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Results from a public records request submitted to the Louisiana State Police by LouisianaVoice for emails related to the now notorious amendment to Senate Bill 294 did not produce any communications between legislators and Superintendent of State Police Mike Edmonson or his staff but a couple of the emails we got did reveal a rather defensive mode on the part of the powers that be at state police headquarters.

Not that we really expected full disclosure in releasing any damning emails in light of the response to a similar public records request by both the House and Senate that public business conducted by the legislature via emails and text messages is none of the public’s business.

Considering the brand of “transparency and openness” exhibited by the Jindal administration and the legislature’s willingness eagerness to roll over and play dead at the governor’s command, we should not have been surprised.

Typical of the attitude of this administration from top to bottom, including the Department of Public Safety and state police, is one particular email from Capt. Jason Starnes of the State Police Operational Development Section to several administrative types, including Edmonson, Ronnie Jones and Edmonson’s Chief of Staff Charles Dupuy on Wednesday, July 16.

The subject line of the email said, “RE: Advocate news story,” but Starnes’s message focused instead to the presence of our reporter Robert Burns at the meeting of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) board which met on Tuesday, July 15, to discuss the ramifications of the SB 294 amendment which was quickly signed into law as Act 859 by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Burns videotaped that meeting as well as an interview with board member State Treasurer John Kennedy following the meeting and posted both clips online.

“Here is the link to the video footage taken by Mr. Burns (whoever he is, wherever he came from and why he is so concerned about the LSP (Louisiana State Police) retirement system I have no idea),” Starnes wrote (emphasis ours).

So, if we read this correctly, Louisiana taxpayers have no business attending public meetings and have no right to concern themselves with such matters of infinite financial exposure created by subterfuge perpetrated by Edmonson’s staff (so Edmonson claims), a cooperative legislator in the person of Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia), and most likely, a conspiratorial governor whose brilliant idea it was to bump Edmonson’s retirement pay by a cool $55,000 or so a year.

On Tuesday, the day before Starnes expressed his apparent antipathy toward Burns, he authored an earlier email to Dupuy, Jones and State Police Public Affairs Commander Capt. Doug Cain in which he offered suggested talking points regarding the amendment controversy which was beginning to attract widespread media attention.

“Here is a draft of talking points and other legislative precedent,” he said, apparently setting the stage for an intricate misdirection campaign by citing other legislative acts dealing with state police retirement but which were not related to the amendment to SB 294.

“Please let me know if there or (sic) any other points that I failed to include,” he added.

Starnes then proceeded to list his proposed “talking points” which he grouped under specific headings, the first of which was:

What does ACT 859 do?

  • ACT No. 859 provides active members of LSP who entered DROP (before it was repealed in 2009) with an actuarially adjusted longevity retirement benefit when they retire.
  • The member must have been continuously employed since completing the DROP program.
  • The total retirement benefit will be equal to the benefit that such member would have received had he not entered DROP (the key element of the amendment) and cannot exceed 100 percent of the member’s final average annual salary (this corrects an earlier incorrect report that Edmonson would receive 100 percent of his salary plus $30,000 per year).
  • The actuarial cost associated with SB 294 (Act 859; Starnes uses the bill number and act number interchangeably, which could be confusing to some) will be paid from the balance in the Experience Account (Notice there is no mention that the Experience Account is intended to provide cost of living increases for retired troopers and their widows and children.).
  • The legislation does not rescind the DROP decision by the member and does not alter that benefit. This legislation provides for an actuarial adjustment to account for member that has continued to make contributions into the retirement system since completing the DROP program and would otherwise be eligible for full retirement benefit based on their actual years of service (This is where the financial exposure puts the LSPRS—and other state retirement systems—at risk by opening the door for others to sue for the same consideration.).

Legislative precedents

  • 2001—ACT No. 1160 was passed that increased the accrual rate from 2.5 percent to 3.33 percent for all active members of (LSPRS). This legislation was retroactive to date of hire and resulted in numerous members becoming instantly eligible for full retirement benefits. The estimated cost for this benefit was approximately $9.4 million. The ACT (we don’t know why Starnes capitalized “ACT” throughout his email) included those members that (sic) had entered DROP prior to June 30, 2001. This provision provided those members with an adjustment increase to their retirement benefit after entering DROP. (This simply means that instead of computing retirement benefits by multiplying the average salary for a members top three years of earnings by the number of years of service by 2.5 percent—$100,000 X 40 years X 2.5 percent would equal an annual retirement benefit of $100,000 or 100 percent of his/her salary—the years of service would now be multiplied by years of service by 3,33 percent, thus allowing one making $100,000 to retire at 100 percent in 30 years instead of 40—$100,000 X 30 X 3.33 percent. All other state employees’ retirements remain computed at 2.5 percent.).
  • 2003—ACT No. 748 was passed to provide a longevity adjustment to members that had previously entered the DROP program. This adjustment was the greater of a new calculated benefit (per statute) or 20 percent. All members affected by this legislation received a minimum of a 20 percent increase to their retirement benefit. The estimated cost for this benefit was approximately $1.03 million.
  • 2009—ACT No. 480 was passed that eliminated the DROP program and instituted the “Back-DROP” program. This was passed to improve benefits to active members who were required to make retirement decisions prior to necessarily completing their careers with the department. (Note: Edmonson said on the Jim Engster Show that he was forced into DROP. That is incorrect. While members were required to make a decision whether or not to enter DROP, no one was forced to enter the program.). This eliminated members being forced to make retirement decisions that adversely impacted their benefits. Both ACT 1160 and ACT 748 addressed those members in adverse retirement situations.

Notes

  • Act No. 859 simply follows other legislative precedents to address retirement adjustments for members remaining employed with the department following completion of the DROP program. (Well, maybe, but why was it done so surreptitiously? That would seem to be the key question that should be addressed here.).
  • This is an actuarial adjustment that will provide the same benefit as those who received full retirement benefits following the requisite number of years of service (Again, and not to beat a dead horse, Edmonson made a decision that no other employee throughout state government is allowed to revoke, a special benefit extended to him and one other trooper only.).
  • The members affected by the legislation have continued to pay into the retirement system since completed (sic) DROP.
  • Members will not receive more than 100 percent of their final average salary.
  • This legislation will not negatively impact the benefits of any retiree (other than drawing down the Experience Account).
  • There has been clear legislative precedent set to protect and adjust the retirement benefits for those members that (sic) have been negatively impacted by the DROP program (But again, that legislation was done openly, not sneaked in as an amendment to an unrelated bill during the final hectic hours of the legislative session.).
  • Public notice regarding the retirement legislation was published in The Advocate on Jan. 2-3, 2014 (Once again, we have unanswered the question of why then, did it become necessary to do this as a furtive amendment on the last day of the session?).
  • The conference committee report is deemed to be germane to the original bill in that it deals with rights of law enforcement officers which include the rights to retirement benefits per statute (This is the biggest stretch lie of all; the original bill dealt with disciplinary procedures to be used when law enforcement officers are accused of wrongdoing. That’s all. How can a pension amendment affecting only two officers possibly be germane to that?).

There also were copies of a series of email sent back and forth between Edmonson and the governor’s office in an attempt to schedule a last-minute attendance at a Sunday bill signing by Jindal that turned in something of a comedy sketch with Edmonson seeming to lose his patience in the final email.

The five bills all dealt with retirement and were to be signed on Sunday, June 1, that had everyone scrambling to round up warm bodies to attend the signing ceremony.

On Saturday, May 31, at 6:34 p.m., Shannon Bates, deputy communications director for the governor’s office, wrote, “Tomorrow we are having a bill signing ceremony for the retirement reform bill by

(Rep. Joel) Robideaux (R-Lafayette) and the 4 (Sen. Elbert) Guillory (R/D/R-Opelousas) COLA bills,” Bates wrote. “I know that is a Sunday but a lot of stakeholders are able to attend since the lege is in session anyway. Do you know if someone from the State Police system could attend or at least send us a quote for the release? (Nothing like waiting until the last minute to throw things together). We are having problems getting into (sic) touch with them…”

Nine minutes later, Edmonson responded: “Yes we will get somebody there.”

