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Archive for the ‘Transparency’ Category

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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Call it what you will—strong-armed politics, intimidation, extortion, blackmail or bribery—the result is the same: the fix appears to be in on the administration’s claim of a $178.5 million budget surplus developed by a “new and improved” accounting procedure.

Except the numbers don’t seem to add up to a surplus, but rather the possibility of an even greater deficit that first indicated by State Treasurer John Kennedy.

LouisianaVoice has learned that the $320 million in mystery money suddenly discovered by the administration and trumpeted by Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols may actually be $500 million or more. But even that may be suspect in the way it affects whether or not there is an actual surplus or in reality, a deficit.

As an indication that the administration was taking care of business, LouisianaVoice also learned that members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB) had been called in by the governor’s office in groups of two and three over the past several days for “come to Jesus” meetings in order to dissipate opposition to the administration before it can develop.

In those meetings, committee members supposedly were not-so-subtly reminded of pending capital outlay projects in their respective districts that could sudden be placed in peril should the wrong questions get asked in committee.

But hey, folks, if you think the Jindal administration is the gold standard of ethics and wouldn’t really do that, you are so very wrong. Nothing that has taken place over the past six-plus years that would invalidate a comparison to Huey and Earl Long.

The circling of the wagons even went so far as JLCB Chairman Jim Fannin’s (R-Jonesboro) refusal of an otherwise routine request by one committee member to allow a fellow House member represent him as a proxy at today’s (Friday, Oct. 17) meeting in order to ensure there would be no surprises at the meeting.

Committee chairmen must approve a request from any committee member to have a non-member of that committee sit in as his or her proxy.

Even the meeting itself appeared to be a sham. When the committee convened at 9 a.m. Friday, Fannin announced he would not take up the issue over the budget surplus/deficit until the legislative auditor could provide a report on the financial picture.

It is extremely rare for a committee chairman to deny a request for a proxy, but when Rep. James Armes (D-Leesville) asked that Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson) be allowed to sit as his proxy, Fannin refused. Efforts by LouisianaVoice to reach Havard for a comment were unsuccessful.

But if you watched any of the proceedings of the House Appropriations Committee on Sept. 25 which met to hear testimony about the proposed changes to the state’s group benefits plan, it’s easy to understand Fannin’s actions.

Fannin also chairs the Appropriations Committee and during that Sept. 25 meeting, Havard asked some pretty tough questions of Nichols and OGB CEO Susan West.

Havard probably represents more state employees as constituents in East and West Feliciana parishes than any other representative outside Baton Rouge because of the presence of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and the Louisiana War Veterans Home and East Louisiana State Hospital in Jackson. So naturally, he would be concerned about the hardship the OGB changes are going to impose on state employees and retirees.

Accordingly, it was only natural that Fannin would not want any surprises during the committee hearing which turned out to be no hearing at all so Armes’ otherwise routine proxy request was rejected out of hand.

Fannin, who several months ago, switched from Democrat to Republican and is firmly ensconced in the Jindal camp (though it’s difficult to understand why anyone would throw his lot in with this governor whose popularity in Louisiana rivals only that of President Obama—other than his apparent desperation to hang onto his chairmanship), so it’s understandable, in a quirky sort of way, that he would do the administration’s bidding.

In fact, LouisianaVoice has also learned that Fannin has a report from the administration that contains a year-by-year breakdown as to where the mystery dollars came from to make up the surprise surplus.

That report is not public and Fannin is supposedly the only legislator who is privy to its existence and its contents.

The numbers, we are told, go all the way back to 1998, during the latter part of the Mike Foster administration, instead of to 2002 as originally reported, and the money consists of self-generated funds the Foster, Blanco and Jindal administrations never recognized for appropriations.

So, when Jindal faced a real deficit at the end of the fiscal year just ended on June 30, he scraped the bottom of the barrel, figurative and literally, to come up with the funds and voila! The amount was more in the neighborhood of $500 million instead of the $360 first reported.

The problem is, however, the $500 million may have already been spent and if so, it would create an actual deficit of some $360 million instead of the $141 million initially claimed by Kennedy. And it certainly would not create a surplus.

