It’s seldom that I disagree publicly with members of the fourth estate. Besides preferring to focus my energy on reporting on the myriad ways state government falls short of its number one priority of protecting the interests of the state and its citizens, I generally have a deep professional respect for our peers in the media.
I worked for 30-plus years in various capacities—sports reporter, news reporter, copy editor, investigative reporter and managing editor—for several newspapers all over the state, including Monroe, Shreveport, Donaldsonville, Baton Rouge and four separate stints at the Ruston Daily Leader where I began almost 50 years ago. I kept returning at a higher position mostly because of my loyalty to my mentor, Publisher Tom Kelly. I even managed to pick up a few reporting awards along the way, including three for investigative reporting.
A news reporter will never get rich working for a newspaper; the pay just isn’t that good. Those who spend their time sitting through endless hours of city council, police jury, school board and even legislative committee meetings, mind-numbing courtroom testimony and who climb out of bed in the middle of the night to cover a shooting or a fire do so for the love of the profession.
So yes, I do maintain an abiding respect for these dedicated individuals.
But when I see facts deliberately being glossed over and key points ignored in order to protect or project a favorable image of a public official who has deliberately and blatantly attempted to use his position or to manipulate the political system to his financial advantage, I cannot in good conscience keep quiet.
The Baton Rouge Advocate editorial of Friday, Sept. 19, stands out as one of the most unabashedly transparent attempts to pin a bouquet on a state official who recently condoned one of the most underhanded attempts at abusing the legislative process in recent memory.
That attempt, of course, was the amendment by State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia) to Senate Bill 294 in the closing hours of the recent legislative session. The bill, authored by State Sen. Jean-Paul Morrell (D-New Orleans) originally addressed procedures to follow in disciplinary cases for law enforcement officers but was amended to give State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson special treatment in awarding him an unconstitutional increase in retirement income of somewhere between $30,000 and $55,000 per year.
Riser added the amendment during a conference committee meeting on the bill. Riser was one of three senators and three House members on the conference committee and on the final vote for passage, House members were told, incorrectly, the bill’s passage would create no fiscal impact.
Bobby Jindal’s executive counsel Thomas Enright, Jr., whose job it is to review bills for propriety and constitutionality, gave the bill his blessings and Jindal promptly signed it into law as Act 859.
LouisianaVoice broke the initial story about how the bill allowed Edmonson to revoke his decision years ago to enter into the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) which froze his retirement benefits at his then-pay level of $79,000 at his rank of captain. By allowing him to renege on his decision which was supposed to be irrevocable, it allowed him to retire at a rate based on his current colonel’s salary of $134,000. Because he has 30 years of service, he receives 100 percent of his salary as his retirement. Thus, the amendment gave him an instant yearly increase in retirement of something between $30,000 and $55,000.
The amendment inadvertently just happened to include one other person, Master Trooper Louis Boquet of Houma, though he was unaware of the amendment and its implications until the public outcry erupted.
A state district judge, ruling on a lawsuit brought by State Sen. Dan Claitor, said the amendment was unconstitutional on several grounds, thereby killing Edmonson’s retirement windfall.
The four-paragraph Advocate editorial on Friday noted that the matter had been “laid to rest” and noted that such furtive bills are common in the Louisiana Legislature. http://theadvocate.com/news/opinion/10299405-123/our-views-a-lesson-for
But it was a single sentence in that editorial that set me off:
“It is to the credit of Col. Mike Edmondson (sic) and Master Sgt. Louis Boquet, of Houma, that they declined to accept the raise because of irregularities in its passage.”
What?!! Besides the misspelling of Edmonson’s name, the editorial completely (and apparently purposefully) omitted key elements of this sordid story.
- Edmonson defended the amendment and his additional retirement on Public Radio’s Jim Engster Show;
- He admitted on that same show that “a staff member” had approached him about the possibility of increasing his retirement benefits via the amendment and he personally okayed that staff member to proceed with the legislative maneuver;
- Neil Riser first denied any knowledge of how the amendment originated but later confessed that it was he who inserted the language into the bill;
- The legislative fiscal notes (which detail the potential financial impact of pending bills) were not submitted until three days after the session adjourned, evidence that the entire episode took place on the down low, hidden from public view;
- During a hearing on the amendment by the State Police Retirement System Board, it was revealed that the board’s actuary was initially approached about the amendment “a few weeks” before the close of the session, further evidence that the move was in the works long before that fateful final day of the session;
- At that same hearing, it was also revealed that the “staff member” who initiated efforts to pass the amendment was State Police Lt. Col. Charles Dupuy, Edmonson’s chief of staff;
- Edmonson did not reject the raise until the heat from the public and from retired state police officers became so intense that it was politically impossible for him to go through with the charade. The added threat of a lawsuit by retired state troopers and the attacks on the amendment by State Treasurer John Kennedy only served to ensure the foolhardiness of any continued attempts to claim the money;
- The way the entire affair played out implicated everyone concerned—Jindal, Enright, Riser, Dupuy and Edmonson—in a pathetic attempt to conceal the deed from public view.
In short, Edmonson’s decision was anything but magnanimous. Quite simply, it was forced upon him by the glaring light of public scrutiny—the one thing he feared most.
This silly effort by the Advocate to make Edmonson’s decision seem noble and to make it appear to be anything other than the hands in the cookie jar scenario that it was is a disservice to its readers and an insult to their intelligence.
Perhaps the Advocate should stick to its previous hard-hitting editorials about how nice sunshine is and how lovely the Spanish moss-laden oak trees on the Capitol grounds are.
When John Georges purchased the Advocate from the Manship family, he went before the Baton Rouge Press Club where he made the utterly bizarre statement that he was focused on “not making people angry.”
I’m sorry Mr. Georges, but when you establish a policy of attempting to publish as little offending reporting as possible, that’s a cowardly decision and you’re simply not doing your job.
It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.”
Georges has obviously chosen the former.
And that decision has made the Advocate less of a newspaper, good only for crawfish boils and housebreaking a puppy.