Three minutes following Edmonson’s reply, Shannon wrote, “Thank you – if you could let me know who it is that would be great!”

At 6:52 p.m. Edmonson Chief of Staff Dupuy wrote that he felt TFC Frank Besson, president of the Louisiana State Troopers Association, should accompany Edmonson to the event.

Edmonson, at 7:03 wrote to Dupuy, “He (Besson) needs to call Shannon for a quote.”

“Ok,” replied Dupuy 10 minutes later.

At 7:52, an apparent nervous Edmonson wrote to Besson: “Frank, have you handled?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Besson at 8:14 p.m. “I just spoke with Natalie (no last name available) to get the time, which will be 1:30.”

Edmonson, at 8:20 p.m., wrote to Besson: “Shannon is the contact. Make sure she gets a quote. I will be with you.”

“I’ll send her something tonight,” Besson answered.

At 8:25, Edmonson, apparently by now a little agitated, wrote Besson: “Get with Doug (Cain) and handle now. It should not have taken six emails.”

(Actually, including the emails from Bates, there were 11—eight between Edmonson and his subordinates—but who’s counting?)

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State Treasurer John Kennedy has sent a second letter to the executive director of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) to emphasize his wish that a thorough investigation be conducted into the last second amendment to Senate Bill 294 which gave State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson and one other state trooper huge increases in their state police pensions.

Kennedy wrote to Irwin Felps on Tuesday (July 29), saying, “I strongly oppose any delay or discontinuation of the system’s investigation of Act 859.”

SB 294 became Act 859 when Gov. Bobby signed the bill into law soon after it was adopted by the legislature on the last day of the session last month.

At first blush, it would appear that Kennedy might be responding to push back or resistance to a continued investigation but he assured LouisianaVoice that was not the case. “To my knowledge, no one has suggested that we terminate the investigation,” he said. “I just wanted to make certain that the board (the LSPRS board) understands that we still have this law on the books and we need to see what our options are in order to carry out our fiduciary responsibility to protect the system.”

Cynic-in-Chief C.B. Forgotston isn’t convinced. Observing that a majority of the LSPRS board is comprised of those who work directly for or are allied with Edmonson or Jindal, he says that a legal challenge is the only way in which to dispose of the issue once and for all.

Kennedy, in his capacity as state treasurer, is a member of the board and in his letter to Felps, he listed several reasons why he feels the board should continue its investigation to find a solution to the situation that benefits just two state troopers—Superintendent Mike Edmonson and Master Trooper Louis Bourquet of Houma.

Felps, contacted by LouisianaVoice, also said the board plans to move forward with its investigation. “We (the board) will be meeting in a couple of weeks,” he said. “Meanwhile, our legal counsel is considering options open to us in order to determine a course of action.”

Felps also said that attorney Bob Klausner of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, has been retained to serve in an “of counsel” capacity (a term usually applied to an attorney who has been employed to aid in a particular case but who is not the lead attorney).

“He is one of the pre-eminent authorities on pensions and has worked with us in the past,” Felps said.

While the increases to the retirements for the two law enforcement officers are substantial (as much as an additional $55,000 a year in Edmonson’s case before he finally said he would not accept the increased benefits), there may be retired state troopers who, like Edmonson and Bourquet, may have entered the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), thus freezing their retirement benefits only to receive substantial promotions or pay increases which would otherwise have increased their retirements.

Kennedy listed several concerns in his letter:

  • Because the act requires that funding for the benefits would be paid from the LSPRS Experience Account, apparently to avoid increasing our unfunded accrued liability (UAL), it would appear to adversely affect the system’s ability to provide cost of living adjustments for retired members and their families. “This must not be permitted to happen to our current and future retirees and their families,” he said.
  • Should the board delay or terminate the investigation, there is no guarantee that the legislature would adequately repeal the act or even consider it and even if it did, there would be no certainty that the governor would not veto any new legislation enacted to remedy what Kennedy calls a “bad law.”
  • Assuming that Bourquet, like Edmonson, rejects the increase, either or both could change their minds, die or become disabled, either of which would trigger the benefits at such time.
  • It is unclear how a recipient of the increased benefits could effective declare that he will not accept them, which would raise other complicated procedural questions.
  • There are several questions concerning the legality and constitutionality of the amendment to SB 294 which was originally authored by Sen. Jean Paul Morrell (D-New Orleans) to deal only with disciplinary procedures when officers are accused of wrongdoing.

The unanimous passage of the amendment has caused a furor over the propriety of such tactics on the last day of the session when both houses are working feverishly to wrap up business before adjournment. As one member who voted for the bill said, “We’re all running around during those final hours trying to get our own bills through conference committee and these things can slip through.”

Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia) was a member of the conference committee comprised of three senators and three representatives that recommended passage of the bill. After first denying any knowledge of the amendment, he finally admitted last Friday that he was the one who had the amendment drafted and inserted into the bill.

Because Edmonson appears to be a constant companion of Jindal (he appears in the background in virtually all of the governor’s in-state photo-ops which, granted, are becoming more and more rare because of Jindal’s near constant travels out of state in pursuit of his vanishing presidential aspirations) many legislative observers remain convinced that Riser took the action at the direction of the governor’s office.

That is precisely the kind of back-door deal that Jindal swore he would never tolerate and indeed, would make state government more transparent and accountable. In truth, his every action as governor reveals the lie in that empty promise by Jindal the candidate.

But, after more than six years of his brand of transparency, the real surprise would have been if anyone had been surprised.

And that’s precisely why Forgotston remains unconvinced that anything will get done without a legal challenge to the new law.

“The only issue remaining is who will file the lawsuit,” he said. “The board of LSPRS has the primary fiduciary responsibility to do so. The legislators, especially Senator Neil Riser, have an obligation to the taxpayers to fix the fiscal mess they created.

“The only interest being neglected in this matter is that of us taxpayers.

“It is time for the legislature to join Kennedy and others in calling for LSPRS to litigate SB 294 or to do so themselves.  The taxpayers should not be left holding the bag.”

Even Clancy DuBos, a columnist for New Orleans’ Gambit magazine and WWL-TV has joined the chorus of those demanding a lawsuit to challenge the “Edmonson Amendment.”

http://www.wwltv.com/news/DuBos-Legislature-must-challenge-state-police-chiefs-secret-raise-269100661.html?ref=prev

To read the entire text of Kennedy’s letter, go here:

Treasurer Kennedy Letter to State Police Retirement 07 29 2014

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The Jindal administration has announced plans to jettison 24 more positions at the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) as a cost cutting measure for the cash-strapped agency but is retaining the top two positions and an administrator hired only a month ago.

The effective date of the layoffs is Aug. 15.

The latest cuts will leave only 47 employees when the agency is relocated to the Claiborne Building basement to share office space with the Office of Risk Management. The Claiborne Building also houses the Civil Service Department, the Board of Regents, the Department of Education, the State Land Office and the Division of Administration.

The layoff plan submitted to the Department of Civil Service on June 14, said there was insufficient work to justify all 71 positions.

Affected by layoffs are eight Benefits Analyst positions, three Group Benefits Supervisory spots, one Group Benefits Administrator, seven Administrative Coordinators, an Administrative Assist, two Administrative Supervisors, one IT Application Programmer/Analyst and one Training Development Specialist.

OBG Chief Executive Officer Susan West, one of those being retained, will be making a physical move back into her old offices. She previously worked for ORM before that agency was gutted by Jindal’s grand privatization scheme and she moved over to OGB.

West, who makes $170,000, and Interim Chief Operating Officer Charles Guerra ($107,000) are not affected by the layoff nor is Elis Williams Cazes ($106,000)) was appointed as Group Benefits Administrator on June 23.