And taking the scenario to its logical conclusion in this Alice in Wonderland world of Louisiana politics, State Treasurer John Kennedy, the one person who should be the one kept abreast of all budgetary developments, the one person responsible for accounting for every dollar spent, is being kept in the dark along with other legislators who would like to have some answers.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, instead of sitting at her desk and sniping at Kennedy for questioning her numbers, could just as easily pick up the phone and call Kennedy to invite him over, or even offer to walk across Third Street, take the elevator up to the third floor of the State Capitol, and sit down with the Treasurer and explain how the administration arrived at its numbers.

A truly transparent, ethical and accountable administration owes the citizens of this state that much at a minimum.

But don’t hold your breath.

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Editor’s note: State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite) sparred verbally with Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols and Office of Group Benefits (OGB) CEO Susan West at the Sept. 25 hearing by the House Appropriations Committee on proposed coverage plans for OGB members. Edwards, the minority leader of the House and Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, is an announced candidate for governor in 2015.  He wrote the following piece in an effort to display his frustration over his inability to obtain definitive answers or public documents and records from the administration—and to explain how the administration, as a matter of routine, conceals information from legislators.

By State Rep. John Bel Edwards

At a committee meeting convened last month to address the fiscal “emergency,” at the Office of Group Benefits, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols testified that the premium reductions in 2013 and 2014 that drained OGB’s $500 million fund balance were fiscally sound.

At that hearing, I repeatedly asked if OGB’s actuary – Buck Consultants – had recommended those premium reductions and if they recommended reducing the fund balance. Nichols and an OGB CEO Susan West repeatedly refused to answer. I, along with other legislators at the hearing, asked for copies of Buck Consultants’ recommendations.

Weeks later and I’m still waiting for those reports.

What I do have is an email from Buck Consultants to the OGB CEO that clearly states: “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.”

Of course the actuary did not recommend cutting premiums by almost 9 % while health care costs are rising by 6% a year. The consultants knew that would be irresponsible and cause claims payments to greatly exceed premium revenue and drain OGB’s fund balance.

Clearly, the OGB premium reductions that ran the fund balance into the ditch were not actuarially driven. Those premium reductions were driven by the Jindal administration’s desire to spend OGB’s fund balance elsewhere in the budget. When OGB reduced premiums, 75% of the savings went to the state and the Jindal administration was able to spend that money wherever they wanted.

Now that the fund balance is drained and still hemorrhaging at the rate of $16 million a month, the Jindal administration called this self-inflicted wound an “emergency” and proposed raising costs to OGB members – those working and those retired – by $189 million. These higher out-of-pocket expenses will not be shared by the state.

Our state workers, school teachers, support workers, and university staff and faculty and retirees cannot afford this. They do not deserve this. About 25,000 of our retired OGB members are not eligible for Medicare, and many active OGB members bring home as little as $700 per month.

I asked the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion about the legality of Jindal’s effort to unilaterally impose new plans with the exorbitant out of pocket cost increases on workers and retirees. The attorney general’s opinion shows Jindal failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act.

This entire debacle has thankfully been slowed down to ensure public notice, public input and legislative oversight as legally required. It is critically important that the administration act in good faith and genuinely consider the testimony and the plight of affected OGB members as well as its own culpability in needlessly causing the “emergency.”

The Jindal administration must honestly answer subsequent inquiries from the public and from legislators and seek ways to lessen the impact to OGB members. The administration must ditch the ill-conceived plan changes and start from scratch with a willingness to increase premiums reasonably and share in the costs of restoring the soundness of OGB.

The recently discovered $178.5M surplus provides the means to both shore up the fund balance and reduce the cost increases on OGB members. The illegal cost increase forced on OGB members in August must be refunded without forcing members to formally request or sue for the refund.

The legislature must finally assert itself as an independent and equal branch of government to provide exactly the kind of check and balance on the Jindal administration provided by the Louisiana Constitution and demanded by the people of Louisiana. We now have this opportunity as there will be legislative oversight hearings on both the emergency and ordinary rules. We must rise to the occasion.

