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Archive for the ‘State Agencies’ Category

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

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

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

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

And I never got that camera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A state grand jury will reconvene in Arcadia in Bienville Parish on Thursday, Dec. 18, to continue its investigation of charges of molestation and rape brought against the former operator of a home for girls by former residents of the facility who say they the victims of sexual abuse by the minister in the 1970s and 80s, LouisianaVoice has learned.

One victim has already testified before the grand jury recessed for several weeks because a grand jury member underwent knee surgery.

Because grand jury testimony is secret, we normally would not report this type information, but a self-described survivor of the alleged abuse has already gone public with the information on social media.

Word of the grand jury probe comes almost exactly a year after seven former residents of New Bethany Home for Girls arrived in Arcadia from four separate states to file formal charges against Rev. Mack Ford. The 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s office presumably has been investigating those claims since the seven converged on the office of Bienville Parish Sheriff John Ballance a year ago to file their charges.

One source told LouisianaVoice that two witnesses had agreed to testify in exchange for immunity from prosecution. It was not immediately known if the two were former employees of New Bethany or members of Ford’s family.

Because grand jury testimony is secret, we normally would not report this type information, but a self-described survivor of the alleged abuse has already gone public with the information on social media.

Although only two of the six former residents who flew in from North Carolina, Nevada, Florida and Texas on Dec. 6, 2013, claimed to been sexually abused while living at the home, the others said they were there to lend moral support to the two, one of whom was said to be terminally ill with an inoperable brain tumor.

Allegations about beatings, handcuffing and other forms of punishment of girls at the home first came to light when the Baton Rouge Advocate began an investigation of the home in 1974. Editors, however, quickly killed the investigation before any stories could be written and the issue lay dormant until the late 1980s when the Louisiana Department of Health and Human Resources began looking into abuse allegations. In 1988, the state raided the unlicensed home located south of Arcadia on LA. 9 and removed 29 girls from the facility.

Simultaneous to that raid, the Bethel Home for Wayward Children in Lucedale, Mississippi, was closed down by officials in that state. Six months after the New Bethany raid, however, it remained open and was not closed down until 1998.

There were claims of girls at New Bethany having to clean toilets with their bare hands, being locked in isolation with only a bucket for a toilet, girls being handcuffed to their beds and being made to stand all day with no restroom breaks, beatings with wooden dowels, PVC pipe, paddles, belts and limbs.

A state game warden, interviewed by the Advocate in 1974, said he would take confiscated deer that had been killed illegally by hunters to the home. “On one occasion,” he said, “Ford asked if he could have my handcuffs.”

The public face of New Bethany, however, was quite different. Girls’ quartets clad in long dresses were frequently paraded before church congregations to sing, figuratively and literally, the praises of New Bethany in efforts to generate “love offerings” from church members.

The claims of physical abuse and rape are not new to the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) Church with which New Bethany and Ford were affiliated.

The First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, received a great deal of notoriety over the sexual trysts two of its ministers had with female church members over a period of several years. Their misconduct was subsequently repeated at other churches where they ministered.

And when their behavior was revealed, it was the women victims who were required to stand before the congregation and apologize and ask forgiveness for tempting the men, who invariably went unpunished and indeed, continued to receive near idol status from the congregation.

Likewise, group homes where abuse has been documented tend to receive devout support from area churches. Instead of asking those who run the homes to explain their behavior, their accusers are routinely treated as pariahs while the accused are welcomed as heroes at church rallies on their behalf.

Adherents to IFB dogma, for example, discourage intermarriage or even any contact with those of other religious beliefs, distrust government, favor home schooling, and believe that spankings should commence as early as 15 months of age.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Alexandra Zayas last year was allowed to do what the Advocate refused to do. She wrote a lengthy investigative series on claims of physical abuse at several group homes in Florida. http://www.tampabay.com/faccca/

Just as she found in Florida and as had been found earlier in Texas, Louisiana homes are unlicensed and unregulated by the state, thus allowing the operators free rein in the areas of discipline and education—so long as it is done in the name of religion.

The group homes employ the same textbooks that rely heavily on the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) and BJU (Bob Jones University) Press curricula—the same resources used by many of Louisiana’s voucher and charter schools being approved by the Louisiana Department of Education. The textbooks eschew traditional science and history courses, choosing instead to apply Old Testament interpretations in their teachings.

New Bethany is situated in a secluded spot deep in the piney woods south of Arcadia where the children’s screams could not be heard. Its remote location kept the facility out of the public eye and allowed Ford to give outsiders a look on his own terms—at church services, in a controlled environment, where the neatly scrubbed girls would sing and give emotional testimonials about past drug abuse and promiscuity (many of those “testimonials” contrived by Ford) and how New Bethany had turned their lives around—all orchestrated for the maximum emotional impact so as to extract “love offerings” from those in attendance.

