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By Monique Harden (Special to LouisianaVoice)

Before state lawmakers on the Louisiana House of Representatives Education Committee on May 7 unanimously agreed to pass House Bill 180, which would prohibit the building of a new school on a waste site, an official with the LA Department of Environmental Quality gave a full-throated defense of the department’s astounding decision to do just the opposite.

The LDEQ gave the thumbs up to a plan by the Recovery School District to build a new school on the old Clio Street/Silver City Dump in New Orleans. According to Chance McNeely, an Assistant Secretary at the LDEQ who spoke to the Education Committee, the LDEQ uses “the safest, most stringent standard,” but “didn’t find anything that pointed to a toxic landfill or dump site there.” This conclusion is absurd. Governmental records show that this dump received more than 150 tons of waste on a daily basis and operated from the late 1890s to the late 1930s. According to the technical reports prepared by environmental consulting firms working for the RSD, which the LDEQ purportedly reviewed, the site of this former waste dump remains contaminated to this day. These reports show “unacceptable levels” of toxins at the ground surface down to 15 feet below ground that exceed the risk-based standard for residential use and would “pose a risk to children occupying the site.”

It is more than eye-opening that the LDEQ would turn a blind eye to information showing the existence of the Clio Street/Silver City Dump and revealing present-day soil contamination that can harm human health. The LDEQ lacks credibility in concluding that it is safe to build a school on a waste dump.

When McNeely discouraged the idea of avoiding the health risks at the former waste dump by looking at an alternative school site he raised the ire of Representative Wesley Bishop from New Orleans.  McNeely suggested that “probably the same thing” would be found at the alternative site as was found at the former waste dump.  When Rep. Bishop asked McNeely to explain why, McNeely admitted that he was not familiar with the alternative site.  Showing his frustration with McNeely, Rep. Bishop declared, “You’re not making any sense.”

Perhaps the only “sense” driving the LDEQ’s apparent opposition to House Bill 180 is the pressure of approving the RSD’s plan to build the school on the former waste dump in order for the RSD to collect $69 million dollars from FEMA.  According to McNeely, “FEMA requires that, if you’re gonna spend that money, you gotta confirm that there’s not a contamination that would be a danger.”

 Monique Harden is an attorney and co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a public interest law firm in New Orleans, LA.

…And for the record, we have, courtesy of Ms. Harden, the transcript of the testimony of Chance McNeely, assistant secretary, Office of Environmental Compliance, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

You may remember Chance McNeely, who moved over from the governor’s office (with a big raise) to become the DEQ Environmental Compliance Officer while simultaneously attending law school. Here are links to some of our earlier posts about Chance:

http://louisianavoice.com/2015/01/13/if-you-think-chance-mcneelys-appointment-to-head-deq-compliance-was-an-insult-just-get-a-handle-on-his-salary/

http://louisianavoice.com/2015/01/12/taking-a-chance-on-chance-or-how-i-stopped-worrying-and-learned-to-love-the-proposed-m6-open-burn-at-camp-minden/

http://louisianavoice.com/2015/01/14/environmental-compliance-head-mcneeley-once-worked-for-gop-rep-luetkemeyer-who-leads-the-way-in-science-denial/

TRANSCRIPT OF STATEMENT ON HOUSE BILL No. 180

by

CHANCE McNEELY, ASSISSTANT SECRETARY

OFFICE OF ENVIRONMENTAL COMPLIANCE

LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY

(We have attempted to edit out numbers that do not belong. If we missed any and you see numbers that look out of place, ignore them; they’re just the line numbers for the official transcript.)

Chance McNeely: “I would just say. If I may just give you a little bit of history that you guys may already be aware of, but I’ll just proceed anyway. Obviously, we had the Industrial Revolution in the last century. And all of that pre-dated any environmental regulations or laws. So in the sixties and seventies, we started environmental regulations. And so, in the time between there, we obviously had contamination that would take place in various locations. This is not unique to Louisiana. This is something that every state deals with. And so, I just, I guess my comment would be that the point of RECAP [Risk Evaluation and Corrective Action Plan] is to put sites back into commerce. And if RECAP says that it’s, if our system shows that it’s safe, we stand by that system. And I think it’s important for y’all to be aware that there are statewide implications for this bill.