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            The scene is a cheesy carnival with a sleazy barker trying to coax indifferent passersby into a tent sideshow that is certain to be equal parts hype and fraudulence. You can almost hear his voice as he drones:

            “Step right up folks and see the Amazing Jindini perform his astounding, incredible, UNBELIEVABLE escapes from the perils of political reality! You won’t believe your eyes!

            “Watch and don’t dare blink as his lovely assistant, Kristy, the glib but treacherous attack lady, maneuvers Jindini into inescapable positions right here in Louisiana only to see him emerge, smiling and unruffled, somewhere in Iowa. Or will it be New Hampshire, or maybe on Fox News or even in a Washington Post op-ed?

            “And if this political life-threatening feat should somehow go wrong, if the magically transcendent budgetary numbers don’t add up, hold your breath because Kristy will find a way to blame the whole thing on Jindini’s evil nemesis John Kennedy.

            “It’s implausible, it’s dumbfounding, it’s far-fetched, but ladies and gentlemen, it’s everything you could ever imagine—and then some—in the fantasy world of the Great Jindini: deception, misdirection, transference of responsibility, denial, obfuscation. Political contributions become political favors right before your very eyes. Step right up, folks! You don’t want to miss the Amazing Jindini.”

Such is the descent into the cheap theatrics of political rhetoric and finger-pointing from the Jindal administration these days as Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Anywhere but Louisiana), through Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, attempts to deflect the blame for fiscal recklessness onto State Treasurer John Kennedy—or anyone else who dares get in the way.

The latest twist in what is the ongoing soap opera of the Jindal administration, Nichols has claimed that a $178.5 million year-end surplus has suddenly materialized, seemingly out of nothing more than the sheer will of Jindal to appear as a fiscal guru in his tragicomic pursuit of the White House.

LouisianaVoice, meanwhile, has learned that a national bond rating company isn’t buying into the rosy fiscal picture painted by the Division of Administration (D)A) and in fact, feels that by all previous measures, a budget deficit as claimed by Kennedy is the more likely scenario.

When Kennedy challenged the surplus figure, claiming instead that the state in reality had a $141 million deficit, Kristy’s vitriol was unleashed on the Treasurer in quick measure, claiming that Kennedy was responsible for “sweeping” agency funds that have not been appropriated or spent by the end of each fiscal year. She added that while the Treasury had used the money for cash flow, it never included it in the year-end report presented to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB).

Nearly seven years into Jindal’s term, Nichols opined that it was “disappointing” that Kennedy never reported these balances to the public.

That, of course, should raise the obvious question of why no one in Jindal’s cadre of sycophants has raised the issue before now.

At the same time, Nichols denied Kennedy’s claim that the administration had changed the accounting system from accrual to cash. Bear in mind, however, it was this same Nichols who told the House Appropriations Committee on Sept. 25 (just before she ducked out to take her daughter to a boy band concert in New Orleans) that it was Buck Consultants who recommended a decrease in premiums for Office of Group Benefits members when the actual report submitted by Buck did nothing of the sort.

Kennedy, for his part, released a prepared statement on Wednesday, saying that as Treasurer, he is constitutionally responsible “for the custody, investment and disbursement of state funds. It is a job that I take very seriously. At least three times a year, the Treasury sends a comprehensive report to the administration about every penny, nickel and dime in the state general fund and the Treasury is audited every year by the legislative auditor.”

Kennedy also said that as Treasurer, he is not responsible “for ensuring that the administration is truthful with legislators and the public about the amount of money that can be appropriated from the state general fund. It is the administration’s responsibility to take our reports and tell legislators and the Revenue Estimating Conference about any and all available money instead of creating a secret slush fund.”

Kennedy said it is clear that the state spent more money than it brought in during the fiscal year that ended on June 30. “We have a $141 million deficit,” he said. “It’s also clear that the administration wants to use its own secret slush fund to resolve the problem while blaming others for the mess.” He called the administration’s figures “a manufactured surplus.”