Ford resisted state inspections, claiming that he accepted no state funding and that he was not licensed by the state and was therefore not subject to state regulations under the doctrine of separation of church and state.

On one occasion a state inspector did manage to breach the normally chained front gates of New Bethany but that inspector died suddenly a short time later.

Ford used his death as evidence of God’s intention to protect New Bethany from state regulations, saying that the inspector had been struck down by God and a similar fate would likely await other state inspectors.

Besides the Arcadia home, Ford and his family also ran homes for boys in Longstreet in De Soto Parish and in Walterboro, S.C. One by one, the homes were eventually shut down by authorities, the Arcadia home in 1998 (some reports indicate that New Bethany boarded girls there as recently as 2004), but only after inestimable mental, spiritual and physical damage had been inflicted on hundreds of children, many of them in their early teens.

It was not immediately known how many others of the seven have been called to testify before the grand jury.

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Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden has formally announced his candidacy for lieutenant governor to succeed Jay Darden in next fall’s election. And even though the field for the state’s second highest office is starting to get a little crowded, it’s expected to attract little attention.

That’s because all eyes will be focused on the battle to succeed Bobby Jindal as governor. Already, we have Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, and State Sen. John Bel Edwards vying for the state’s top job with more anticipated between now and next year’s qualifying.

Whoever your favorite candidate for governor, you may wish to reconsider wishing the job on him. In sports, there is a saying that no one wants to be the man who follows the legend. Instead, the preference would be to be the man who follows the man who followed the legend.

No one, for example, could ever have stepped in as Bear Bryant’s immediate successor at the University of Alabama and succeeded. That person was former Alabama receiver Ray Perkins who in his four years, won 32 games, lost 15 and tied one. He was followed by Bill Curry who went 26-10 in his three years. Gene Stallings was next and posted a 62-25 record that included a national championship over seven years before he retired.

Then came in rapid succession five coaches over the next nine years who combined to record a composite losing record of 51-55 before Nick Saban came along in 2007 to pull the program from the ashes.

No one in his right mind should wish to follow Jindal. It is not because of Jindal’s success as governor; just the opposite. When he walks out of the Governor’s Mansion for the final time, Jindal will leave this state in such a financial and functional mess that no one can succeed in righting the ship in a single term—and that may be all the patience Louisiana’s citizens will have for the new governor. Bottom line, voters are weary of seven years of budget cuts and depleted services. Ask anyone waiting and DMV to renew their driver’s license.

The electorate, at least those who pay attention to what’s going on, are bone tired of a governor who is never in the state but instead is flitting all over the country trying to pad his curriculum vitae for a run at the Republican nomination for president.

They are jaded at the hypocrisy of a first-term Gov. Jindal who kept popping up in Protestant churches (he’s Catholic) to pander the Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals when he was facing re-election compared to a second-term and term-limited Gov. Jindal who has not shown his face in a single Protestant church anywhere in the state.

Some, though admittedly not all, are unhappy with the manner in which he has consistently rejected federal Medicaid expansion and $80 million in federal grants for broadband internet and $300 million for a high-speed rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans—money state taxpayers have already paid into the system and now have to chance to recoup that money. (It’s sort of like refusing your federal tax refund because you feel it’s not free money. Well, no, it’s not free money but it is money you’ve already paid it in and now you have a chance to get some of it back.)

And there are those who are not at all pleased with the salaries paid Jindal appointees (not to mention raises they’ve received while rank and file employees have gone five years without raises). The administration has been free and loose with salaries paid top unclassified employees in every state agency, from Division of Administration on down. Those salaries are a huge drain on the state retirement systems. That’s one of the reasons there was so much controversy over Jindal’s attempted backdoor amendment to an obscure Senate bill that would have given State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson an annual retirement increase of $55,000—more than many full time state employees make.

With that in mind, we have what we feel would be a meaningful proposal for some enterprising gubernatorial candidate. It’s an idea that we feel has considerable merit and one we feel would resonate with voters.

With the state facing a billion-dollar shortfall for next year, the suggestion is more symbolic that a real fix, but what if a candidate would pledge publicly that he would draw on the pool of retired educators and executives for his cabinet? And what if he purposely avoid appointing anyone with political ambitions such as Angelle, who went from Secretary of Natural Resources to Public Service Commission and who is now an announced candidate for governor?

