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Archive for the ‘Transparency’ Category

What will Gov. Bobby Jindal say when he appears on Meet the Press Sunday?

Of course we know he will attack President Obama and the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare while ignoring the fact that his decision not to expand Medicaid may end up costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s a given.

At the same time he is criticizing Obama for not being more proactive on the Ebola crisis, he will fail to mention his rejection of the Medicaid expansion has been at the expense of health coverage for a couple hundred thousand low-income Louisianans.

He will condemn the president for his lax immigration policy while turning a blind eye to the indisputable fact that Latin Americans who do enter this country generally take low-paying jobs no one else wants. He won’t mention companies like IBM, Dell, ACS, and Pfizer, to name but a few, that have taken advantage of an obscure work visa (the H-1B program) to lay off more than 250,000 Americans from high-tech IT jobs. These companies lay Americans off in favor of importing hundreds of thousands of Indians who work for far less, thus saving these companies billions of dollars.

He will no doubt boast of his accomplishments as governor—claims that simply will not stand up under close examination—apparently pulled off by remote control. This is especially the case during his second term when his title would more accurately be governor in absentia. He has spent an inordinate amount of time traveling outside the state in an attempt to build support for a anemic campaign for the GOP presidential nomination that, despite his near-desperate efforts, is gaining no traction.

He could lambast the Common Core curriculum, once again ignoring that fact that he was in favor of Common Core before he was against it.

There are so many other things he could discuss but probably won’t.

He won’t mention, for instance, his abysmal record in the state’s courtrooms. One of these was his miserably failed effort to jerk retirement benefits from under the feet of active state employees, some of whom would have seen their retirement income plummet to as little as $6,000 a year—with no social security—had he been successful.

He will attempt once again to convince the nation—those of us in Louisiana know better, of course—that he has balanced the state budget while cutting taxes and reducing the number of state employees.

Yes, he has reduced the number of state employees, but at what cost? The Office of Group Benefits (OGB) is a shell of the once smooth-running state office that handled the medical claims of some 230,000 state employees, retirees and dependents. Not that that matters to Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols who, we are told, is a member of the LSU health plan and thus unaffected by the changes.

And of course Jindal, through his smoke and mirrors game of premium reductions, has managed to siphon off more than half of OGB’s $500 million reserve fund. He also recently attempted to slash benefits and pile unaffordable co-pay and deductible increases onto the backs of state employees and retirees. In short, his grand scheme to privatize OGB has proven nothing less than an unmitigated disaster of politically humiliating (to him) proportions. His firing of respected CEO Tommy Teague and the mess that has ensued stand as a monument to unparalleled mismanagement and political meddling.

And his budget balancing has produced unprecedented cuts to higher education. Colleges and universities in Louisiana have seen their appropriations gouged by nearly 70 percent during Jindal’s almost seven sorry years in office. God help us if he should somehow be placed in the position of inflicting such carnage on the nation as he has on Louisiana.

And what of that claim of balancing the budget, anyway?

Let’s review.

We will take figures provided to us by State Treasurer John Kennedy that reflect the general fund balances as of Oct. 31. And while we are quick to acknowledge the fact that the numbers will certainly improve next spring when revenues start picking up from state income tax and corporate tax collections, a comparison of the last five Octobers is both startling and sobering.

As of Oct. 31 of this year, the general fund balance reflected a deficit of $924.6 million. That’s just $75.4 million shy of $1 billion—and OGB alone is losing $16 million each month.

And yes, the numbers will improve next spring but let’s look back just one year. As of Oct. 31, 2013, the balance reflected a deficit of $656.7 million. That’s nearly $268 million less in negative spending than for this year.

Still not convinced? Well, for Oct. 31, 2012, the deficit was $476.6 million, about $448 million less than for the same month in 2014.

And while it was slightly higher at $565.2 million on Oct. 31, 2011, the number for 2010 was only $181.5 million—almost three-quarters of a billion dollars billion better than this year.

In five short years, the October deficit for the state general fund balance has increased fivefold.

The historically high negative balance, which arrives just a few months into each new fiscal year (which begins on July 1), “is forcing fund borrowing to sustain cash flow,” Kennedy says. “It darkly foreshadows the challenge ahead for lawmakers and the governor in the 2015 regular session. A budget shortfall of at least $1.2 billion is expected, but it’s clearly a figure that could move. It also increases the likelihood of midyear budget cuts in the minds of some.” (The administration finally admitted this even as this post was being written on Friday. Spending for the next seven months will have to be slashed by at least $171 million because of lower than anticipated revenues.) http://theadvocate.com/news/10833948-123/state-needs-mid-year-budget-correction

And here is the rub that has Kennedy and Nichols crossing swords: Kennedy says to some lawmakers, “the negative balance is at a critical high because the state started the fiscal year with a deficit cash balance of $141 million and because expenses actually are greater than revenues,” Kennedy said.