“I don’t blame them,” he added. “I wouldn’t want to be held responsible for the bad budget practices that drove the Office of Group Benefits into financial ruin, drained the Medicaid Trust Fund for the Elderly, and crippled our universities. As Treasurer, I’ll continue to be a watchdog over the people’s money.” He said if the Legislature wants him to take charge of the budget, “I am more than happy to take on those responsibilities.”

Legislators will get a chance to ask their own questions when the JLCB convenes on Friday in the Capitol.

Meanwhile, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said there no way of knowing if the administration’s claim of a $178 million surplus is valid until a thorough audit has been conducted.

“This is a different way of looking at what is surplus,” he said. “The bottom line is…until we have audited it, I can’t tell you if it’s a good number or bad number or what.”

In contradicting Nichol’s claim that the accounting system was changed by the administration, Purpera said the new figures represents a sudden departure from the method employed since 1997. “This is not the way they have calculated it before,” he said.

Even the administration could not verify the source of the surplus, saying only that it was “not exactly clear, but we are confident it is there,” according to DOA communications director Meghan Parrish.

Jindal desperately needs to avoid the prospect of a budget deficit if he is to continue his quest for the presidency. A budget hole at this juncture would severely wound, perhaps mortally, his oft-repeated claim that he has balanced the Louisiana budget every year of his administration.

That threat alone would go far in explaining the administration’s sudden frenzy in spinning a favorable fiscal tale contrived to propel him into the White House via fantasy land—or Iowa or New Hampshire.

Just another day in the wacky world of Jindini escapism, folks.

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When Jeff Skilling took over as President and Chief Operating Officer of Enron in June of 1990, he did so only after insisting that the company convert from conventional accounting principles to a method preferred by his former employer, McKinsey & Co.

In 2001, hedge fund manager Richard Grubman said to Skilling, “You are the only financial institution that can’t produce a balance sheet or cash flow statement with their earnings.” By October of that same year, Enron had begun its death spiral in a historic collapse that would pull the giant accounting firm Arthur Andersen down with it.

The key to Enron’s failure was the mark-to-market accounting method, where anticipated revenues and profits are entered into the company’s books before they are ever received. The system allowed Enron to conceal losses and to inflate profits for nearly 11 years before its house of cards came crashing down.

On Thursday (Oct. 8), nearly seven years into his administration, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Anywhere but Louisiana) rolled out a new accounting formula with an alarmingly familiar ring to it.

Jindal, like Skilling, is a McKinsey alumnus.

Commissioner of Administration/Surrogate Gov. Kristy Kreme Nichols announced that the state, instead of having a deficit of $141 million as claimed by State Treasurer John Kennedy, will suddenly have a surplus of $178.5 million, a gaping difference of $319.5 million.

Nichols did not reveal how the $178.5 million was arrived at but Kennedy said the administration is switching to a cash balance form of accounting instead of the modified accrual basis employed by state governments. “If we use the methodology we have always used,” he said, “we don’t have a surplus. We have a $141 million deficit.

“The commissioner says the calculation has been inaccurate for years and it needs to be changed,” he said. “They have to explain why we have been doing it wrong all these years and why the Revenue Estimating Conference is doing it wrong.”

Nichols, an appointed state employee, was less than deferential to Kennedy, a statewide elected official when she sniped back at Kennedy, saying, “I’m surprised the treasurer is not reporting this.” She added that Kennedy is obligated to report available revenue. “He should probably do a review of the accounts to ensure there are no more outstanding revenues he is not reporting.”

Kennedy and Jindal have been at odds for years over fiscal policy, so it was no surprise to see Kristy Kreme, with her super-sized ego, get a little mouthy with the state treasurer. After all, she bolted from a House Appropriations Committee hearing on the Office of Group Benefits on Sept. 25 to take her daughter to a One Direction boy band concert at the New Orleans Smoothie King Arena where she watched from the comfort of Jindal’s executive suite.

Just as Enron misrepresented its finances for years, it now appears that the Jindal administration may be attempting the same tactic, prompting one political observer to say, “If cooking the books isn’t malfeasance, what is? The bond rating agencies and others rely on the CAFR (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report), where the year-end position is officially reported in decision making and they are not going to like this.”