Rep. Carmody: Mr. McNeely, you’re with the Department of Environmental Quality. In these situations where – again, I’m not familiar with the areas in New Orleans were talking about here – but these former sites, impacted sites, the school has then come back over at some point and built on top of them. And the [unintelligible] I was just kind of given was that the remediation plan, I guess presented, has gone through DEQ approval process to say that in order to address the concerns regarding the high standards for some of these chemicals to a depth of – whatever it was – three feet, this has to be removed. And then at that point, encapsulation on top of that should create a barrier to prevent the migration of any of these chemicals. Correct?

Chance McNeely: That’s right. I mean, it’s essentially taking three feet of dirt out, 40 putting six feet of dirt in. Well, before you put the six feet of dirt in, you put a layer – like a fabric –so if you ever dig down and hit that, you know to stop. There’ll be six feet of dirt on top of that that’s clean. And then most of the facility, you know, it’s going to be the school built on top of it. So, there’s not, I assume that there, I think there is going to be some grass area, but a lot of it’s going to be covered with the building.

Rep. Carmody: Do all of these qualify as Brownfields sites?

Chance McNeely: Ummm

Rep. Carmody: And the reason I guess I’m asking you that question is that if it’s a Brownfields site, you don’t go all the way to the bottom of that hole until you finished digging out everything you find, is it?

Chance McNeely: Right. And that’s part of RECAP, where they evaluate all the factors. For schools, it’s treated like residential standards. So this is the safest, most stringent standard for remediation that we have. And we stand by it. So does the EPA. We kind of lead the nation in RECAP. We got a great program. And so it’s, again, we do stand by our standards and say that it is safe.

Rep. Carmody: Just to clarify, you’re here for informational purposes only as a representative of the Department of Environmental Quality.

Chance McNeely: That’s correct.

Rep. Patricia Smith: Question I have for you is when you mitigate a particular site do you inform anyone who’s building there what’s there? Are they aware when they first build 60 of what is actually in the ground?

Chance McNeely: I guess the way to explain that – I’ll use the example that we’re talking about. So the Recovery School District is being funded by the feds, FEMA. FEMA requires that, if you’re gonna spend that money, you gotta confirm that there’s not a contamination that would be a danger. And so, RSD does sampling. We have oversight of that. That’s how we got involved in this is that FEMA requires RSD to make sure that the site is okay. And so that’s how the sampling got done and we got involved. Again, we have oversight. We approved all the sampling plans, everything like that. We run it through our RECAP system to determine, you know, the risks. I’ll also point out and I’ll say that, you know, the sampling that came back was consistent with urbanization throughout the, you know, 1900s. We didn’t find anything that pointed to a toxic landfill or dump site there. So, you know, we’re talking about lead. Lead is the primary thing that we found. And we all know there’s lots of sources of lead, you know, that have existed. And you’re gonna pretty much find that in a lot of urban areas.

Rep. Smith: Well, the question I have though is the school opened in 1942. I’m sure that folks knew it was a dump site at that time. 1942 standards compared to 2015 standards ought to be quite different.

Chance McNeely: They are. There were no standards back then.

Rep. Smith: There probably were no standards. You’re absolutely right. Therefore, there ought to be more stringent standards when we’re looking at something that was already there to be able to determine whether or not anything was emitted from it. You got samples. Did you go all the way down to the 15 foot level for any samples that you know of?

Chance McNeely: I believe we did. I believe we went all the way down. It’s either 12 or 15 feet, I believe.

Rep. Smith: But even if you build and you’re looking at only the three foot level, what’s to say that you cannot disturb what’s under the layer that you put in there? There’s nothing to say that. A bulldozer or something can go farther down – just like folks hit water lines, gas lines, you know, that are underground. So, what’s to say that it doesn’t go beyond that?

Chance McNeely: Again, dig down three feet. Put that fabric in. If you ever get to that point, you see it, and you know you’re supposed to stop. But, during construction, we’re talking about constructing on top of six feet of clean, new soil. And so, the reason you need six feet is out of an abundance of caution. You know, if they had any kind of pipe burst or something that it would be in that six feet of barrier without ever having to down 95 to the area that has any contamination.