Nichols, however, vehemently disagrees, claiming instead that the administration stumbled upon some $320 million in extra cash from prior years lying around in agencies scattered across the state which she claims gives the state an actual surplus of nearly $179 million.

The problem she has, however, is that no one believes her—including two former commissioners of administration interviewed by LouisianaVoice, both of whom say it’s just not feasible that that much money could have been just lying around all these years without anyone’s knowing of its existence.

Nichols, of course, has to maintain a brave face in order that her boss can save face.

You see, as Bob Mann points out in his latest posting on his blog Something Like the Truth, Jindal “must never have raised a tax” and “must never have presided over an unbalanced state budget” if he wishes to cling to any fading hopes of the GOP presidential nomination.

“All your advantages—your personality, your policy credentials, the importance of your state in Electoral College politics—won’t help you much if you don’t meet these basic qualifications,” Mann said. http://bobmannblog.com/

“Jindal knows Republican audiences in Iowa and elsewhere will pay him little mind if they learn about his fiscal recklessness,” he said. “So, he and Nichols tried to cover their tracks, including dishonestly blaming their budget deficit on state Treasurer John Kennedy.”

Jindal, of course, won’t address any of these issues. But were he of a mind to do so, he could even discuss on his Meet the Press appearance how he tried to frame Murphy Painter, former director of the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control after Painter refused to knuckle under to demands that he look the other way on behalf of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson over Budweiser’s application for an alcohol permit at Champion’s Square. He could tell how that effort backfired and the state was forced to pay Painter’s legal bills of some $300,000. But he probably won’t

He could discuss how he attempted unsuccessfully to circumvent state law and obtain a hefty $55,000 per year increase in pension benefits for his state police commander. But most likely, he won’t.

And he could disclose how much it has cost Louisiana taxpayers in terms of payroll, meals and lodging for state police security as he jets around the country in pursuit of his presidential aspirations. But don’t expect him to.

Yes, Jindal could discuss these and other matters during Sunday’s program, but he won’t.

The simple fact is, by virtue of his bottom-feeding position as the anchor in the GOP nominee sweepstakes, he just can’t afford to.

And saddest of all, no one on the program’s panel is likely to inquire about these issues.

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By Guest Columnist Robert Burns

Tom recently posted that Louisiana Sen. Rick Gallot may have used his influence to expedite and circumvent safety standards for a private school.  Another Louisiana Senator, Francis Thompson (D-Delhi) may have well had his son, Brant, utilize his dad’s status to obtain fair and equitable treatment from the Louisiana Auctioneer Licensing Board (LALB).  He was fully entitled to such fair and equitable treatment, but it begs the question as to why other Louisiana citizens, especially elderly widow auction victims, are given the shaft.

In early 2012, Brant Thompson allegedly consigned merchandise to auctioneer Bruce Miller.  I use the word “allegedly” because, at a May 6, 2014 hearing, LALB investigator Jim Steele, as evidenced by this 4-second video clip, said, “There’s no indication that Mr. Thompson was a consignor at this auction whatsoever.”  Nobody knows what may have happened to Mr. Thompson’s items, and auctioneer Bruce Miller died of a massive heart attack two days after his last auction.  Mr. Thompson never received a dime for his items, nor did he ever even see his merchandise again.  Understandably, Mr. Thompson got upset and justifiably filed a complaint with the LALB.  Like so many other complainants, Mr. Thompson was frustrated when he received this brief letter from LALB attorney Anna Dow dated 1/16/14 indicating that, because the LALB could not ascertain if a violation had occurred, it was “closing the investigation……No further action will be taken.”

Thompson, like many other aggrieved complainants, wasn’t happy, so he drafted this terse two-page response dated 2/3/14.  He indicated that he “takes exception” to the finding and states that “The system designed to protect me failed.”  He emphasized that he was aware auctioneers carry a bond, and he relayed that he expected that bond to cover his alleged losses.  Mr. Thompson is correct in his assessment that the LALB failed him, but it has done the same for a litany of other complainants.  Mr. Thompson, however, was shrewd enough to copy Ms. Holly Robinson, Gov. Jindal’s then-Heard of Boards and Commissions.  Obviously, Ms. Robinson would be very familiar with the fact Brant is Francis’ son.  What transpired upon Robinson’s receipt of the letter?  Who knows, but we do know this:  in lightening-fast speed, the LALB, in an unprecedented move, not only “reopened” a closed investigation, but it actually conducted a full-blown hearing (on a deceased auctioneer) on 5/6/14.  Remember Mr. Thompson’s goal of collecting on Miller’s bond.  Now, watch this brief one-minute video clip excerpt from the hearing.  Notice how Mr. Thompson is gently guided regarding the bond’s parameters (that it’s for $10,000 and has a 3-year filing period in which the LALB can file for him).  Mr. Thompson, who speaks in a smooth and cavalier manner, is spoken to in turn by LALB members and its attorney in an almost reverent-like manner.  The LALB not only filed the bond for Mr. Thompson, but in breakneck speed, he received a $3,500 check from the bonding company in early October of 2014 even though the company said the itemized list it was provided depicted ordinary household items that were “virtually worthless.”