Another Jindal critic asked rhetorically, “What happens when a state ends a fiscal year with a deficit of $141 million but the administration of the day pretends that there is actually a surplus of $178 million? I don’t think there is any precedent for such a thing ever happening anywhere. This is starting to sound like Enron!”

Odd as it may seem to make that comparison, the similarities between Jindal and Enron run much deeper than the latest developments surrounding the new accounting methods. Here are some points about Enron lifted from The Smartest Guys in the Room: the Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (Penguin Books, 2003), a probing book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind about the failed energy company: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/113576.The_Smartest_Guys_in_the_Room

  • The Deutsche Bank once described Enron as “the industry standard for excellence.” Jindal boasted of instituting the “gold standard for ethics” in Louisiana.
  • When the chief accounting officer of Enron Wholesale expressed concern about wholesale electricity sales, she was reassigned. When another employee questioned Skilling on his claim that Enron was going to make $500 million, she was laid off that same day. When state employees or legislators complain or do not vote with the administration, they are teagued.
  • Pollster Frank Luntz said instability and chaos were defining features at Enron and the six company reorganizations in just 18 months were a “running joke” and that Enron’s lack of discipline was “destructive and demoralizing.” Jindal’s penchant for reorganization and reform has created a similar atmosphere within state government.
  • Enron sold assets and booked the one-time proceeds as recurring earnings. Nearly 40 percent of Enron’s 1998 and 1999 earnings came from sales of assets rather than from ongoing operations. Jindal over the past several years has sold state property, buildings, and entire agencies and turned state hospitals over to private entities.
  • Both Skilling and Jindal are alumni of the blue-chip consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., which wrote the Enron business plan and as far back as 1986, advised AT&T there was no future in the market for cell phones. McKinsey also was an advocate of mark-to-market accounting practices.
  • Both Skilling and Jindal thought—and think—like a consultant. Skilling felt that a business should be able to declare profits at the moment of the signing of an agreement that would earn those profits. But just because traders were reporting earnings under mark-to-market accounting, it did not necessarily follow that the money was in hand. See this link: http://theadvocate.com/news/10494146-123/jindal-budget-surplus-questioned
  • A Wall Street banker said of Skilling: “He’s either compulsively lying or he’s refusing to recognize the truth.” Another banker worried that Enron executives were not carrying out their fiduciary duties and questioned “sweetheart deals” negotiated by them.
  • Skilling believed that social policies designed to temper the markets were “wrongheaded” and counterproductive. “Wrongheaded” has been a favorite term invoked by Jindal whenever he has suffered setbacks at the hands of the courts on issues ranging from education reform to a revamp of state retirement plans.
  • When asked a question he didn’t like, Skilling, in a tactic learned from his days at McKinsey, responded by dumping “a ton of data on you.” Jindal’s one outstanding skill is to spew statistics and factoids in rapid-fire fashion that can overwhelm and confuse challengers.
  • Skilling, like Jindal, was considered brilliant and extremely articulate. He, like Jindal, always seemed to have the right answer and whenever he was asked about problems it was always someone else’s fault.
  • Skilling displayed no remorse for his own actions, nor did he have any sense that he hired the wrong people or emphasized the wrong values. (See above.)
  • Enron founder Ken Lay saw himself as a business visionary, much as Jindal portrays himself as a policy guru. Lay traveled the world to offer his wisdom on everything from energy deregulation to corporate ethics to the future of business. (Ditto)
  • At the end, Enron employees’ accounts were frozen even as top executives were walking away with fortunes.
  • Efforts by Enron and Arthur Andersen to avoid reporting $500 million in losses “only pushed the problem further off and added another tangle to the fragile web of accounting deceptions.” Do we really need to elaborate here?
  • Enron executives accepted the argument that wealth and power demanded no sense of broader responsibility which in turn led them to embrace the notion that ethical behavior requires nothing more than avoiding the explicitly illegal, that refusing to see the bad things happening in front of you makes you innocent and that telling the truth is the same thing as making sure no one can prove you lied.
  • Enron’s mission was nothing more than a cover story for massive fraud, much as Jindal’s administration is being exposed almost daily as a sham. The story of Enron, like that of Jindal, was a story of human weakness, of hubris and greed and rampant self-delusion, of ambition run amok, of a business model that didn’t work and of smart people who believed their next gamble would cover their last disaster—and most of all, of people who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—admit they were wrong.
  • Enron once aspired to be “the world’s greatest company” but rather became a symbol for all that was wrong with corporate America, exposing Lay’s flaws as a businessman that could no longer be hidden behind Enron’s impressive but misleading façade and Skilling’s glib rhetoric.
  • Despite Enron’s efforts to camouflage the truth, there was more than enough in the public record to raise the hackles of any self-respecting analyst (read: reporter). Analysts (read: reporters) are supposed to dive into a company’s financial records, examine footnotes and even elbow their way past accounting obfuscations. Their job, in short, is to analyze (re: report).