If a candidate said he could immediately save the state in excess of $2 million a year by hiring retired executives to head state agencies at salaries of $1 per year each, that would strike a chord with every registered voter in the state—or it should.

If a candidate would say, “I will not appoint any member of my cabinet who is dependent upon the position for his living, nor will I appoint any member who has aspirations of public office for himself,” what a refreshing breath of air that would be, vastly different from the standard hot air rhetoric of the typical political campaign.

Where would he find these types of people willing to give of their time? That would be for the candidate himself to recruit but James Bernhard would be a good start. Bernhard certainly has the experience, having founded and built up the Shaw Group to the point that he was able to sell the company for $3 billion while selling off some of his personal company stock for another $45 million.

That spells success by every definition of the word. And Bernhard certainly would have no need for a salary. He would be a logical choice for Commissioner of Administration.

And then there is his father-in-law, retired Louisiana Tech University President Dan Reneau. What better choice could a governor have for Commissioner of Higher Education?

There are scores of others, from retired doctors and hospital administrators, to retired military personnel like Gen. Russel Honoré to head up the Department of Veterans Affairs to retired federal and state law enforcement personnel to retired scientists and educators, and the list goes on and on.

This would by no means be a guaranteed ticket to success for Jindal’s successor; there is just too much mess he will be leaving behind.

But it would be a huge psychological advantage for anyone wishing to take on that unenviable job of being the one to follow Jindal.

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Former Gov. Edwin Edwards said on Tuesday that he intends link his opponent to Gov. Bobby Jindal just as Congressman Bill Cassidy has linked U.S. Sen. Landrieu and President Obama.

“Representative Cassidy has built his entire campaign on running against Obama instead of Mary Landrieu and though I believe in running on issues instead of personal attacks, I will launch my television ads next week by showing that Garret Graves will be nothing more than an extension of the Bobby Jindal administration,” Edwards told LouisianaVoice.

That shouldn’t be too difficult to do, given that Garret’s former assistant and more recently his successor has publicly endorsed Garret in his campaign against Edwards to succeed Cassidy as Louisiana’s 6th District congressional representative.

Jerome “Z” Zeringue, who once served as Garret’s assistant and then was named to succeed him as Gov. Jindal’s coastal advisor, has endorsed his old boss in the Dec. 6 runoff against Edwards.

That action brought instant criticism from another former coastal advisor to the governor. Len Bahr, Ph.D., wrote on his internet blog:

“As a former holder of Graves’ and now Zeringue’s position in the governor’s office, I’m offended that neither of these gentlemen is concerned that the person who oversees state coastal policy should be involved in a highly partisan political struggle. I realize that the law that restricts state civil servants from political activities does not apply to unclassified positions but the basis for the law is obvious, going back to the days of Huey Long when state employees were pressured to support specific elected officials. http://lacoastpost.com/blog/?p=47063

Bahr’s indignation notwithstanding, Edwards already had a pretty good arsenal to unload on his opponent.

He previewed one of his upcoming TV advertisements for LouisianaVoice. As expected, he zeroed in on the $130 million in contracts that Graves’ father’s company received from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the younger Graves’ tenure as president of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) and director of the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities.

Edwards, at a Monday appearance before the Baton Rouge Press Club, also noted that the Graves’ father also subcontracted $66 million of that $130 million to some 18 other companies who have since contributed $250,000 to Graves’ campaign and $360,000 to Jindal.

Those points were brought by another candidate in the first primary, State Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge) but Edwards added a new twist during the press club appearance when he revealed that Graves’ brother-in-law stood to gain financially from a deal involving CPRA.

He said the Water Campus office complex and research center under construction in Baton Rouge, will house the agency Graves once headed. The leasing agent for office space in the facility, Edwards said, is Randy White, Graves’ brother-in-law. “They’re going to lease one million square feet of office space at probably $25 to $50 per square foot,” he said. “At a commission of 2 or 3 percent, that’s a $1 million a year.”

The former governor also expressed his disappointment at Graves’ tactic of sending out letters leading up to the Nov. 4 first primary in which he hinted that Republican candidate Paul Dietzel, III was gay. “He (Graves) repeated over and over that Dietzel had never married, lives with his grandmother, and had performed work on behalf of gay organizations,” Edwards said. “There is no place in today’s society for that type of attack.”

Edwards said the motive for Graves’ attack was obvious. “Up to the time those letters went out, he and Dietzel were neck and neck for the second spot in the runoff against me. It was the act of a desperate man and a man who was hand-picked by our governor to continue the policies put in place by Jindal.