Let’s contrast Mr. Thompson’s revered status as a Louisiana senator’s son with the tone and attitude taken with complainant Judy Fasola.  In late 2012, Ms. Fasola contracted with notoriously-problematic auctioneer Ken Buhler for the disposition of her terminally-ill, 93-year-old mother’s estate.  Ms. Fasola asserted at her hearing, which was in March of 2013, that Mr. Buhler adamantly refused to place reserves on her marque items and instead, over time, just kept defiantly selling them at pennies on the dollar (Fasola relayed she later learned Buhler sold many marque items to his own mother, mother-in-law, and other Buhler relatives) against her express desire and instructions.  When she threatened an LALB complaint, he finally returned what few items he hadn’t sold in defiance of her instructions, and Fasola relayed he did so in a fit of anger, slamming her items on her floor and breaking most items in the process.  Fasola filed an LALB complaint, and the LALB fined his father, Mac, who is not an auctioneer but was deemed the responsible party for Ken’s company, Estate Auction Services, $500 for “sloppy recordkeeping.”  Due to Ken’s license being revoked from 2005-2010 (due to massive consignor losses), the LALB insisted that Mac oversee all negotiations and communication with customers.  Ken had defied that restriction in negotiating with Ms. Fasola, but she was unaware of the LALB restrictions on Ken’s license.  Ms. Fasola, like Brant, repeatedly asked the LALB to file a bond claim for her, but the LALB has steadfastly refused to do so.  When Ms. Fasola learned of Mr. Thompson’s ease of obtaining a bond payment, she was understandably upset and requested to be heard on the matter at the 11/5/14 meeting to air her frustrations.  Let’s examine, mainly through video excerpts of the meeting, just how she got treated.

Fasola began by giving an introductory statement relaying how she, like Brant, felt the system had failed her, and she asked if she may have been treated more fairly “if I were the daughter of a Louisiana State Senator?”  LALB Vice Chairman James Sims tersely denied any knowledge that Brant was the son of a Louisiana senator until “seven days after the hearing.”  There simply is no way to adequately place in words the hostility shown toward Ms. Fasola (and me, for that matter) at the meeting, so I ask readers’ indulgence in watching a 9-minute video clip of the highlights of Ms. Fasola’s presentation, along with captions wherein Ms. Fasola catches board members, attorneys, and the executive director in one contradiction and falsehood after another (proven by video clips merged into this 9-minute video clip which I strongly encourage readers to watch).  In watching the video, it becomes apparent why I videotape these meetings because these board members flat-out misrepresent what they’ve said and done in prior meetings.

Now, in the above 9-minute video clip, considerable focus was placed on the above-mentioned restrictions on Ken Buhler’s license.  When Estate Auction Services (Mac Buhler) was fined $500 and found guilty in March of 2013, the bonding company immediately canceled its bond.  As mentioned above, Ken, pursuant to the restrictions on his license, was totally dependent upon his dad to remain in business; however, his dad could no longer operate due to lack of a bond.  How did the LALB solve Ken’s problem in that regard?  They simply convened another “hearing” on May 20, 2013 for the sole purpose of removing all restrictions on Ken’s license.  Nevertheless, as evidenced by the video clip, LALB Vice Chairman James Sims kept insisting (incorrectly, on no less that three occasions) that the restrictions were lifted prior to Fasola’s auction.  In reality, the restrictions were lifted after and as a result of Fasola’s auction.  Hence, as Fasola pointed out, Buhler was actually rewarded for his victimizing of her!  Also, although LALB Chairman Tessa Steinkamp literally blew a gasket at the 6:27 mark of the video when Fasola referenced concerns for her personal safety when dealing with Ken Buhler, Ms. Fasola had genuine reason for concern.  Even as she was dealing with him, he was arrested and criminally charged for domestic abuse against his wife (the latest court date is Monday, 11/10/14).  Additionally, Mr. Buhler was also found to have civil liability for the fraudulent use of interstate commerce instrumentalities in Federal Court in mid-2011.  The LALB was notified of that fact, but they were completely indifferent to the fact it transpired, notwithstanding the fact that his liability entailed securities fraud directly related to his auction business.