In the end, of course, Enron crumpled under the weight of its own corruption and mismanagement, destroying thousands of lives and even taking down one of the big five accounting firms in the process.

The Jindal administration with each passing day, with every revelation of some new scandal (the Edmonson Amendment, CNSI, the Murphy Painter fiasco, et al) and with each new flawed policy (the Office of Group Benefits debacle), is looking more and more like a train wreck that will adversely affect Louisiana citizens for years to come.

Just call it Enron East.

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While we have had no trouble unearthing double standards, misrepresentations, distortions and outright lies in our coverage of the Jindal administration, political campaigns often take the practice to a new level.

The mind-numbing campaign for the U.S. Senate comes to mind. At this point in the campaign, voters just wish Mary Landrieu and Bill Cassidy would both shut up and leave us alone. But those TV ads from both camps keep pounding away at us, each accusing the other of distortions, lies, misrepresentations, pro-this, and anti-that.

The comic strip Non Sequitur would well have been referencing either candidate with this submission:

nq141010[1]

Or it could have been alluding to the recently ramped-up campaign of 6th Congressional District candidate Garrett Graves, former chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) and director of the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, who only recently kicked off his media blitz.

Of course most observers are accustomed to grandiose promises.

For at least the past 20 years or so, the challenger in the Baton Rouge mayor-president’s election without fail has promised to improve public education in East Baton Rouge Parish—never mind the fact that the mayor’s office has absolutely nothing to do with the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. Zero. Zilch. They are two entirely separate political entities.

And we’re all used to congressional candidates saying they are going to fight waste, work to improve infrastructure, and vote to defend the Constitution blah, blah, blah.

But Graves has taken the rhetoric to a new extreme. He has one TV spot running on the Baton Rouge in which he says not that he will “work to” or “vote to,” but that he “will” repeal Obamacare, he “will” cut spending, he “will” stop illegal immigration, and he “will” eliminate terrorism.

Those are pretty big promises, folks, and unless he’s Clark Kent in disguise, we just can’t see how one freshman tea party congressman can impose his will on 434 other members of the House and 100 senators, not all of whom are tea partiers.

And while we are on the subject of political rhetoric, there has been much said about U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s ownership of an $800,000 home in Washington, D.C. while not owning a home outright in Louisiana (though she is part owner, along with her siblings, of her parents’ home in New Orleans).

But not a peep has been said about Graves’ 2005 purchase of a home at 210 11th Street SE in Washington, also appraised at more than $800,000. Nothing on his federal financial disclosure statement for Jan. 1, 2013 through July 15, 2014, indicates ownership of a home in Louisiana—not even part ownership of his father’s home—although he does list ownership of property in Gulf Shores, Alabama. And Graves has never been elected to any office, let alone one that demands his presence in Washington.

He apparently purchased the home during his tenure in Washington. He worked as a policy adviser to former U.S. Sen. John Breaux and U.S. Congressman Billy Tauzin and worked for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He also served as staff director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Climate Change and Impacts. http://www.epa.gov/gcertf/bios/graves.html

Apparently he liked Washington well enough to plan on returning because he did not sell the home when he grabbed onto Gov. Bobby Jindal’s coattails in 2008 to head up CPRA at $135,000 per year through 2012. His salary was bumped up to $147,300 in 2013, according to his financial disclosure records.