Cazes was previously employed by Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Louisiana which serves as the third party administrator of the OGB Preferred Provider Operation at a cost to the state of $5.50 per month per enrollee, which computes to an amount a little north of $70 million per year.

Her position was created—and the requirements reportedly written especially to her qualifications—as the Medical/Pharmacy Administrator responsible for benefit plan management and vendor performance with the primary responsibility to “continuously monitor medical and pharmacy benefit plans to seek out modification of plans or implementation of new plans that reduce claims costs and provide efficiencies for the state and plan participants,” according to the justification given for retaining her position.

Well, we can certainly see where her position is as indispensable as West’s and Guerra’s.

All this takes place at a time whe OGB’s reserve fund has dwindled from $500 million at the time of the agency’s privatization in January 2013 to about half that amount today. Even more significant, the reserve fund is expected to dip as low as $5 million by 2016, just about the time Jindal leaves town for good.

Completing the trifecta of good news, we also have learned that health benefits for some 200,000 state employees, retirees and dependents will be slashed this year even as premiums increase.

In June, West broke the news to the OGB employees. She erroneously said the 47 remaining employees would be reassigned other duties and some might see pay reductions and that those with seniority could bump junior employees in desired positions. The Civil Service Department, however, said salaries could not be cut and bumping is no longer allowed.

Isn’t it nice to know your agency director knows the procedures?

Employees were told that letters would go out between July 1 and July 15 to those who were being laid off. On July 7, they were told the letters would be delivered by hand on Friday, July 11. None came. On the following Monday (July 14) confusion of the order of the day as Deputy Commissioner of Administration Ruth Johnson sent emails to those affected and instructed them to attend a noon meeting in the OGB board room. Upon entering the board room, each person was handed a packet that informed them that Civil Service had not approved the layoffs.

During the meeting, according to one who was there, West kept repeating, “I get this. I’ve been where you are. I get this. However, there are worse things. It’s not like losing a child. I get this.”

Way to soften the blow, Susan. You might have reminded them that the fighting between Israel and Palestine isn’t so bad because there’s also an Ebola outbreak in Africa or that while you’re losing your home to a hurricane storm surge, some people are having to endure heavy wind damage. Or better yet, take them all to a showing of The Fault in Our Stars. That’ll cheer them up.

“It was the ‘I get this’ and comparison of losing a job to losing a child that infuriated the OGB state employees,” the employee said. “This is the worst thing in their lives right  now, some are battling cancer and working; some have children and grandchildren to feed; some live paycheck to paycheck; some are taking care of the elderly and family; all have bills, rents/mortgages, school tuition, etc.”

But you really can’t blame Susan. She previously worked for ORM and was among those present when ORM Director Bud Thompson broke the privatization news to his employees by standing before them, grinning, as he said, “I still have my job.”

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(Editor’s note: this is our 1,000th post since we started LouisianaVoice a little more than three years ago. We have also surpassed the one million-word milestone. That’s roughly the equivalent of 10 full-length novels.)

 

Were two separate announcements made late Friday by State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson and State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia) designed to neutralize State Treasurer John Kennedy’s calls for an investigation into the amendment to Senate Bill 294 that increased Edmonson’s retirement by $55,000 a year?

If so, Kennedy said, the tactic won’t work.

Without going through all the details of the amendment, there is one additional development that has gone unreported to this point (until it was pointed out to us first by reader Stephen Winham and then Kennedy):

Funding to pay Edmonson’s extra retirement income, which could cost the state more than $1 million over Edmonson’s lifetime, would come from the state’s Employee Experience Account (R.S. 11:1332) http://law.justia.com/codes/louisiana/2013/code-revisedstatutes/title-11/rs-11-1332 which set aside funds to provide cost of living raises for retired state troopers and survivors of slain troopers.

In other words, he would be taking from retirees, widows and orphans in order to increase his retirement from the $79,000 per year, or 100 percent of his salary, at the time he entered the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), to 100 percent of his current $134,000 a year salary.

In those two announcements, issued separately, Edmonson reversed his field and said he will not accept the increased pension benefits because “It’s been too much of a distraction.”

Riser, one of six members of the Legislative Conference Committee that brought the amended bill back to the House floor on the last day of the session, meanwhile, did an even bigger flip flop in admitting that he did indeed instruct a Senate staffer to add the key amendment to the bill authored by Sen. Jean Paul Morrell (D-New Orleans).

On July 17, Riser emailed blogger C.B. Forgotston who had sent Riser an email asking what he knew about the origin of the amendment. Incredibly, Riser said in that email, “I first saw the amendment when I read the conference committee report drafted by staff. As the language was explained to me, I believed it fixed a retirement problem for the law enforcement community.”

Basically, it was a denial without his actually denying he knew about the amendment.

But on Friday, Riser fessed up that he did indeed instruct staff (in this case, Laura Gail Sullivan, legal counsel for the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee which Riser chairs) to add the amendment. He still, however, stuck to his story that he saw the amendment on the “last hectic day of the session” and did not know the amendment would benefit just two people—Edmonson and a Houma trooper.

No wonder he was recently named Legislator of the Year by the Louisiana State Troopers’ Association—for the third consecutive year.

RISER AND EDMONSON

Supt. of State Police Mike Edmonson, left, and State Sen. Neil Riser (BFF)

Taken together, the Friday statements by Edmonson and Riser appear suspiciously coordinated to neutralize Kennedy’s letter of one day earlier to the executive director of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) in which he posed 13 questions he said needed answers.

Riser’s belated admission of his part in the amendment addressed only one of those questions and Kennedy said Friday that the investigation “must go forward” because “we still have a bad law on the books that we have to deal with.”

That’s because Gov. Bobby Jindal put his frequent flyer miles in abeyance long enough to sign the bill into law as ACT 859, prompting some to speculate that Riser’s actions may have been dictated by the governor’s office.

Kennedy said the LSPRS board has already retained outside legal counsel to determine what legal action is available to the board which is required by law to protect the fiduciary interests of the system.

“The board will meet in August to discuss our options,” he said. “We will invite Col. Edmonson to attend to present his side of the issue. We will also invite Sen. Riser and Thomas Enright, the governor’s executive counsel.”

He said that Enright, as the governor’s legal counsel, reads every bill and makes recommendations to Jindal as to whether the bills meet legal standards and if they should be signed or vetoed.

Without waiting for that August meeting, LouisianaVoice has a few questions of our own:

  • Why did Riser first deny his culpability and appear willing to throw his legal counsel under the bus?
  • What happened to compel him to cleanse his conscience?
  • Does he feel his constituents should trust him when he comes up for re-election after this despicable lapse of moral principles?
  • Who made the decision to fund this questionable (and most likely unconstitutional) appropriation from money intended to pay for retirees’ and survivors’ cost of living adjustments…and why?
  • Did Jindal direct that this amendment be inserted on the last day of the session?
  • If not, why did Enright not catch one of several possible constitutional violations contained in the amendment?

We’re glad that Riser, even belatedly, admitted his part in this farce of legislative procedure and we feel that Edmonson did the right thing in deciding to refuse the additional retirement money.

Suspicious by nature, however, we can’t help wondering about their motivations.

 

 

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State Treasurer John Kennedy has forwarded a two-page letter to the executive director of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) that itemizes 13 questions Kennedy said need to be addressed concerning the $55,000 per year pension increase awarded State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson in the closing minutes of the recent legislative session.

An amendment to Senate Bill 294, quickly signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal as Act 859, allowed Edmonson and one other state trooper to revoke their decision made at lower ranks to enter the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP). In Edmonson’s case, he entered DROP as a captain, which effectively froze his retirement calculated on his salary at that time.

He was subsequently promoted to Superintendent of State Police which carried with it a substantial pay increase that made the DROP decision a bad one—like many other state employees who made similar moves and were later promoted.