As evidenced by the preceding video clip, the LALB basically continued to tell Ms. Fasola to “go to hell” regarding its filing her bond claim for her.  Quite a contrast to the reverent tone taken with Brant Thompson, son of State Sen. Francis Thompson, huh?  What’s alarming is the sheer number of elderly victims of auctioneers.  Let me provide the following table of four such instances that readily come to mind:

Auction Victim’s Name Reason for Auction Auctioneer and Appx. Date
Ms. Linda Williams Liquidating 91-year-old mother’s belongings days before her death.  Click here to listen to an impassioned plea by Ms. Williams for the LALB to NOT reinstate Ken Buhler’s license in 2010. Ken Buhler. Months prior to his auction license being revoked in 2005.
Mr. David Swift Liquidating the belongings of his 80-something father soon after his death. Gary & Randy Hayes (business applicants like Mac Buhler), two guys who, to their credit, told the LALB at their 1/14 hearing, “We never should have been granted a license.”   They went on to relay they’d lost over $100,000 of their retirement savings and would NEVER be in the auction business again.
Ms. Judy Fasola Liquidating 93-year-old terminally-ill mother’s belongings months before her imminent death. Ken Buhler. September, 2012.
Ms. Betty Story Liquidating her belongings (and two homes) in order to move into an assisted living facility in Alexandria, LA.  LA Voice readers may recall this 9/27/14 post on what a disaster her auction was.  I’m happy to report that Ms. Story, serving as a pro se litigant (at 84 years old!!), scored a major victory in 36th JDC on 10/29/14 when Judge Martha O’Neal stopped the trial after Ms. Story presented only her second witness, with Judge O’Neal saying, “I’ve heard all I need to hear.”  When auctioneer Schmidt asked if he’d be permitted to put on his defense and call witnesses, O’Neal said, “Yes, but you’re not going to be able to undo the damage you’ve already done on this witness stand in answering my questions,” (Story had him on the witness stand under direct examination).  Click here if you’d like to watch a post-trial interview with Ms. Story.  Her LALB litigation remains ongoing. Marlo Schmidt. November   17, 2012.

 

I recently made a public records request of the LALB seeking all bond claims it has ever filed.  They could produce only two:  Mr. Thompson and Mr. Swift.  It’s interesting to note that these two claims were likely filed (beyond Thompson’s status as a Louisiana Senator’s son) because there would be no auctioneer pushback in either case.  Mr. Miller is dead, so he won’t get upset.  Gary and Randy Hayes, as evidenced by the brief video clip above, readily stated they’ll never be in the auction business again (hence no pushback from them).  In sharp contrast, Ken Buhler and Marlo Schmidt are active auctioneers who would be very upset with LALB members if claims were filed against their bonds!

I’d like to conclude this Louisiana Voice post by expressing gratitude to Tom because I’ve presented the above cases to MSM outlets in Baton Rouge.  While an Advocate reporter has expressed strong interest in publishing LALB elderly victimizations, his editors have said, “It’s a small board and nobody will read the article.”  Further, 13 months ago, Ms. Linda Williams, the first victim listed above, suggested that I contact Chris Nakamoto of Channel 2 here in Baton Rouge.  I still maintain a computer folder of numerous emails back-and-forth between Mr. Nakamoto and myself regarding a television investigative report on elderly abuse by auctioneers.  He did qualify any such potential report, however, with the fact that, like the Advocate reporter, his editors too had to give the “thumbs up.”  All I can tell Louisiana Voice readers is that, days prior to New Year’s Day of 2014, Mr. Nakamoto ceased all communication with me without even so much as a courtesy explanation of why he’d gone from responding to my emails within hours (often minutes) to suddenly no response at all.

In closing, if you or anyone you know is considering hiring an auctioneer, you owe it to yourself to visit Consumer Option # 2 on LAPA’s website, which is an alphabetical index of auctioneer issues since LAPA’s archive began in 2010 and also Consumer Option # 3 on LAPA’s website, which is guidance on conducting auctioneer due diligence.  If it’s not conducted, the results, as illustrated above, can be devastating.

Lastly, anyone knowing of an elderly person (or the caretaker of such an individual) who is considering hiring an auctioneer, please bookmark this post and forward it to them.  Why?  Because auctioneers exist out there who view such elderly prospective clients just like lambs headed for slaughter.

Regrettably, we have a Governor and his LALB appointees who are only too happy to help with hoisting the guillotine.

