaints, to serve as the catalyst for potential complaints or even to comment on the conduct of lawyers other than that of the requesting lawyer. 

“As such, regrettably, we are not permitted to help you evaluate whether the lawyer in your scenario has or may be violating the LRPC nor are we permitted to give you legal advice on matters such as those contained in your e-mail. 

“In addition to the foregoing, if you are concerned about protecting and/or asserting your rights and interests in this matter, perhaps you should strongly consider consulting another lawyer as soon as possible with regard to getting an evaluation of your facts and a legal opinion about your rights, interests and options.  Regrettably, no one on the staff at the LSBA is permitted to offer legal assistance and/or legal advice.”

That rendition of the Bureaucratic Shuffle would easily get a “10″ rating on Dancing with the Stars.

Bankston, you may remember, is a former staff attorney for the Louisiana Attorney General’s office, was assistant parish attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish and a member of the Baton Rouge City-Parish Commission before his 1987 election to the Louisiana State Senate.

In 1994, while serving as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Bankston met in his law office with Fred Goodson, owner of a Slidell video poker truck stop. The FBI later said Bankston and Goodson discussed a plan to manipulate the legislative process in order to protect the interests of video poker companies in exchange for providing key legislators secret financial interests in video poker truck stops.

Bankston was subsequently indicted and convicted on two racketeering counts, one of which was a scheme whereby Goodson would pay Bankston “rent” of $1,555 per month for “non-use” of Bankston’s beachfront condo in Gulf Shores, Alabama—a bribe, according to prosecutors.

Bankston was sentenced to 41 months in prison in 1997 and ordered to pay a $20,000 fine.

Released on Nov. 6, 2000, Bankston was subsequently disbarred by the Louisiana Supreme Court on Mar. 9, 2002, retroactive to Nov. 19, 1997, but was re-admitted to practice law on Feb. 5, 2004.

So, now he represents two state boards and is suing two others and a state agency.

And there apparently is no one who can—or will—call a foul in this game.

 

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