Rep. Smith: I guess because of the fact that dump sites and waste sites, Brownfields, and all these are mostly in urban, African American communities. That when we begin to build that’s where we’re building. When we begin to build and looking at trying to replace schools that often times they’re not many places to go unless we look for new 100 sites outside of the urban areas where these have been located and that’s an atrocity in itself. We know that.

Chance McNeely: My response to that would be we’re on the same page. The point of a Brownfields program and RECAP is to put contaminated properties back into commerce. We don’t want to have to build schools for the children of New Orleans way 105 outside of town. We want them to be in town. And there’s contamination in town that we address through RECAP.

Rep. Wesley Bishop: Quick question for you. I am familiar with this area. I am familiar with this district. It’s in my district. And the one thing that stands, I think, as a stark testament as to why we should not be doing this is Moton School. Moton School is in my district. Reason why I know is because my mother-in-law is the principal of Moton Elementary School. And when you look at it right now, you drive in my district, that school has sat there abandoned for years for the very same concerns that we’re talking about. You put that same remediation piece in place. You remediate this particular area, it would actually make it good. The one thing no one has been able to answer for me is why in the world do we have this conversation when we talk about our kids. I can’t figure that one out. My understanding and, Representative Bouie, correct me if I’m wrong, this situation came about based upon the Booker T. Washington High School. I’m also saying also that there is a $40 million budget to erect a new Booker T. Washington High School. I understand that there are some alumni, who have some concerns as to whether or not this will slow down the process. And that’s a valid concern because we’re many years beyond Hurricane Katrina and it’s still not built. But I also understand that there is an alternative site that’s present right now that you could build this very school on right now. Only $4 million has been spent to remediate this process. So, basically you eat the $4 million. As an attorney, it makes sense to eat the $4 million. Because if you don’t and you build this school, the number of lawsuits you’re going to face based upon parents [unintelligible] sent their kids into what most folks consider to be harm’s danger would pale in comparison. Rep. Bouie, can you talk a little bit about the alternative site that’s available for the building of this school?

Rep. Bouie: [Discussion of the Derham School property as an alternative site.] 

Chance McNeely: If I may, if it’s the pleasure, if it’s determined that the site has to move, my understanding would be that, you know, FEMA would still require sampling. And I’ll just tell you they’re probably going to find the same thing they found [stops].

Rep. Bishop: But is there reason to believe that a landfill [unintelligible] at the new site? 

Chance McNeely: I’m not familiar with that site.

Rep. Bishop: You’re not making any sense. How do you get to interject that into the argument when you have no reason to believe that that’s the case?

Chance McNeely: Because what we found through sampling at the current site has nothing to do with a landfill. It has to do with is standard urbanization: lead. It’s not, we 140 didn’t find anything that said, “Oh, there was a hazardous landfill here.”

Rep. Bishop: I disagree with you totally, sir.

Chance McNeely: Ok.

Rep. Bishop: I disagree with you. I know you gotta job to do and gotta come and make this argument, but I totally disagree with what you said.

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By Stephen Winham (Special to LouisianaVoice)

I became the state budget director in 1988.  Because we had consistently spent more than we had taken in since 1984, we faced a $1 Billion dollar budget and cash flow hole in a budget less than half the size of today’s.  We literally did not have the money to pay our day-to-day bills and, like too many of our citizens, had to hold off paying them until we had the cash.  We were flat busted.

In an effort to ensure this never happened again, we enacted a comprehensive package of budget reforms, including establishing  an official revenue forecast; prohibiting the use of one-time money for recurring expenses; requiring a balanced budget from initial presentation through enactment  and to be maintained throughout the year; providing that any interfund borrowing (the mechanism that enabled us to go totally broke in 1988) had to be repaid by the end of the year in which it was borrowed, and many others.

To address the immediate emergency, we took the unprecedented step of creating a special taxing district that issued bonds we paid back over 10 years by dedicating one cent of our sales tax to debt service.