The amendment was inserted into an unrelated bill dealing with disciplinary actions to be taken with law enforcement officers under investigation by a six-member conference committee, none of whom will claim credit—or blame—for the action.

Even worse than the furtive action, most probably taken at the direction of Gov. Bobby Jindal, five of the six conference committee members appear to be unwilling to man up and discuss their actions.

Kennedy, who by virtue of his office is a member of LSPRS, wrote to Executive Director Irwin Felps:

“In furtherance of our board meeting, other discussions regarding this matter and our fiduciary obligations to all of the people the system serves, I wanted to set forth in writing, as a board member and the State Treasurer, the issues that I think must be fully investigated and answered by you, our counsel and other staff, for the board so that it can make the necessary decisions and take appropriate actions, if any, to meet its fiduciary duties. This list is not meant to be exclusive, and there may be others to be included from other members, you, counsel and others, which should be answered too and which I welcome.”

Kennedy then listed the following 13 questions which he said needed answers:

  • How many people does the act benefit?
  • Who are the people it benefits, so that they can be invited to address these issues and their involvement with our board?
  • What are all of the costs of the act to the system and its members?
  • Is it true the actuarial note setting forth the cost of the act was added three days after the bill passed and, if so, why?
  • What would be the costs to give the same retirement benefit increase resulting from the act to all troopers and their dependents that are similarly situated?
  • What is the opinion of the act of the Governor’s Executive Counsel who reviewed the bill before the Governor’s signature approving it?
  • Who sponsored the benefits-boosting conference committee amendment, so that they can be invited to address why it was offered with our board?
  • Does the amendment in question satisfy the legal requirement of proper notice for a retirement benefits bill?
  • Does the amendment in question meet the legal requirement of “germaneness” (relevance) to the amended bill?
  • Does the amendment in question violate the state constitutional prohibition against the Legislature passing a law that impairs the obligations of contracts?
  • Does the amendment in question satisfy the state constitutional requirement of equal protection of the law?
  • Does the process by which the amendment in question was adopted violate the Legislature’s internal rules or procedures?
  • What are the board’s legal options?

Copies of Kennedy’s letter were sent to State Treasury Executive Counsel Jim Napper and board members of LSPRS, Louisiana State Employees’ Retirement System (LASERS), Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana (TRSL), and the Louisiana School Employees’ Retirement System (LSERS).

Records denied LouisianaVoice by House, Senate

The six conference committee members who met to iron out differences in the House and Senate versions of SB 294, to which the controversial amendment was added, include Sens. Jean-Paul Morrell (who authored the original bill), Neil Riser (R-Columbia) and Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe), and Reps. Jeff Arnold (D-New Orleans), Walt Leger, III (D-New Orleans) and Bryan Adams (R-Gretna).

We attempted to obtain records of emails between conference committee members, Edmonson, the governor’s office and the Division of Administration but the wagons were quickly circled and we got the standard runaround from both the House and Senate.

It seems by some convoluted logic that communications of legislators about legislative business that affects taxpayers is not public record.

This is the response we received from both the House and Senate:

“You request: ‘all emails, text messages and/or any other communications between Col. Mike Edmonson and members of his staff, State Sen. Neil Riser and/or any of his staff members, any other legislator and/or members of their staff, specifically Reps. Jeff Arnold, Walt Leger and Bryan Adams (and Morrell, Riser and Walsworth) and between either of these (six) members and Gov. Bobby Jindal and/or any of his staff members, including but not limited to Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols and/or any members of her staff, concerning, pertaining to or relevant to any discussion of the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), retirement benefits for Col. Mike Edmonson and discussion of any retirement legislation that might affect Col. Mike Edmonson and/or any other member of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System.’

“Any communication by or with or on behalf of a Legislator ‘concerning, pertaining to or relevant to any discussion of the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), retirement benefits for Col. Mike Edmonson and discussion of any retirement legislation that might affect Col. Mike Edmonson and/or any other member of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System’ falls under the ‘speech’ protected by LA con. art. III, § 8, clause 2: ‘No member shall be questioned elsewhere for any speech in either house.’ Our appellate courts have held that ‘the speech privilege extends to freedom of speech in the legislative forum; when members are acting within the “legitimate legislative sphere,’ the privilege is an absolute bar to interference. The courts have further held that conduct which falls within this ‘sphere’ of privilege is ‘anything generally done in a session of the House by one of its members in relation to the business before it.’ Copsey v. Baer, No. CA 91 0912, 593 So.2d 685, 688 (1st Cir. Dec. 27, 1991), Writ Denied 594 So.2d 876, (La., Feb. 14, 1992).

“Your request to review records concerning retirement legislation falls directly within the ‘sphere’ protected against disclosure by the Louisiana constitution. All of the records you request to review are privileged from your examination.”

So there you go, folks. You have no right to pry into the business of the State of Louisiana if it’s discussed by a legislator. How’s that for the gold standard of ethics and for accountable and transparent government?

Only Walsworth responds to LouisianaVoice email

LouisianaVoice also sent each of the six an identical email on Wednesday that said:

“Because there has been nothing but deafening silence from the six members of the conference committee that approved the egregious retirement increase for Superintendent of State Police Mike Edmonson, I thought I would contact each of you individually to give you the opportunity to explain your thought process in enacting this legislation to benefit only two people to the exclusion of all the others who opted for DROP but would now like to revoke that decision.

“To that end, I have several questions that I respectfully ask you as honorable men with nothing to hide to answer. Your continued silence will leave me no alternative but to believe you are not honorable men and that this action was taken in the session’s dying hours in a deliberate attempt to do an end around the public’s right to know what transpires in Baton Rouge.”

Here are the questions I posed to each man:

  • Did you introduce, or do you know who introduced, the amendment to SB 294? (If each of you denies any knowledge of this, the implication is simple: you take issue with State Treasurer John Kennedy’s contention that the amendment did not “fall from the heavens.”)
  • Did you have any contact with Mike Edmonson or any member of his staff prior to the amendment’s being added to SB 294?
  • At what point during the session just ended did the matter of Col. Edmonson’s retirements first arise?
  • Why was the full House and Senate not made aware of the wording of the amendment to SB 294?
  • Was it your intent that no one should know the real intent of amendment to SB 294?
  • Edmonson, on Jim Engster’s radio show, indicated it came up several weeks before the end of the session. If that is true, why was there a delay until the last day of the session to tack the amendment onto SB 294?
  • Did you have any contact relative to the amendment from Gov. Jindal’s office or the office of Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols?
  • If you did have contact with Mike Edmonson and/or any of his staff members, the governor’s office or Kristy Nichol’s office, would you willingly release the contents of those communications?
  • Finally, do you think it fair to do this for only two people while excluding hundreds, perhaps thousands of retirees who made similar decisions to enter DROP only to regret their decisions?

With the exception of Walsworth who responded on Thursday, the response has been a continued embarrassing silence.

Here is Walsworth’s response:

“I did not introduce the amendment.  I can only answer for myself, not others.

“I had no contact with Mike Edmonson or any member of his staff concerning this amendment.

“I believe I heard about the problems with the amendment like everyone else, through the media a couple of weeks ago.

“The last day of the session is usually very hectic.  My recollection of the events of that day was that the report came to my desk by a staffer.  I saw the amendment and asked if it effected (sic) more than one more person.

“The staffer said yes. I knew that in the past we had given this provision to several retirement systems. So I signed the report. Sen. Jody Amedee’s child was in the hospital and as Vice Chair of Senate Gov. Affairs Committee, I was in charge of the Senate going into Executive Session to handle appointments. To be honest, I do not recall what the author said when he presented SB 294 on the floor.

“I had no contact from anyone in Gov. Jindal’s office or Kristy Nichols’ office.

“It has been many years since I was on the retirement committee.  I have always been an advocate that retirees should have more choices. They should have more control of their retirement. I am sorry that this effected (sic) just these 2 individuals. I thought it would effect (sic) more.”