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What kind of person, serving as a municipal fire chief, would purchase ribbons and decorations of previous conflicts from a military surplus store and pen them on his own uniform?

Apparently the kind of person that Deputy Secretary of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Gov. Bobby Jindal would want to protect even to the point of prevailing upon an ally in the legislature to file an amendment to abolish the very agency conducting an investigation of that and other offenses.

At the same time State Fire Marshal Butch Browning was being reinstated in May of 2012 by his boss, Mike Edmonson who serves as both State Police Superintendent and Deputy Secretary of DPS, State Rep. Joe Harrison (R-Napoleonville) was introducing an amendment to House Bill 1, the state’s operating budget, to pull the $1.7 million funding for the Office of Inspector General (OIG) in the middle of OIG’s investigation of allegations of payroll fraud and a sloppy inspection of a carnival ride in Greensburg only seven hours before teenage siblings were injured by the ride.

The timing of the amendment was enough to make you toss your lunch of stone cold ethics and hot back room politics.

Browning “retired” on April 18 in the middle of that investigation but returned just 12 days later, on April 30, with an $8,000-per-year increase in pay after being “cleared” by Edmonson of any wrongdoing—six months before an investigative report by OIG was even issued.

But if Jindal and his co-conspirators intended to thwart the investigation by abolishing the agency led by Stephen Street, those efforts wilted in a backlash of public support for the office immediately ensued which caused the legislature—and Jindal—to back down from the effort despite a favorable 11-5 vote on Harrison’s amendment by the House Appropriations Committee.

Remember, this is the same governor who two years later would attempt to sneak through another amendment granting Edmonson a lucrative $55,000-a-year increase in retirement benefits only to have that plan crash and burn when LouisianaVoice learned of the implications of the amendment by State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia).

OIG serves as white-collar watchdog and as an internal affairs division within state government but Harrison, in offering his amendment, argued that OIG’s functions overlapped those of State Police and the Attorney General’s Office.

As we have already seen, State Police, under the direction of Edmonson, gave Browning high marks in exonerating him from any wrongdoing and as we have also seen in other matters, the Attorney General’s Office is more than a little reluctant to involve itself in the investigation of any state agency—except of course in a situation such as that of former Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein where the feds are already actively investigating a questionable contract with Greenstein’s former employer.

In that case, Attorney General intervention made good press.

In fact, since the 1974 State Constitution was adopted over the objections of then-Attorney General Billy Guste, the Attorney General’s duties are primarily restricted to defending state agencies, not investigating them and can generally enter a local matter at the express invitation of the local district attorney. In fact, the Attorney General has even begged off certain investigative matters, citing a potential conflict of interest should his office be called to defend or represent the agency.

Hammond attorney and state government watchdog C.B. Forgotston, former chief counsel for the House Appropriations Committee disagreed with Harrison’s contention that the OIG is “pretty much redundant.”

Forgotston said the office might be redundant “if any other agency in the state was stopping waste and fraud within the executive branch. Nobody at the state level is pursuing corruption in Louisiana,” he said.

Street said he linked his office’s funding to the amount of money it uncovers through wrongdoing by state officials and contractors. OIG’s annual report in 2012 showed the office had uncovered $3.2 million in fraud and waste the previous fiscal year, nearly double the office’s $1.7 million budget appropriation.

The reaction to Harrison’s bill and to Jindal’s transparent ploy was immediate.

“Is it a bargain to spend $1 to root out nearly $2 in fraud in Louisiana?” the Lake Charles American Press asked in a May 15, 2012, editorial. http://www.americanpress.com/AP-Editorial-5-16-12

“Apparently, some members of the state Legislature don’t think so,” the editorial said, adding that Harrison had admitted that he did not agree with the OIG’s investigation of Browning. He said there should have been no investigation in the first place but Street said his office had received a complaint (from the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission) about how Browning was doing his job and so he launched an investigation. “I was told if you do this (job) right, you’ll eventually have people trying to shut you down,” Street was quoted by the paper as saying.

The editorial disagreed with Harrison’s claim that State Police and the Attorney General’s Office could take up the slack. “The attorney general in Louisiana is too much of a political species to launch investigations into wrongdoing by other politicians or political agencies,” it said in something of an understatement. “An office that ferrets out nearly $2 in fraud for every $1 it costs is too valuable to Louisiana to eliminate.”

The non-partisan Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) agreed. “The state needs a self-motivated watchdog agency to stop waste, mismanagement, abuse and fraud in executive-branch government,” it said in a May 7, 2012, news release. http://www.parlouisiana.com/explore.cfm/parpublications/commentariesandletters/100092

“Stephen Street… is a former criminal staff lawyer with the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, a former public defender and a former Section Chief with the state Attorney General’s Insurance Fraud Support Unit who handled white-collar prosecutions. He has extensive experience teaching courses on white-collar crime investigation,” the PAR release said.