We began to diversify our economic revenue base.  For example, we went from a 40% reliance on mineral revenues to a less than 10% reliance on them today.  We raised other taxes, including, most notably, sales taxes.

We took full advantage of a federal Medicaid program paying high rates to facilities serving a disproportionate share of poor people (we made an annual “profit” of $700 million from this program during its peak).

We enacted the lottery, riverboat, and land-based casino gambling.

All of these kept us going until 1995 when our economy finally began to perform really well and did so through 1998.  Our economy slowed down in 1999 and it was necessary to pass more taxes.

In 2002, the legislature passed, and the state’s voters approved a plan by Representative Vic Stelly that substituted increases in income taxes for 4 cents of sales taxes on food and utilities and placed these exemptions, along with those on pharmaceuticals, in the state constitution.  The reason:  Because sales taxes are regressive and because income taxes generally respond better to our economy than sales taxes.  In my opinion, and that of many others, the Stelly Plan was the best fiscal legislation passed in our history.

We were doing pretty well until 2005 when Katrina struck.  Ironically, recovery from Katrina fueled our economy to the point that by the time Governor Jindal took office in 2007, we had a $1.1 Billion surplus.  Governor Blanco’s last proposed budget was $29.2 billion, of which over $8.0 billion was disaster relief money.  The legislature enacted a $32 Billion budget that year, including the $8.0 billion in non-recurring money.

So, what happened?

Well, remember those laws we passed to ensure we engaged in sound budgetary practices?  We began to ignore them and we spent the $1.1 Billion surplus and every other pot of one-time money we could find.  We repealed HALF, NOT ALL, of Stelly – the income tax increases that would be generating about what we lose in the sales tax exemptions still on the books today -about $700 million.

We cut corporate taxes in half – by a cool Billion.

We pretended we had a balanced budget every year, but using common sense and the letter of the laws we enacted, it is clear we, in fact, DID NOT.  And, although cuts were made – state funding to higher education, as one example, has been cut by $500 million – we NEVER made the cuts necessary to balance recurring spending with recurring revenue.  Why?  According to Kristy Nichols, Commissioner of Administration, as quoted in 2013, doing so would result in “needless reductions to critical services.”  WHAT?  Are you saying you didn’t cut the budget because you couldn’t?  Or, are you for cutting the budget, but you really don’t want to do so?

Governor Jindal continues to be widely quoted, to this day, saying we need to live within our means.  If that is true, why does he not present budgets that do so?  As long as projected revenues from reliable, stable sources do not equal projected necessary expenditures, we will NEVER have a balanced budget.

Could anything possibly be simpler, or make more sense, than balancing what you plan to spend with what is coming in so you don’t dig a hole for yourself?

It is certainly easy to understand why it is difficult to make hard cuts when cash is, or even may be available, but willfully allowing gross fiscal instability to continue indefinitely is a violation of the public trust and ultimately leads to wasteful spending and the inability to see true inefficiencies because the fiscal house is always on fire.  It is beyond time we were presented with an honest budget on which to make honest decisions.

So, you might rightly ask, “How would you fill the $1.6 Billion hole we read about every day in the papers?”

There are an almost infinite number of ways to do so.  Here’s one:

$1.600 reported gap

($0.160): Don’t Fund Inflation and other continuation costs. We rarely do, anyhow.

($0.180): Make cuts pursuant to consultant “efficiency” recommendations. We ought to get something for the $7 million we blew on this contract.

($0.100): Increase tobacco tax to the southern average

($0.700): Restore the income tax provisions of the Stelly Plan

($0.149): Eliminate the refundable tax credits proposed by the governor, except the inventory credit.

($0.100): Cap film tax credits at $150 million

($0.200): Eliminate exemption from severance taxes on horizontal wells. This was new technology when the exemption was granted. It certainly isn’t now, so no incentive is needed.

($0.011): A rounding figure, based on the Executive Budget. Or do $11 million of the $415 million in strategic cuts recommended by the governor – or, dozens of other possibilities.

$0.000 Remaining Problem.

Too simple, right?   And, perhaps, other holes could be poked in my scenario as well, but it proves it is possible to take a pragmatic approach, combining cuts with a limited number of revenue measures for a relatively simple solution.  We often make things a lot more complicated than they are.  I am convinced our government leaders often make simple things complicated in hope citizens won’t know and question what’s going on.