But the sorriest, most pathetic, most despicable thing about this entire sordid mess is that members of that conference committee are perfectly willing to throw a female staff attorney under the bus to protect their own pitiful hides.

Laura Gail Sullivan is the legal counsel for the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee her name is at the top of the page of the conference committee report.

Given the fact that Sen. Neil Riser was on that conference committee and, as Chairman of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, it doesn’t take a genius to come up with a pretty good guess as to who instructed Sullivan to insert the amendment.

But the fact is that with the exception of Walsworth—if he is to be believed—not one of the committee members came to Sullivan’s defense. They choose instead to let a subordinate who was following orders take the heat.

Their action, or more accurately, inaction, is the very definition of hiding behind a skirt.

These are men who will run for cover and let a staff member take the heat for their actions. And the fact that not one of them has the backbone to come forward, makes them, in our opinion, the lowest form of humanity to dare call themselves public servants.

It is our fervent hope that in 2015 they will draw formidable opponents who will be more than happy to let voters know the gutless wonders these cowards turned out to be and who will rat them out for the rodents they are.

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Anyone who still wonders why Gov. Bobby Jindal trots around the country uttering his venom-laced attacks on Washington in general and the Obama administration in particular should understand something. It’s all about politics; he is simply pandering to what he perceives as his base which is, at best, an illusion.

His foaming at the mouth courtship with his invisible support group is something like playing with an imaginary friend. In Jindal’s case, we have it on pretty good authority that he had two imaginary friends as a child but they would go to the other end of the playground and never let him join them. You will notice he never shows up in any of the lists of potential major GOP presidential candidates. That’s because the Republican Party just doesn’t want to play with him.

We have to give Jindal credit for one thing, however; he backs his rhetoric with action.

In his steadfast resistance to anything Washington, we have seen him:

  • Reject $300 million in federal funding for a Baton Rouge to New Orleans high speed passenger rail connection because he doesn’t want federal control;
  • Pretend to reject $98 million in federal stimulus funds for recovery from the 2008 recession while quietly taking the funds and handing out checks to municipalities during his highly-publicized visits to Protestant churches in north Louisiana;
  • Reject $80 million in federal funding to expand broadband internet service into rural areas of the state, primarily in north Louisiana;
  • Reject $15.7 billion in federal Medicaid expansion funds because he incorrectly claimed it would cost Louisiana taxpayers up to $1.7 billion over 10 years. He provided no figures to back that claim but did defiantly say Obama “won’t bully Louisiana.” Meanwhile, more than 200,000 low-income Louisiana residents are still without medical insurance.
  • Reject the Common Core State Standards Initiative after previously voicing his wholehearted support for the standards, again saying, “We won’t let the federal government take over Louisiana’s education standards.”
  • Prevail upon the legislature to reject an increase in the minimum wage, to reject tightening regulation of payday loan companies, to ban discrimination against gays, and to reject support of equal pay for women—most probably because all such proposals have the ugly thumbprints of Washington all over them.

So, taking into account his polarizing negativity against Washington, it’s pretty easy to see that things might have been different if we’d never had this little demagogue as governor.

But then we got to wondering how Louisiana might have fared down through the years if we had always been saddled with a Jindal on the fourth floor of the State Capitol. We would probably have beaten South Carolina in being the first state to secede from the Union.

But for the sake of simplicity, let’s just go back to Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. That’s pretty fair because U.S. Sen. Huey Long (whom Jindal often seems to be trying to emulate) was about as anti-New Deal then as Jindal is anti-everything federal is today. Moreover, the nation was reeling from the Great Depression, thanks to Wall Street’s greed, just as America was suffering from the Recession of 2008, thanks in large part to Wall Street again gone amok.

Works Progress Administration projects:

  • Big Charity Hospital in New Orleans where many Louisiana physicians received their training for decades (including Congressmen Bill Cassidy and Charles Boustany, Jr.);
  • Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) which brought electric power to Louisiana’s most rural farm communities (and without which, to paraphrase the late comic Brother Dave Gardner, they’d all be watching TV by candlelight);
  • State Capitol Annex across Third Street from the State Capitol;
  • More courthouses were constructed under the program from 1936 to 1940 than in any other period in state history. They include courthouses in the parishes of St. Bernard, Natchitoches, Iberia Parish, Caldwell, Cameron, East Carroll, Jackson, Madison, Rapides, St. Landry and Terrebonne.
  • Mumford Stadium, Bradford Hall and Grandison Hall at Southern University;
  • Himes Hall, the faculty club, and the geology building at LSU;
  • Two buildings at what is now the University of Louisiana Monroe, three on the McNeese campus, seven each at Southeastern Louisiana University and Louisiana Tech, a water tower at Grambling State University, eight additions at Northwestern State University and 12 at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, all of which significantly extended the reach of higher education in the state.
  • Scores of new elementary and high schools (including this writer’s Alma Mater, Ruston High School), as well as high school science labs, gymnasium-auditoriums, home economics cottages, athletic fields, music rooms and vocational education shops;
  • New buildings for the Hansen’s Disease Center at Carville;
  • The Huey P. Long Bridge in New Orleans;
  • Extensive improvements and updates to the French Market in New Orleans;
  • Expansion of the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans;
  • Paving of 40 miles of roadway on Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City as well as the clearing of 15 miles of bayous and drainage canals and the rehabilitation of 43 wooden bridges on the base;
  • Improvements to the 1,300-acre City Park in New Orleans;
  • The Louisiana State Museum in Shreveport;
  • Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans;
  • The old City Hall in Denham Springs;
  • Construction of the Louisiana State School for the Deaf (now housing an administration building for the Baton Rouge Police Department);
  • Post offices in Hammond, Plaquemine, Arabi; Arcadia, Bunkie, Donaldsonville, Eunice, Haynesville, Jeanerette, Leesville, Oakdale, Rayville, and Monroe;
  • Conversion of a Baton Rouge swamp into the University Lakes around which many LSU professors, former U.S. Congressman Henson Moore and current Congressman Bill Cassidy now reside;
  • Eradication program to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes near the New Orleans lakefront.

Huey Long did everything in his power to throw up roadblocks to FDR. His reasons? He planned to run for President in 1936 and he needed to incite opposition to Roosevelt and Washington in order to build a national political base. In fact, before his death in September of 1935, Long was quite effective as fewer than three dozen PWA projects were fully authorized for the state.

Sound familiar?

Following Long’s death and with his obstructionist policy abandoned by his successors, FDR funneled $80 million into Louisiana for roads, bridges, water and sewerage systems, parks, playgrounds, public housing, library and bookmobile programs and literacy drives. That’s $80 million in 1930s dollars. About what it would take to fund that proposed broadband internet expansion for rural north Louisiana today.

So, let’s ask Jindal to hop into our time machine and travel back to September 1935 where he will run and be elected governor just in time to revive the Kingfish’s anti-Roosevelt rhetoric.

Big Charity Hospital? Who needs it? But wait. Jindal wouldn’t have that facility today to give away in his privatization plan yet to be approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). And without Big Charity, there probably never would have been similar state hospitals in Houma, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Alexandria, Shreveport or Monroe to close or privatize.

All those courthouses? Shoot, just drop them in the Capital Outlay bill and sell some more state bonds. We can always raise the state’s debt ceiling.

As for all those buildings on the university campuses across the state, hasn’t anyone been paying attention? We’re cutting funding for all that. Who needs public colleges anyway? Let the students get a student loan and go to ITI Technical College.

And Ruston High School? We’ll just turn that into a charter and issue vouchers to the white kids—the smart rich ones.

All those New Deal programs created jobs for Louisianians? Well, so what? There probably wouldn’t have been an unemployment problem in the first place if the workers weren’t so greedy back then and would’ve agreed to work for 15 cents an hour. That’s what happens when you raise the minimum wage.