“Jindal’s approval rating is every bit as deplorable as Obama’s,” Edwards said. “And a vote for Graves is a vote to continue down the same road that Jindal has taken the state during his administration. Personally, I don’t think this state can afford a continuation of those policies.”

Bahr, his blog, included a link to Louisiana Civil Service rules on public employees’ participation in political campaign and though the rules are different for classified and unclassified employees like Zeringue, Bahr said he nonetheless felt it wrong for Zeringue to interject himself into partisan politics. http://www.civilservice.louisiana.gov/files/general_circulars/2011/gc2011-020.pdf

One of Bahr’s readers added this comment to his blog:

“A key part of Graves’ legacy is the degrading of CPRA’s standing as a supposedly objective body. Pushing them to pass a resolution opposing the SE La Flood Protection Authority lawsuit was a key step. Using the meeting for theatrics attacking the feds every month was another. CPRA has continued on this path in his absence by passing a resolution opposing the EPA’s proposed “Waters of the U.S.” designation, with no real discussion of the actual rule/regulation. In the bubble that Louisiana inhabits, no one is supposed to see this for what it is. That bubble will be popped when the state sees how national support for restoration has been eroded.”

So while Edwards has been relatively quiet up to this point (as opposed to the incessant barrage of attack ads from both Landrieu and Cassidy), that will change beginning next Tuesday—just in time for his only scheduled head-to-head debate with Graves in Denham Springs that same day.

If he is successful in linking Graves to his former boss, Jindal’s low poll numbers coupled with the animosity Jindal has single-handedly created between himself and teachers, state employees and higher education officials during almost seven years as governor, it could spell trouble for Graves. And Edwards, the sly old warrior that he is, might yet have a trick or two up his sleeve.

To paraphrase actress Bette Davis in the movie All About Eve, Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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Two legislative committees charged with oversight of the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) are expected to demand that OGB roll back dramatic increases in health care co-payments and deductibles the agency is attempting to impose on hundreds of thousands of state employees to make up for the Jindal administration’s mismanagement of the agency when they meet in tandem on Friday.

The Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee will meet at 10 a.m. on Friday but will not take testimony from the public.

The two committees are expected to instruct Nichols and OGB CEO Susan West to slash the increases in deductibles—some couples’ deductibles increased from $300 to $3,000 under the new plan being proposed by OGB–and co-pays.

OGB has already announced a two-month delay in the implementation of steep increases in prescription drug costs and will refund about $4.5 million in overcharges to state employees.

The Jindal administration is attempting to impose the co-pay and deductible increases as a way to recover hundreds of millions of dollars the administration managed to squander as a cost-savings to the state’s own contributions to employees’ premiums as a means to cover huge gaps in Jindal’s state budget.

The entire scenario reads like the script from an old I Love Lucy sitcom as everything the administration had done with OGB has blown up in its face in an improbable comedy of errors. How more insulting to legislators could it get than for Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols to provide false testimony to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Sept. 25 shortly before abruptly leaving the JLCB meeting to take her daughter to a boy band concert in New Orleans?

When asked point blank by State Rep. John Bel Edwards at that Sept. 25 hearing–before heading out to the Smoothie King Arena to settle into the governor’s luxury box seats for the concert—which actuary recommended that OGB reduce premiums by nearly 9 percent, she testified that Buck Consultants made the recommendation.

But Buck reportedly responded by email within days that it never made any such recommendation and that Nichols’ testimony was in direct contradiction to its recommendations.

A July report from Buck reinforces its claim that it never made any such recommendation. “We did not recommend a decrease of 7% effective August 1, 2012, or an additional decrease of 1.77% effective August 1, 2013. Further, we were not asked to provide any recommended rate adjustments for any fiscal years beyond what we provided for Fiscal Year 2012/2013,” the report says.

When witnesses sign cards prior to speaking before a legislative committee, they are certifying that they understand that their testimony is considered as being given under oath.

Edwards also asked at the hearing that Nichols or West provide him with a copy of that recommendation but he said on Wednesday (Nov. 5) that he still had not received that information. “I still have not received any actuarial recommendations for the 2013 and 2014 premium reductions at OGB,” he told LouisianaVoice. “Nor have they told me that such recommendations do not exist. Clearly, they do not.”

If someone were to set out to demonstrate how incompetent an administration could be, he would be hard pressed to find a better example than the manner in which it has handled the Office of Group Benefits—from firing an effective CEO who built up a $500 million reserve fund in favor of a revolving door approach to subsequent CEOs, to firing experience claims handlers with whom OGB members were comfortable, to hiring a California firm with no knowledge of Louisiana’s medical coverage program to handle telephone inquiries because experienced OGB staff were also fired, to attempting to implement emergency rules to enact the cost increases in co-pays and deductibles without the legally required public hearings, to having to refund $4.5 million in prescription drug overcharges for the same violation of the emergency rules procedures, to first claiming that it was not necessary to invoke the emergency rule and then deciding to do just that, to lying to legislators about actuarial recommendations of premium reductions.