Regardless of what happens we must have an honest budget. If balancing recurring expenses with recurring revenues means making draconian cuts, so be it. Because they have been misled repeatedly, the bulk of our citizens will never believe we have a problem (or one that can’t simply be solved with cuts) until they experience the reality of a true “reform” budget that raises no revenues and cuts services to achieve balance. I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that, but it may be the only path to real reform.

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By Robert Burns (Special to LouisianaVoice)

LouisianaVoice readers may recall a December 15, 2014 post outlining state defense attorneys desperately fighting to block a deposition of Stephen Russo,  Secretary of the State Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), to be conducted by Lewis Unglesby, lead plaintiff attorney in the Client Network Services Inc. (CNSI) civil lawsuit against the state.  CNSI alleges that Gov. Jindal’s office, in “consultation” with AG Caldwell’s Office, unjustly cancelled its contract to provide Medicaid processing services to DHH after news of a federal grand jury having convened to consider potential improprieties in the awarding of the contract broke.  The federal grand jury probe went nowhere, but Caldwell nevertheless continued a probe with a state grand jury.  Ultimately, that state grand jury indicted former DHH Secretary Bruce Greenstein for nine counts of alleged perjury entailing testimony to that grand jury or statements made at his senate confirmation hearing.

At that December hearing, Judge Kelley ruled that Russo could be deposed and that any attorney-client privilege had clearly been waived.  The AG’s Office filed an immediate appeal writ with the First Circuit (notwithstanding the fact Judge Kelley stated, “There’s nothing to appeal because this matter is clear,”).  The First Circuit upheld Judge Kelley’s ruling and denied the appeal.  During that December hearing, Unglesby stated AG Caldwell’s Office had “quite likely acted illegally” in publicly releasing Greenstein’s grand jury testimony.  A hearing to quash that testimony transpired in Greenstein’s criminal trial on March 20, 2015.

At that hearing, Greenstein criminal defense attorney, John McLindon, argued for protection of the grand jury “body” not only for the Greenstein case but for all future criminal trials.  He stated that denying his motion to quash the grand jury testimony would send a horrible signal that grand jury secrecy was a “sham” in Louisiana.  He also stated that AG Caldwell’s Office essentially engaged in an ex-parte maneuver in that the AG’s motion to file the grand jury transcript into the public record was “buried” at the end of the order.  McLindon also argued that David Caldwell had been deceptive in describing the motion in court on the day it was presented as a “routine procedure” to enable McLindon to obtain a copy of the testimony, which McLindon indicated he was entitled to anyway.  Judge Daniel ruled that the AG’s office acted properly in filing the transcript into the public record, but McLindon indicated he may likely appeal Judge Daniel’s ruling.

Louisiana Voice has now reviewed extensive court filings in the civil case in which CNSI attorneys lodge even more allegations of serious wrongdoing on the part of Caldwell’s Office.  Those allegations entail the testimony of CNSI whistleblower Stephen Smith.

Smith is the CNSI employee who sent an anonymous email to Jeffrey Branch with the Center for Medicare/Medicaid Services (CMS) under the alias of “Kunego.”  The email was sent sometime after a meeting which Smith had with Norm Nichols, President of Molina Medicaid Services, and the company which has managed Louisiana’s Medicaid processing for decades and which filed a protest after CNSI won the contract.  Smith testified that Nichols indicated that, although Molina lost the protest, “there were still things in the process that were questionable.”    Smith has moved on to Orlando, Florida where he serves as Vice President for Sellers Dorsey, LLC, which is a health policy consulting company.