Fast Forward 30 years

And lest we forget, we probably need to include a couple of programs President Lyndon B. Johnson rammed through Congress.

The Civil Rights Bill opened the door of opportunity for African Americans as nothing since the Emancipation Proclamation had done. And of course there was bitter opposition right down to passage—and beyond. There are those, some in elective office, who would repeal the act today, given the opportunity. The irony is that LBJ had opposed every Civil Rights measure in Congress when he was a senator but when he ascended to the presidency upon JFK’s assassination, he told one supporter, “I’m everybody’s president now.”

And, of course, there is the precursor to the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare.

Of course, that would be that radical Social Security Amendment of 1965 which created Medicare and Medicaid.

There was rabid opposition to Medicare by Republicans and the American Medical Association which insisted there was no need for the federal government to intervene in the relationship between patient and physician. Today, if any politician ever tried to terminate Medicare services, he would have a blue-haired riot on his hands and rightly so.

Medicare now provides medical insurance to 50 million elderly Americans and Medicaid does the same for another 51 million low-income or disabled Americans.

Perhaps someone should ask Republican Congressmen Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge (6th District and a candidate for U.S. Senate against incumbent Mary Landrieu) and John Fleming of Minden (4th District), and Charles Boustany, Jr. (3rd District) each of whom is a physician and each of whom opposes Obamacare, what percentage of their income as practicing physicians walked in the door as Medicare or Medicaid patients?

Then check with Jindal to see how that squares with his opposition to the welfare state and such socialistic practices.

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Editor’s note:

The following is a guest column offered by Baton Rouge teacher Fred Aldrich who, along with thousands of others, listened Monday as Superintendent of State Police Mike Edmonson appeared on the Jim Engster Show to defend the amendment tacked onto an unrelated bill on the final day of the legislative session which will give Edmonson an additional $55,000 (not $30,000 as first reported—we’ll explain at the end of Aldrich’s guest column) upon his retirement—a nice bonus unique to Edmonson and one other state trooper.

 

I am a long-time listener to NPR station WRKF, and I listen to the Jim Engster show whenever possible. I don’t always agree with Jim or his guests, but I usually don’t find my disagreements worthy of a response. Today was an exception.

The comments of Jim’s guests are not the opinions of Jim or WRKF, but unfortunately those comments may be spin and/or misinformation which listeners will take as truth.

State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson was on the show this morning. I have great respect for the state police, and I have considered Edmonson one of the good guys in the Jindal administration. This morning’s interview, however, was problematical for me in several ways.

Engster congratulated Edmonson for having the fortitude to come on the program at a time when the superintendent is facing a lot of heat statewide. His performance suggested that he has paid attention during the years he has also served as a prop for the governor. He sounded earnest, sounded passionate, and sounded determined to serve his troopers and the people of the state. So far, so good, but that’s not why he’s on the hot seat. No one questions his dedication.

As a teacher with 38 years of experience in Louisiana and one who participated in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) about the same time as he did, my understanding and experience with the program are much different from what Edmonson expressed on the program. He wanted to dispel “inaccuracies” with “facts,” but in my estimation he mostly promulgated misinformation, to wit:

  • The retirement systems which offer DROP are not “different” retirement systems than they were at the time he or anyone else went into DROP. DROP was simply a program within these retirement systems which was offered to employees for a few years, theoretically to provide valued employees an opportunity to continue working while putting three years of retirement checks in an interest-earning escrow account that could not be accessed until the employee finally retires, as which time federal laws regarding taxes and withdrawals apply. Though officially retired, the employee continued to draw his regular pay while payments were made into his DROP account. These three years do not count as service credit toward figuring eventual retirement benefits.
  • Despite Col. Edmonson’s casual use of the word, no one was “forced” into DROP. It was a choice for anyone with 30 years of service, or 25 years of service for those 55 years old or older. Those who chose to not enter DROP simply continued to work, with the three years counted as regular service credit, and allowed the employee to draw the retirement benefits he/she accrued upon final retirement. Had Col. Edmonson, and myself, and others, chosen to not participate, his, and our, retirement benefit would have been what it took him a specious legislative effort to attain.
  • The form that each DROP participant had to sign made the options and possible outcomes very clear. It states, in no uncertain terms, that the employee understands that his basic retirement benefit is frozen at that time, that the decision is irrevocable, that service credit past the exit from DROP is calculated in a different manner, and that DROP may not be the best option, depending on future circumstances. It urges employees to consider their decision carefully and seek financial counsel before they choose to enter the program.
  • The articles I’ve read and the radio program in particular fail to mention the three years of retirement pay in Col. Edmonson’s DROP account plus the accrued interest and whether he plans to return that money to the system if he gets his new benefit. In my case, and I was in DROP at the same time as Edmonson, my account balance has nearly doubled in ten years. (And my eventual retirement benefit will be approximately 65% of what it would have been had I not chosen to go into DROP.)
  • Col. Edmonson misstated the application of the $30,000 yearly bump that has been mentioned. No one I know of has claimed that this is a bonus on top of his new yearly retirement benefit. It is the difference between the benefit that he is entitled to as the result of his voluntary participation in DROP and his new benefit, courtesy of a friendly conference committee.
  • Blaming the confusion at the end of the legislative session for the “misunderstanding” is ridiculous. It’s beyond obvious that he and his allies (which could range from the governor down to legislative staffers) gamed the system and took advantage of this dysfunctional process for his benefit, then blamed the process for a misunderstanding.
  • As for the integrity in which Col. Edmonson bathed himself and the commiseration he offered a caller who found herself in a similar retirement situation, he could have demonstrated his concern by including all DROP participants in his legislation. I, and several of my colleagues, (and apparently many others) have tried to lobby for the same remedy that Col. Edmonson and his allies sneaked through (Let’s call it what it is.) We have met the runaround
  • from every source we’ve approached, and we’ve accepted that most of us will have been long dead before anything actually could be done.

Unfortunately, we’re not in the governor’s loop and teachers with 35-50 years of experience who make less than half the salary of Col. Edmonson don’t have the same voice. His assertion that everyone should get the same consideration that he does begs the fact that all troopers, state workers, and teachers don’t have the same political connections and the same willingness to go through this foul-smelling process to enrich themselves.

This is my understanding based on my experiences with DROP and my following of Edmonson’s gift from the conference committee. If anything is factually incorrect, I will readily stand corrected. As a reaction to what happened, I remain convinced that the whole action smells. There are many hard-working, conscientious, productive people in state government, law enforcement and education, who don’t get special treatment through a disgusting legislative process.

            In addition to Mr. Aldrich’s comments, we have some comments and additional information of our own to add:

During his appearance on the Jim Engster Show, Edmonson who last week said he never asked for the legislation and did not know about it, acknowledged that an unidentified” staff member” brought the matter to his attention and he authorized the effort to go forward. He also told Engster that the issue of the special legislation actually arose several weeks before the end of the session.

That being the case, why was it necessary to wait until the last day of the session, when the pace becomes hectic and confusing, to insert the amendment into a benign bill completely unrelated to retirement (the bill, Senate Bill 294, dealt with disciplinary procedures for law enforcement officers under investigation)? That tactic alone smacks of covert intent designed to keep the measure from the prying eyes of the media and public.

Edmonson, during his interview, acknowledged that when he voluntarily (and the word voluntarily should be emphasized here) entered DROP, he was a captain earning $79,000 per year in salary. By entering DROP, his retirement was frozen and would be calculated on that salary. The trade-off was that he earned a higher salary.

But he probably did not foresee his advancement to Superintendent of State Police at a salary of $134,000.

Based on a formula multiplying his salary by the number of years of service by 3.33 percent), he would have retired at 100 percent of that $79,000 salary instead of 100 percent of his higher salary of $134,000 after 30 years.