“A sudden halt in funding of the Inspector General would terminate ongoing investigations and send a message nationwide that Louisiana government is open for corrupt or wasteful business. Lawmakers who oppose continued funding of the office while also criticizing particular ongoing investigations are running the risk of deeply politicizing the state’s law enforcement systems. If these efforts at shutting down the Inspector General’s office are successful, their effect will be to strongly encourage further political interference in the law enforcement profession throughout the state,” the release said.

James Gill, then a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, wasn’t nearly as charitable. As only he can, Gill noted that Edmonson had exonerated and reinstated Browning even before Street’s investigation was complete. Then came Gill’s zinger: “Perhaps Edmonson forgot that he had claimed Browning’s resignation had nothing to do with the allegations against him.” http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2012/05/battle_over_funding_for_louisi.html

Gill quoted Harrison as claiming that he had thought for two years that Louisiana did not need an inspector general. “Anyone but a politician would be carted off to the funny farm for saying that,” he wrote, adding that despite Harrison’s claim that his amendment had nothing to do with Browning, he launched into “a passionate denunciation of the inspector general’s office over its treatment of browning.” Gill quoted Harrison as saying no good investigator “would bring it (the investigation) to this point without verifying information.”

“Even a politician deserves a trip to the funny farm for spouting such nonsense,” said Gill at his derisive best.

But even more to the point, Gill observed that “Since Browning has already been returned to duty, it may not matter much what conclusions the inspector general reaches.”

May not indeed. This administration is, after all, the gold standard of ethics.

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

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

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

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

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

To accomplish this, we need your help.

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

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Capital News Service/LouisianaVoice

P.O. Box 922

Denham Springs, Louisiana 70727-0922

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Never let it be said that LouisianaVoice isn’t willing to save the state a little money.

Remember that survey of Division of Administration (DOA) employees that revealed severe morale problems throughout state government? Well, in case you don’t, here’s the link to our story on that survey: http://louisianavoice.com/2014/10/02/employee-survey-of-doa-employees-reveals-simmering-morale-problem-no-one-more-popular-than-jindal-in-poll/

It turns out the state shelled out $25,000 to IBM for that survey that showed employees simply are not happy with the administration, scoring it abysmally low in trust, employee recognition, senior leadership values, communication from management, senior leadership vision, opportunity for advancement, employee involvement in decision making, and prospects for positive change.

Basically, the survey showed that state leadership languishes far below the national norm. In a word, it sucks.

But $25,000 to learn that? We could have told the administration that for…oh say, $5.

So who authorized the expenditure of scarce state funds for such a worthless piece of research when the conclusions were long evident to state employees and certainly should have been to the administration?

Well, it turns out that Deputy Commissioner of Administration Ruth Johnson signed off on the contract with IBM on June 24.

Johnson, you might recall, retired on June 21, 2012, from her $130,000 per year job as head of the Department of Children and Family services. She moved out of state but returned on May 27, 2013, as Director of Accountability and Research for DOA at $150,000 and less than four months later, on Sept. 30, 2013, was promoted to Assistant Commissioner at $170,000 per year. As if that were not enough, on Feb. 24 of this year, she was again promoted to the title of Director in the governor’s office at $180,000. Bottom line: in just 16 months, she retired and returned, netting in the process a pay increase of $50,000 per year—more than the average state employee makes in a year.

That will do wonders for employee morale.

LouisianaVoice made a public records request on Oct. 3 for the request for proposals (RFP), the contract and payment history for the survey contract with IBM.

On Oct. 6, DOA responded to our request:

  • Your public records request, dated October 3, 2014, was received by the Division of Administration. We are conducting a search for records.  Once the search is finished, the records will be reviewed for privileges and exemptions.  We will contact you as soon as the review is completed.

Three weeks later, on Oct. 24, DOA finally complied with a six-page document. Apparently, there was no RFP for a vendor—just a sketchy six-page document and even more significant, there were no redactions, no privileges or exemptions. There was only a delay of three full weeks—14 working days—in complying with our request.

Louisiana Revised Statute 44:1 says:

  • All books, records, writings, accounts, letters and letter books, maps, drawings, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings, memoranda, and papers, and all copies, duplicates, photographs, including microfilm, or other reproductions thereof, or any other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, including information contained in electronic data processing equipment, having been used, being in use, or prepared, possessed, or retained for use in the conduct, transaction, or performance of any business, transaction, work, duty, or function which was conducted, transacted, or performed by or under the authority of the constitution or laws of this state, or by or under the authority of any ordinance, regulation, mandate, or order of any public body or concerning the receipt or payment of any money received or paid by or under the authority of the constitution or the laws of this state, are “public records.”