On May 1, 2014, CNSI attorneys conducted a video deposition of Smith in Orlando.  During the deposition, Unglesby presented Smith with a copy of what the AG had supplied as the “Kunego report.”  That report, which was filed under seal soon after CNSI’s lawsuit was initiated, contained notations of AG investigator Scott Bailey’s interview of Smith (but identified as “Kunego”) on May 10th and May 11th of 2012.  Unglesby then asked Smith to take a pen and underline those portions of the interview notes for which he wished to claim were his words and recollections of the interview and to refrain from underlining those items for which he did not wish to assess as having originated from him.  As readers can readily tell from reading the 7-page report, Smith was only willing to claim responsibility for between 50-60% of it as evidenced by what is underlined.  Nevertheless, the report contains some rather intriguing allegations, not the least of which is contained on page five.  On that page, the report states:  “Bobby Jindal has what Kunego calls an India to India ancestor driven background and network of connections that brought CNSI and Jindal together.”

The deposition continued for an extended period, so the parties agreed to recess and reconvene on a later date, which turned out to be July 8, 2014.  Upon reconvening the deposition, Unglesby made an inquiry of Smith regarding whether he’d had any communication with anyone from the AG’s Office.  Smith responded that Scott Bailey, the AG investigator who had interviewed him for the Kunego report, had telephoned him twice and had flown to Orlando to meet with him on June 28, 2014.  Smith indicated that Bailey stated that he needed to clarify the timeframe of the meeting with Nichols and also to inform him that the AG’s office had provided CNSI attorneys with the “wrong version” of the Kunego report.  Smith testified that Bailey informed him that, on May 1, 2014, he’d been provided with the “unedited” Kunego report when he should have been provided with the “edited” report, which is the report the AG’s Office intended to supply to CNSI attorneys.

Smith then explained that the unedited report, which CNSI attorneys provided at the May 1, 2014 deposition, was what had confused him so much because it had statements in the report which he knew he hadn’t made and therefore caused confusion as to how such statements were in a report of an interview of him.  When Unglesby pressed Smith on whether he asked Bailey how such allegations, including that of Jindal’s “India to India ancestor driven background” and that being responsible for bringing CNSI and Jindal together, got in his interview report, Smith indicated that he did not press Bailey for any explanation.

CNSI attorneys, upon learning of these phone conversations between Bailey and Smith, the in-person meeting between the two on June 28, 2014, and the fact that two reports of Smith’s interview responses even exist, prompted strong accusations of witness tampering on the part of AG Caldwell’s Office.  CNSI attorney Michael McKay of the law firm Stone Pigman, in a Motion to Conduct Discovery Regarding Certain Activities of the AG’s Investigator, accuses AG investigator Scott Bailey of “outrageous witness tampering,” and seeks to depose Bailey about his conduct and actions and also have the AG surrender documents, including the “edited” Kunego report, which were shared between Bailey and Smith, along with documents and dates of correspondence between Smith and Nichols.

CNSI attorneys allege that the AG’s Office filed the “unedited” version of the “Kunego report” under seal with the full knowledge that it contained material not attributable to Smith as a means to “influence the public” and to justify a six-month stay being sought by the AG’s Office for all proceedings.  Although the motion to stay was denied (and the First Circuit upheld the denial on June 7, 2013), the AG’s Office filed a motion to limit discovery and a motion for Judge Kelley to recuse himself on the basis Unglesby had previously represented him.  Judge Caldwell denied the recusal motion on July 1, 2013; however, Judge Kelley granted a motion to stay all proceedings on July 30, 2013.  CNSI attorneys asserted that Kelley’s decision was based largely on the “unedited” Kunego report which they contended the AG’s Office knew full well contained material not supplied by Smith and for which the foundation is unknown.  CNSI attorneys also expressed frustration that, as of the date of their filing, August 22, 2014, they still had not been provided with the “edited” Kunego report.

The hearing on CNSI’s motion to depose Bailey was argued before Judge Kelley on October 7, 2014, and he granted the motion.  At a bare minimum, CNSI attorneys have already exposed a high level of ineptitude on the part of AG Caldwell’s Office in that it provided the wrong “version” of the Kunego report given how critical that report is to both the civil and criminal trials.  It is mind boggling that a document that critical wouldn’t be triple checked as being the one the AG’s Office wanted to ensure CNSI attorneys received.  The mere fact they would later have to admit to Smith that “we gave the CNSI attorneys the wrong version” speaks volumes as to the AG Office’s ineptitude.  Of course, as CNSI attorneys argued in their support memorandum, it begs the question as to why two versions of the report even exist at all.