Even though he left the state’s employ on February 28, his financial statement indicates he still received $52,961 in salary from the state this year and another $31,346 from Evans-Graves Engineers, the firm owned by his father, John Graves.

Graves flew pretty much under the radar until he became a high-profile opponent of the lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East against 97 oil and gas companies for damage to the state’s wetlands while at the same time carping at the U.S. Coast Guard for its failure to force BP to be more responsive to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. http://theadvocate.com/home/8290180-125/graves-to-step-down-from

His opposition to the lawsuit seeking to hold big oil responsible for the damage it has done to the state’s coastline for the past century notwithstanding, the real story of Garrett Graves is the awarding of more than $130 million in government contracts to his father’s engineering firm while he was head of CPRA, which oversees such contracts.

That figure represented an 1800 percent increase over contracts awarded to Evans-Graves for all years prior to Garrett Graves’ tenure at CPRA.

Some might call this old news, given the fact that Jeremy Alford first reported on this as far back as 2008. http://www.houmatoday.com/article/20080203/news/659908125

But the practice went unabated for years after his story and even more curious, when an ethics opinion was sought as to the propriety of the contracts, it was not the Louisiana Board of Ethics that was consulted, but attorney Jimmy Faircloth.

Faircloth, who was Jindal’s first executive counsel before running unsuccessfully for the Louisiana Supreme Court, has done extensive legal work for the administration, collecting fees in excess of $1 million defending losing positions that Jindal has championed.

But his issuing an ethics opinion in the case of Evans-Graves Engineering appears to have been a conflict in itself: Faircloth at the time was the legal counsel for Evans-Graves.

“As we discussed, Governor Jindal has asked that we disclose and commit to avoiding even the appearance of conflict,” Faircloth said in his opinion. “Thus, as we agreed, out of an abundance of caution, the appropriate solution is that your father’s company not pursue an interest in or receive any state contract that involves coastal restoration, levees or hurricane protection while you serve in the administration. This would explicitly include such contracts overseen by DOTD (Department of Transportation and Development) and DNR (Department of Natural Resources).”

Even though Garrett Graves in February of 2008 agreed to cease pursuing projects that could cause a conflict of interest, Evans-Graves kept receiving lucrative contracts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, CPRA’s primary partner. And while Garrett Graves did not actually sign the contracts, his agency did set priorities for the state on corps-related work.

“I said from the beginning there was a potential conflict of interest, and apparently that fell on deaf ears,” said John Graves when the issue first arose more than six years ago. Jindal’s office professed to know nothing of the potential conflict.

And even though Garrett Graves was working for the state and his father’s company was receiving millions of dollars in contracts with the Corps of Engineers through Garrett Graves’ agency, Garrett Graves was given a Toyota Tundra truck by the elder graves in 2009, a clear violation of state ethics rules against state employees accepting gifts from vendors.

And while Evans-Graves was receiving millions of dollars in CPRA-approved contracts with the Corps of Engineers, Evans-Graves was subcontracting nearly $66.5 million in work to 18 construction and contract companies, compared to only $3.5 million prior to Garrett Graves’ appointment. Those 18 subcontractors have combined to contribute more than $250,000 to Graves’ congressional campaign.

Additionally, 11 of those 18 companies, along with corporate officers and family members, have combined to contribute nearly $316,000 to various political campaigns of Jindal.

Here is the list of subcontractors and the amounts they and/or their corporate officers and families contributed to Jindal:

  • Daybrook Fisheries—$1,000;
  • Industrial Specialty Contractors—$29,500;
  • Bollinger Shipyards—$65,850;
  • Major Equipment and Remediation—$50,000;
  • Arkel Constructors—$4,500;
  • Delta Launch Services—$11,000;
  • Cajun Constructors—$52,000;
  • Coastal Environments—$30,500;
  • Performance Contractors—$41,500;
  • H. Fenstermaker & Associates—$20,500;

JNB Operating—$5,000.

And now Garrett Graves just wants to move back into his $800,000 home in D.C.

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