Until the passage of the secretive-shrouded amendment to SB 294, that is. The amendment will mean an additional $55,000 per year to Edmonson during his retirement years—$134,000 (100 percent of his current salary).

Should Edmonson live for 30 years after retirement, that’s an extra $1.14 million in retirement benefits.

The amendment prompted one retired state trooper, Jerry Patrick, to express his embarrassment “that one of our troopers was so selfish that he would tarnish the badge that I and so many others worked and sacrificed to honor.”

Patrick said that it was “no stretch to believe that the governor’s office was directly involved in requesting this for a member of the governor’s cabinet.”

To that end, LouisianaVoice has made three separate public records requests. The first was to the Louisiana State Police communications director (which was handed off to the agency’s legal team) requesting the opportunity to review “all emails, text messages and/or other communications” between Edmonson, his staff, State Sen. Neil Riser, his staff, and the governor’s office pertaining to any discussion of DROP and/or retirement benefits for Edmonson and any discussion of retirement legislation that might affect Edmonson.

We made similar requests of both the House and Senate for any similar communications between members of the conference committee that approved the special amendment, Edmonson, the governor’s office and Laura Gail Sullivan, legal counsel for the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee. Riser is chairman of that committee and was on the conference committee that inserted the amendment for Edmonson.

Through the grapevine, we have learned that Sullivan has already invoked the sacred attorney-client privilege to prevent releasing any of her emails. But that objection is questionable at best inasmuch as Edmonson is not her client. Neither is the governor. Nor is, for that matter, Riser.

Of course, she will probably include Riser by extension by virtue of his chairmanship of the committee for which she works but Riser, should he have nothing to hide, could always waive the attorney-client privilege.

If he does not, and if Sullivan does resist releasing the contents of her emails, we can only assume the obvious: there is something contained in those messages that the principals would rather we not know.

And to quote my favorite poet and playwright Billy Wayne Shakespeare of Denham-on-Amite from my favorite play, Hamlet Bob: “Ay, there’s the rub.”

But we are confident they would never try to hide anything from the public. This administration, after all, is the gold standard of ethics, openness and transparency. Gov. Jindal himself has said so on countless occasions in his many out-of-state appearances.

Oh, but wait. We also learned on Tuesday that House Speaker Chuck Kleckley (R-Lake Charles) has refused a request by State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite) for a full investigation of the secretive amendment. Kleckley said that because it was a Senate bill to which the amendment was attached, it becomes a matter for the Senate to investigate. Apparently, Kleckley neglected to note that three members of the conference committee that approved the amendment were House members.

Kleckley’s dancing around the issue, folks, is what is known as the Bureaucratic Shuffle.

 

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State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite) Saturday told LouisianaVoice he will ask House Speaker Chuck Kleckley (R-Lake Charles) on Monday for a full investigation of the 11th hour amendment to an obscure Senate bill that resulted in an additional $30,000 per year income for State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson upon his retirement.

The amendment, which was quickly signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal, allows Edmonson to revoke his decision made years ago to enter into the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) when he was a captain. That decision, which is considered irrevocable, locked in his retirement at a rate based on his captain’s pay while netting him a higher salary but now he will be allowed to compute his retirement based upon his rank as colonel.

At the same time, blogger C.B. Forgotston revealed that the probable source of the amendment may not have been one of the six members of the Legislative Conference Committee, but a Senate staff attorney.

“I am embarrassed by this entire thing,” Edwards said in an interview with LouisianaVoice. “I voted for the bill without reading it with the amendment attached.

So did 89 other House members and 37 senators.

“I know this is not an excuse, and I would never rationalize my vote this way but the truth is in the final hours most members, including myself, probably were not even at their desks. We were all running around trying to take care of conference committee action on our own bills.”

Edwards, who is an announced candidate for governor in 2015, said he will ask Kleckley to initiate an investigation to determine the origin of the amendment. “Somebody asked for this amendment,” he said. “It didn’t just happen.”

His observation echoed State Treasurer John Kennedy who on Wednesday said at a board meeting of the Louisiana State Police Retirement System, “This amendment didn’t just fall from heaven.”

Edwards said the real irony of the overwhelming vote in favor of the amendment is that similar requests have all been rejected in the past. “I know that in my seven years in the legislature, I’ve had at least 20 constituents ask me to help them revoke their DROP decisions and I had to tell every single one of them that there was nothing we could do for them. And now I end up voting for just such a provision because it was hidden away in an obscure bill that we were told had nothing to do with retirement. I’m embarrassed.”

The bill, Senate Bill 294 by Sen. Jean Paul Morrell (D-New Orleans), dealt specifically with disciplinary procedures for law enforcement officers who are under investigation and had nothing to do with retirement in its original form. And conference committee member Rep. Jeff Arnold (D-New Orleans) did little to shed any light on the true intent of the amendment.

Jindal must share blame

And while much has been said about legislators’ failure to closely examine the last-minute glut of amendments and Conference Committee reports, little has been said about Jindal’s willingness to sign such a fiscally irresponsible bill.

Though legislators may have been pressed for time in the closing hours of the session, Jindal most certainly was not. He and his staff had ample time to examine all bills passed by the legislature and to consider their fiscal impact.

Bottom line is the governor simply does not get a pass on this. He is the same governor who attempted unsuccessfully to gut the retirements of tens of thousands of state rank and file civil service employees two years ago and now he signs a bill sneaked in on the last day of the session to give a raise that exceeds the total annual retirement income for thousands of individual state employees.

Moreover, it was a bill his staff should have informed him, as Pearson, Forgotston and a state attorney told us, is unconstitutional on several levels.

The reality is that Jindal checked out as governor long ago in favor of chasing the presidential brass ring that will never be his—and that makes his signing this bill even more unforgiveable.

It also raises the question of what his role in this debacle may have been.

Senate legal counsel culpable?

Reports surfaced on Saturday that Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee legal counsel Laura Gail Sullivan was the person who tacked on the amendment without bothering to inform either of the six members of the Legislative Conference Committee—if they are to be believed.

The Conference Committee report that includes the amendment, dated June 2, the final day of the 2014 legislative session, contains the name “Sullivan” in the upper left corner of the report’s first page. http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=911551&n

The Conference Committee is made up of three members of the Senate and three from the House. For a bill to be reported out of Conference Committee, two senators and two representatives must vote in favor.

Conference Committee members included Sens. Morrell (the bill’s author), Neil Riser (R-Columbia) and Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe), and Rep. Jeff Arnold (D-New Orleans), Walt Leger, III (D-New Orleans) and Bryan Adams (R-Gretna).

Riser is Sullivan’s Senate committee boss

Riser, besides serving on the Conference Committee to consider the bill, also is chairman of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee for whom Sullivan works as legal counsel. As such, she takes her marching orders from him. That being the case, what are the odds that Riser was carrying the water for Jindal? If so, did Edmonson request the favor from the governor? As both Edwards and Kennedy pointed out, the amendment didn’t drop from the sky.

A lot of questions that someone should answer—and soon.

Perhaps we will get some clarification from Edmonson (wink, wink) when he appears on Louisiana Public Radio’s Jim Engster show Monday at 9 a.m. http://wrkf.org/

LouisianaVoice sent separate emails to Riser, Rep. Kevin Pearson (R-Slidell), chairman of the House Retirement Committee; Sen. Elbert Guillory (R/D/R-Opelousas), chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee, and Senate President John Alario (R-Westwego). Our email posed three questions:

  • Do you plan to conduct/request an investigation into how the amendment giving the $30,000 a year raise to Col. Edmonson got added to SB 294—particularly now that our sources are saying it was done by a Senate counsel for the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee?
  • Do you believe, if true, she was acting on instructions from someone further up the food chain and if so, who?
  • Were you aware the amendment was being added?

Pearson was the only one who responded

“I’m planning to look into this next week, as I have already done somewhat,” he said. “As you know the Senate staff is a different body than the House staff, different bosses that I am not as familiar with. But yes, I plan to find what actually happened.”