It remains to be seen how successful CNSI’s attorneys may be in exploiting their allegation of witness tampering by the AG’s Office.  Obviously, their ultimate goal is to have Smith’s testimony at trial declared inadmissible based on inconsistency and the actions of AG Caldwell’s Office.  If they succeed, a huge defense to CNSI’s alleged wrongful contract termination may go by the wayside and expose Louisiana taxpayers to a substantial monetary award.  Further, if Smith’s testimony is ruled inadmissible, a spillover benefit to Greenstein’s criminal trial may also arise.

When combined with the recent scathing WWL investigative report on AG Caldwell, one can only question if the biggest beneficiary of all of the extensive focus of the ineptitude and controversies of Gov. Jindal has been AG Caldwell himself.  It certainly appears that for an extended period, he was able to fly below radar on his office’s ineptitude and potential serious wrongdoing.  Perhaps recent revelations of his actions may provide an excellent source of campaign fodder for the October election for Louisiana’s next attorney general.

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By Robert Burns (Special to LouisianaVoice)

In 2001, I attempted to sell my home via the traditional means.  My listing was with ReMax, but I wasn’t happy with the snail’s pace everything seemed to move at.  It was not the fault of my agent but rather a simple reflection of the reality of traditional real estate listings in that they do not create any urgency to buy.

About five weeks into my listing, I noticed an ad in the real estate section of the paper for an upcoming real estate auction.  The ad got my attention, so I called the owner of the real estate auction company.  Thereafter, I attended four of his auctions before deciding that was the route I wanted to go.  My auctioneer, at that time, had a 20-year stellar record of successful auctions (it’s now nearly 35 years).  I was impressed by his professionalism and how the auction method could generate a firm, unconditional offer accompanied by a 10% liquidated damages deposit on a definite date and time that was within only about 30 days of executing the auction listing.  I utilized his services (even keeping my ReMax agent in the mix), and I was pleased with the results.  Consequently, within days of us closing, I called him and asked if I could join his company.  He blew me off in saying, “Sure, but you have to get your real estate license first.”  He later said he thought that was the last he’d ever hear from me, but I surprised him when I called only three weeks later indicating I’d procured the real estate license and asking what I needed to do next.

Over the next two years, he taught me everything one needs to know to be a successful real estate auctioneer.  His honesty, his integrity, and his ethics are beyond reproach, and they’re reflected in his auction results.  He instilled such confidence in me that I even formed my own auction company and began auctioning real estate properties myself.  I enjoyed helping solve people’s problems more than anything I’ve done in my entire professional career.

As many Louisiana Voice readers are aware, Gov. Jindal’s office contacted me within months of his taking office about serving on the Louisiana Auctioneer Licensing Board (LALB).  I would later learn I was contacted only because other applicants had felony convictions or other problems and were ineligible to serve.  I figured I had zero chance of being selected because I never contributed a dime to Jindal’s campaign and, except for 2003 (the year he lost), I didn’t even vote for him.  Nevertheless, I completed the application and figured that would be the end of it.  To my bewilderment, his office called me about six weeks later congratulating me on being selected to serve on the board.  I should have known something was wrong right then because it just didn’t make sense to be selected to serve on a board with no political allegiance to the governor.  Nevertheless, I naively felt honored to have been selected and anxiously looked forward to improving the auction experience for Louisiana consumers.

What I didn’t know was that I would encounter rampant racism on the board and that corruption was so prevalent that I had trouble believing any board could conduct itself in such an anti-consumer, auctioneer-biased manner.  I’ve written several articles already on this blog regarding what I encountered in my early days on the board, so I won’t repeat them here.

Even with all I encountered, however, I never dreamed the LALB could stoop as low as it has in the last six months.  Readers may recall the post entailing 84-year-old widow LALB complainant Betty Jo Story.  That case stands out as the most egregious abuse of any auction victim I’ve seen, yet LALB members found the auctioneer guilty of nothing and merely advised him to “go out in the hallway and work this out.”  Instead, he proceeded straight past Ms. Story and headed back to his home in DeRidder.  Thereafter, he refused to try and make things right with her, so she sued him in 36th JDC in DeRidder.  On October 29, 2014, serving in a pro-se capacity (and doing so quite well I might add), she obtained a judgment of $4,102.29, which the auctioneer paid within a week.