Louisiana Revised Statute 44:33 says:

  • If the public record applied for is immediately available, because of its not being in active use at the time of the application, the public record shall be immediately presented to the authorized person applying for it.  If the public record applied for is not immediately available, because of its being in active use at the time of the application, the custodian shall promptly certify this in writing to the applicant, and in his certificate shall fix a day and hour within three days, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays, for the exercise of the right granted by this Chapter.

Louisiana Revised Statute 44:37 says:

  • Any person having custody or control of a public record, who violates any of the provisions of this Chapter, or any person not having such custody or control who by any conspiracy, understanding or cooperation with any other person hinders or attempts to hinder the inspection of any public records declared by this Chapter to be subject to inspection, shall upon first conviction be fined not less than one hundred dollars, and not more than one thousand dollars, or shall be imprisoned for not less than one month, nor more than six months.  Upon any subsequent conviction he shall be fined not less than two hundred fifty dollars, and not more than two thousand dollars, or imprisoned for not less than two months, nor more than six months, or both.

Meanwhile, LouisianaVoice has learned that DOA has launched an intensive witch hunt for our source on the employee satisfaction survey, which apparently was supposed to be a closely-guarded state secret. And while we really hate to even let them know this and spoil the fun, the funniest thing is they are so far off base in their search. They don’t have the foggiest idea that our sources are not even in a single building; they’re scattered throughout state government because apparently state employees place more trust in what we write than what the administration says.

So guys, have fun in your search because every time you think you’ve found one, three more pop up. You can’t stop the truth. Hell, you can’t even slow it down.

Given the results of the survey, it’s easy to understand why DOA wanted to keep the survey from public view. What’s not so easy to comprehend is why the Jindal administration is so hell-bent on keeping everything it does from public scrutiny.

We will make this observation, however: When an administration goes to such great lengths to shield its actions from public view and when that same administration expends an inordinate amount of time and effort in attempting to determine the source of leaks of such benign, non-sensitive information as a simple employee survey, one can only deduce that administration has far more to hide than a simple satisfaction survey.

And paranoia, it seems, feeds upon itself.

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In reading Destiny’s Anvil, a novel about Louisiana politics by New Orleans writer Steven Wells Hicks, one sentence near the end of the story was so profound that it jumped off the page at us:

  • The responsibility for building and maintaining our way of open and honest government belongs in the hands of those who elect our leaders and not the leaders themselves.

The very simplicity of that one sentence, so succinct and straightforward a summation of what our government should aspire to, should be the credo which dictates the acceptance of every campaign contribution, every promise made and every action carried out by every elected official in America.

Sadly, it does not. And most certainly, it does not in Louisiana, especially where generous donors to the campaigns of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Florida, R-Anywhere by Louisiana) are concerned.

LouisianaVoice has learned that one major donor and its principals not only benefitted from several contracts worth more than $240 million, but also appear to have been given preferable treatment in the purchase of a state building at a bargain price at the expense of taxpayers.

The electorate of this state has capitulated in that responsibility, choosing instead to acquiesce to backroom deals fueled by campaign contributions and to actions concealed in secrecy and carried out for political expedience or personal gain instead of for the common good of the citizenry.

Remember last month when we wrote that Timmy Teepell in 2010 issued a directive to Tommy Teague, then the CEO of the Office of Group Benefits that a request for proposals (RFP) be crafted in such a way as to favor a specific vendor and that then-Commissioner of Administration Angéle Davis resigned shortly thereafter?

At the time, Teepell was Jindal’s Chief of Staff. The RFP was for vendors to provide health care coverage to state workers primarily in northeast Louisiana. Vantage Health Plan of Monroe subsequently landed the 26 month, $70 million contract, effective July 1, 2010. Six months later, on Jan. 1, 2011, a second one-year contract of $14 million awarded to Vantage to provide a Medicare Advantage plan for eligible OGB retirees and on Sept. 1, 2012, Vantage received yet another four-month $10 million contract under an emergency rule to provide an HMO plan to OGB members.

Since Jindal took office in January of 2008, Vantage has been awarded six contracts totaling nearly $242 million.

In addition to the claim of the 2010 directive to Teague to “write a tightly-written” RFP, LouisianaVoice has learned the Jindal administration may have deliberately circumvented the usual procedure for selling state property in order that Vantage could purchase a six-story state office building in Monroe last year.