To the second question on whether or not he thought the Senate counsel was acting on instructions from higher up, he said he was unable to answer. “I really do not know,” he said. “I guess it is possible. I’ve never seen them go directly to my (retirement) staff without my being aware.”

As to whether or not he was aware of the contents of the amendment, Pearson said, “I had no clue the amendment was being added. I’m also fairly confident my (House) retirement attorney was unaware, especially since it was not a retirement bill. I did not vote (on) the Conference Committee report (he was one of 14 who did not vote) and I didn’t even know this happened until your article came out. I wasn’t avoiding the vote since I was unaware of these actions. I can’t even say where I was, possibly working on another Conference Committee report. I just don’t recall.

“I do appreciate you bringing this to our attention,” he said. “Hopefully the board can—or someone will—challenge the constitutionality of the rogue amendment.”

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To probably no one’s surprise except a clueless Gov. Bobby Jindal, the takeover of the Louisiana Office of Group Benefits (OGB) by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana 18 months ago has failed to produce the $20 million per year in savings to the state.

Quite the contrary, in fact. The OGB fund balance, which was a robust $500 million when BCBS took over as third party administrators (TPA) of the Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) in January of 2013, only 18 months later stands at slightly less than half that amount and could plummet as low as an anemic $5 million a year from now, according to figures provided by the Legislative Fiscal Office.

OGB is one of the main topics to be taken up at today’s meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB) when it convenes at 9 a.m. at the State Capitol.

OGB is currently spending about $16 million per month more than it is collecting in revenue, said Legislative Fiscal Officer John Carpenter.

The drastic turnaround is predicated on two factors which LouisianaVoice warned about two years ago when the privatization plan was being considered by the administration:

  • Jindal lowered premiums for state employees and retirees. That move was nothing more than a smokescreen, we said at the time, to ease the state’s share of the premium burden as a method to help Jindal balance the state budget. Because the state pays a percentage of the employee/retiree premiums, a rate reduction would also reduce the amount owed by the state, thus freeing up the savings to patch gaping holes in the budget.
  • Because BCBS is a private company, it must return a profit whereas when OGB claims were processed by state employees, profits were not a factor. To realize that profit, premiums must increase or benefits decrease. Since Jindal had already decreased premiums, BCBS necessarily found it necessary to reduce benefits.

That, however, still was not enough and the negative income eroded the fund balance to its present level and now legislators are facing a severe fiscal crisis at OGB.

And make no mistake: this is a man-made crisis and the man is Bobby Jindal.

In a span of only 18 months we have watched his grandiose plans for OGB and the agency’s fund balance dissolve into a sea of red ink like those $250 million sand berms washing away in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the disastrous BP spill.

There is no tactful way to say it. This Jindal’s baby; he’s married to it. He was hell bent on privatizing OGB and putting 144 employees on the street for the sake of some hair-brained scheme that managed to go south before he could leave town for whatever future he has planned for himself that almost surely does not, thank goodness, include Louisiana.

So ill-advised and so uninformed was Jindal that he rushed into his privatization plan and now has found it necessary to have the consulting firm Alvarez and Marcel, as part of their $5 million contract to find state savings, to poke around OGB to try and pull the governor’s hand out of the fiscal fire. We can only speculate as to why that was necessary; Jindal, after all, had assured us up front that the privatization would save $20 million a year but now cannot make good on that promise.

In the real world, the elected officials are supposed to be the pros who know that they’re talking about while those of us on the sidelines are mere amateurs who can only complain and criticize. Well, we may be the political novices here, but the results at OGB pretty much speak for themselves and we can rightfully say, “We told you so.”

Are we happy or smug? Hell, no. We have to continue to live here and raise our children here while Jindal will be taking a job with some conservative think tank somewhere inside the D.C. Beltway (he certainly will not be the Republican candidate for president; he isn’t even a blip on the radar and one former state official now residing in Colorado recently said, “No one out here has ever even heard of him.”)

In a five-page letter to JLCB Chairman Rep. Jim Fannin (R-Jonesboro), Carpenter illustrated the rate history of OGB going back to Fiscal Year 2008 when premiums were increased by 6 percent. The increase the following year was 3.7 percent and the remained flat in FY-10. In FY-11, premiums increased 5.6 percent, then 8.1 percent in FY-12 when the system switched from a fiscal year to calendar year. but in FY-13, the year BCBS assumed administrative duties, premiums dropped 7 percent as Jindal attempted to save money from the state’s contributions to plug budget holes. For the current year, premiums decreased 1.8 percent and in FY-15 are scheduled to increase by 5 percent.

OGB Report_July 2014 FOR JLCB

Carpenter said that since FY 13, when BCBS took over the administration of OGB PPO claims, OGB’s administrative costs began to shift to more third party administrator (TPA) costs as the state began paying BCBS $23.50 per OGB member per month. That rate today is $24.50 and will increase to $25.50 in January of 2015, the last year of the BCBS contract.

That computes to more than $60 million per year that the state is paying BCBS to run the agency more efficiently than state employees who were largely responsible for the half-billion-dollar fund balance.

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Remember the Ted Mack Amateur Hour on the old DuMont television network?

If not, don’t worry. Now that the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal is more than six years into its very own amateur show, it’s doubtful that even the most nostalgic among us would prefer watch those old grainy black and white, out of focus shows.

Not when you have this bunch bumbling and stumbling through botched polices in health care, education, environmental matters (remember those $250 million sand berms Jindal insisted on during the BP spill, the ones that washed away before they could even be completed?). And then there have been questionable contracts and one fiscal disaster after another as Jindal attempts each year to patch together the state’s operating budget with Bond-O and duct tape.

Ah, yes, those fiscal snafus.

And now there may be another looming on the horizon though granted, it probably won’t be on the magnitude of a quarter-billion dollar disappearing berm in the Gulf of Mexico or the massive budget cuts inflicted on higher education.

But it could turn into another of those pesky problems that Jindal just does not seem to be capable of handling. He reminds us of actor Chevy Chase, master of the pratfall where he just keeps falling and falling, wrecking everything in his path.

Remember when the alternative fuel tax rebate enacted by the legislature and signed by Jindal in 2009 went into effect two years ago this month?

When the bill was passed and signed as Act 469 of 2009, it was to give tax credits to purchasers of vehicles which used alternative fuels such as propane, butane and electricity and was projected to cost the state $900,000 over five years.

But then the flex fuel vehicles began hitting the market, catching everyone unprepared for the onslaught of buyers seeking the tax credits and the cost suddenly mushroomed to $100 million. When the true impact of the new law became apparent, Jindal immediately rescinded the act but not before 5,456 returns had been received by the Department of Revenue claiming total tax credits of a tad north of $18 million. Senate President John Alario (R-Westwego), who owns a tax preparation service, filed stacks of applications on behalf of his clients—without, of course, informing the administration of the financial consequences.

Another senator alerted Alario to the potential problem—after purchasing a vehicle and claiming his own tax credit—but neither informed Jindal. And neither did Rep. Jim Fannin (R-Jonesboro), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee—not even after he had filed for the $3,000 tax credit on each of the two vehicles he purchased.

The administration, in finally awakening from its apparent slumber and during one of the few days Jindal was vacationing in Louisiana, voided the law and announced that any new car buyer who had already submitted his or her application to the state would receive the maximum allowable tax credit up to $3,000 but subsequent purchasers would not be eligible.

And therein lies the problem.

The Louisiana Board of Tax Appeals, an independent quasi-judicial entity comprised of three attorneys who are tax law experts who must decide on the merits of appeals, currently has 700 appeals from car buyers who were denied the tax credit.

If all 700 applicants were to be approved for the $3,000 tax credit, the state would be on the hook for $2.1 million.

The next scheduled meeting of the board is in August, though the date was not available because the board’s web page has not been updated since 2013.

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