Even more disconcerting, however, was the preferential treatment granted to Brant Thomson, son of State Sen. Francis Thompson.  In that case, the LALB closed its investigation (finding no auctioneer wrongdoing), only to reopen it and find the auctioneer guilty and even file Thompson’s bond claim for him after he drafted a scathing letter to the LALB and had the presence of mind to copy to Ms. Holly Robinson, Gov. Jindal’s then-head of Boards and Commissions.  That incident is covered in this post.

Another complainant, Ms. Judy Fasola, claimed she was victimized by auctioneer Ken Buhler, who happens to have Marvin Henderson as his lead cheerleader with the LALB.  Henderson, a substantial contributor to Jindal campaigns, has historically exerted control over the board which, for whatever reason, is intimidated by him and his self-proclaimed (and no doubt accurately stated) ability to have members removed from the board with a mere phone call to the governor.  The LALB is afraid to assist any person, and that most certainly includes Fasola, in an auction complaint when such assistance may alienate Henderson (as pursuing a bond claim entailing Buhler or any affiliate of his would).

LALB cited a number of reasons for refusing to file a bond claim for Fasola at its November 5, 2014 meeting.  Thereafter, on January 13, 2015, Fasola refuted the LALB members’ November statements as being factually incorrect (a claim substantiated by prior videos).  That fact notwithstanding, at its March 10, 2015 meeting, the LALB, via a prepared statement drafted by legal counsel Larry S. Bankston, but read by his associate, Jenna Linn, stated that the board has “total discretion” regarding whom it wishes to file bond claims for and whom it wishes to decline to do so.  That is not a joke. That’s what Linn read from Bankston’s letter.

Given this public statement, perhaps it would be appropriate that consumers refrain from using the services of auctioneers.  The rationale is simple.  If a primary source of consumer protection is the auctioneer bond, and the LALB is now publicly asserting that it can cherry pick whom it will file bond claims for, that leaves consumers at the whim of political connections affiliated with the board.  When combined with the board’s demonstrated history of filing a claim for a politically connected alleged victim like Brant Thompson but declining to do so when it may alienate political powerhouse auctioneer Henderson, why should any consumer have faith and confidence in an auctioneer?  It’s time to face reality.  Though there are exceptions, the auction industry is corrupt and the board designed to protect consumers is even more corrupt.

I conclude by providing a webpage of Fasola’s three-meeting ordeal, complete with links for documents and video coverage.  Additionally, I provide this webpage of video highlights of the March 10, 2015 LALB meeting.  Linn rudely cut off my public comment when I referenced “FBI investigations,” so I provide an off-site assessment of why she likely recoiled when I uttered those words.

I have no idea if the next governor will do anything to clean up the mass of corruption, nepotism, and cronyism that exists on the LALB.  If he doesn’t, I would recommend a continued boycott of auctioneer services.  To do otherwise would be an injustice to the many clients and bidders I fought so hard to ensure access to experienced honest, open, and transparent auctions.

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ANOTHER CLASSIC

 (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE)

We’ve said it before but we’ll say it again; this guy, whoever he is, is a satirical genius. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but we’ll go out on a limb and declare him on a par with Will Rogers and Mark Twain.

We have also said we wish we knew his identity so we could give him proper credit but we are fairly certain this is a state employee and to do so would result in his/her instant teaguing.

Regardless, the people of this state are indebted to this artist for demonstrating how the top players in this administration have completely and consistently jindaled things up.

It’s not the artwork, which consists of a few computerized re-creations of stock photo images of the characters, that provides the humor. In fact, many of the images appear repeatedly throughout the collection of brilliant strips.

The key to this series is in the way the cartoonist uses dialog to capture the absurd buffoonery that currently permeates the entire fourth floor of the Louisiana State Capitol in lieu of any sound political and economic philosophy.

Why, we would not be at all surprised to learn that he works in the Division of Administration—right under Kristy Nichols’ nose.

Nah. That would be just too perfect.

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