By legislative fiat, the administration was within its legal rights to sell the State Office Building in Monroe to a chosen buyer without going through the bid process but it may have done so at a cost to state taxpayers.

Senate Bill 216 of 2013 by Sens. Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe), Rick Gallot (D-Ruston), Neil Riser (R-Columbia) and Francis Thompson (D-Delhi) passed overwhelming in both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Jindal as Act 127, clearing the way for the sale of the former Virginia Hotel at 122 St. John Street.

By law, if a legislative act is passed, the state can legally bypass the public bid process but there are several indications that the administration may well have gone out of its way to accommodate Vantage and its President, Dr. Patrick Gary Jones through the Louisiana Department of Economic Development (LED).

The cooperative endeavor agreement between Vantage and the state was executed by Vantage Executive Vice President Mike Breard and LED Undersecretary Anne Villa on Aug. 28, 2013.

Vantage paid the state $881,000 for the six-story, 100,750-square-foot building and an adjoining 39,260-square-foot lot and one-story office building. The cost breakdown was $655,000 for the hotel and $226,000 for the adjoining property.

The Virginia Hotel was constructed in 1925 at a cost of $1.6 million and underwent extensive renovations in 1969 and again in 1984, according to documents provided LouisianaVoice by DED.

But LouisianaVoice has learned that there was at least one other potential buyer interested in the Virginia Hotel/State Office Building and indeed, documents obtained from LED contained no fewer than three references to fears by Vantage officers that if the building were put up for public auction, the bids might make the costs prohibitive to Vantage.

Melody Olson and husband Kim purchased the nearby Penn Hotel for $341,000 and poured $2 million into converting it into condominiums.

The late Shady Wall, a colorful state representative from Ouachita Parish, lived in the Penn’s penthouse. (Wall once wedged a pencil between a stack of books and the “yes” button at his House desk and went home for the day, officially casting “yes” votes on every matter that came up in the chamber after his departure.) The Olsons now reside in that same penthouse.

Melody Olson told LouisianaVoice that she and her husband wanted to purchase the Virginia and convert it into a boutique hotel but were never given the opportunity.

“It was sold through the Department of Economic Development and never was offered for public bid,” she said. “We never got the chance to make an offer.”

One internal LED memorandum said that Vantage Health Plan (VHP) “approached LED to help arrange the sale in order to avoid typical State surplus real property requirements of public bidding. VHP fears that public bidding would allow a developer utilizing various incentive programs to pay an above market price that VHP would find hard to match.” (Emphasis added.) IMAG0379

(CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE)

Another document appears to be an internal memorandum that provides an overview of a 2012 meeting about the sale. It indicates that LED Secretary Stephen Moret, Sen. Walsworth, LED Legislative and Congressional Liaison Mandi Mitchell and LED Director of Contract Performance Shawn Welcome were in attendance on behalf of the state and Dr. Jones and his son-in-law Michael Echols, Director of Business Development, representing Vantage.

Under a heading entitled Company Issues/Concerns there were these two notations:

  • “Developers have purchased and converted some downtown Monroe buildings into mixed use buildings (by) taking advantage of federal and state restoration tax credits.”
  • “Concern: Vantage is worried that if SB (state building) is offered through regular channels, developers using federal tax credits could outbid Vantage.” IMAG0377

(CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE)

Finally, there was a handwritten note which described another meeting on Nov. 1, 2012. Besides the notation that “Sen. Riser supports,” there was this:

  • “Problem is option of auction—if auction comes there is possibility of tax credits allowing a bidder to out-bid.”

IMAG0378

(CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE)

Finally, there was a hand-scrawled notation at the bottom of a typewritten page containing employment estimates by Vantage through 2024 which directed that an “approach” be written “specific to Vantage.”

And while Vantage repeatedly cited concerns about other potential buyers obtaining state and federal incentives which they might use to thwart their purchase plans for the building, Vantage was not shy about seeking incentives from the state for its own benefit.

Documents obtained from LED show no fewer than 20 applications or notices of applications for various state incentive programs, including Enterprise Zone, Quality Jobs Program and property tax exemptions for renovations to existing offices in Monroe or expansion into new offices in Shreveport, Mangham, West Monroe, New Orleans and even into Arkansas.

Nor were Vantage and its corporate principals shy about flashing cash for political campaign contributions.

Campaign finance records show that Vantage its affiliate, Affinity Health Group, their corporate officers and family members combined to contribute more than $100,000 to various political campaigns, including $22,000 to Jindal and $11,000 to three of the four Senators who authored the bill authorizing the sale of the Virginia Hotel to Vantage: Thompson ($5,400), Walsworth ($4,500), and Riser ($1,000.

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