The FUBARs and SNAFUs of OGB are so many and so irreversible that they should give pause to anyone who would entertain even the fleeting notion that Gov. Bobby Jindal is capable of leading the free world when, through his inept surrogates, he has, in less than two years, destroyed a relatively small but viable, efficient state agency.

Jindal and Nichols, of course, have a ready explanation for the OGB financial woes: medical costs have risen and it’s all Obamacare’s fault—never Jindal’s.

It’s the same arrogance level as that was demonstrated by Nichols in another appearance before a legislative committee when, trying to explain budget figures, she said somewhat condescendingly, “Let me dumb it down for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUTCH BROWNING

Browning proudly wears military medals in this file photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem solved.

Well, not quite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The controversy surrounding the sweeping changes being proposed for the Office of Group Benefits just got a little dicier with new information obtained by LouisianaVoice about the departure of Division of Administration executive counsel Liz Murrill and the possibly illegal destruction of public records from the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) and the involvement of at least two other state agencies.

While it was not immediately clear which OGB records were involved, information obtained by LouisianaVoice indicate that Murrill refused to sign off on written authorization to destroy documents from OGB.

We first reported her departure on Oct. 14 and then on Oct. 22, we followed up with a report that Murrill had confided to associates that she could no longer legally carry out some of the duties assigned to her as the DOA attorney.

But now we learn that the issue has spilled over into two other agencies besides OGB and DOA because of a state statute dealing with the retention of public documents for eventual delivery to State Archives, a division of Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s office.

Reports indicate that Schedler became furious when he learned of the destruction or planned destruction of the records because records should, according to R.S. 44:36, be retained for three years and then delivered to the state archivist and director of the division of Archives, records management and history. https://www.legis.la.gov/legis/Law.aspx?d=99704

Schedler reportedly became so upset with the decision to destroy the records that he copied Attorney General Buddy Caldwell with a letter he wrote to Nichols directing that DOA comply with the statute but Caldwell for his part, refused to intervene, saying he did not want to become involved.

If that indeed is the case, then LouisianaVoice goes on record here and now as contending that Caldwell is unfit to serve in that capacity and should resign immediately.

We made every effort to allow Caldwell to respond. We called his office and asked to speak to Buddy Caldwell or his son, Assistant Attorney General David Caldwell. We were told, “We don’t put calls through to them; we take a message and they may call you back.” They never did. We also spoke with AG Press Secretary Laure Gerdes and explained the story we were working on and told her if we did not hear back from Caldwell, we would suggest that he was unfit to serve as AG. Again, we never heard back from either Caldwell.

The attorney general simply cannot cherry pick which laws he feels should be enforced and to allow the destruction of vital public documents, particularly at a time when so much raw emotion has erupted over changes to the OGB benefit structure. To sit idly back and allow the administration to flout the law in the faces of 230,000 OGB members, retirees and beneficiaries is unconscionable and if Caldwell allows such action without at least advising DOA of the consequences he is not worthy of calling himself a public servant. He should take his Elvis impersonation act back to Tallulah.

And if Caldwell is reluctant to give legal advice to DOA, then Hillar Moore, as District Attorney for the 19th Judicial District, has all the statutory authority required to prosecute state officials should he ever decide to exercise that authority. The state government, after all, is domiciled in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Too much is at stake and those records could hold the key to the motives behind the administration’s decision to dramatically increase co-pays and deductibles. LouisianaVoice made requests for certain OGB records on Oct. 14 and those records have yet to be produced by DOA. We have no way of knowing if the records we requested are part of those documents which were ordered destroyed but if so, we plan to initiate legal action against the state promptly.

DOA has been habitually reluctant to produce public records at our request in a timely manner and this action could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Without the support and backing of the state’s highest legal authority, we are powerless to force compliance other than through the courts.

But the question that should be uppermost in the minds of Louisiana’s citizens is this: If those records were important enough to fire an attorney over her refusal to sign off on their destruction or for that attorney to place her career in jeopardy over that same issue, we are more curious than ever to know the contents of those documents—and we have the right to know.

And even more significant in this entire affair, if Liz Murrill did in fact refuse to compromise herself and her reputation by refusing to sign off on an illegal act, then we can only say good for her! She has shown far more integrity than our attorney general.

 

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