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Archive for January 15th, 2013

Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell punted, Gov. Piyush Jindal wouldn’t listen and State Treasurer John Kennedy…well, he is, after all the state treasurer.

The three statewide Republican officeholders were named defendants in a lawsuit filed by two Republican state representatives on Tuesday. One of those was Cameron Henry of Metairie who Jindal had bounced from his vice-chairmanship of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in November after Henry voted for a motion by Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) that the administration opposed.

Rep. Joe Harrison also was removed from the Appropriations Committee in the showdown vote in which the administration came perilously close to losing its move to award the third party administration contract for the Office of Group Benefits.

The other plaintiff in Tuesday’s lawsuit was Rep. Kirk Talbot of River Ridge.

Reached for comment, Talbot said the suit simply seeks a declaratory judgment on three major issues with which he, Henry and other legislators disagree with Piyush.

“We are not seeking an injunction,” he said. “We’re not trying to shut state government down. We are simply seeking a ruling on the constitutionality of the governor’s submitting an executive budget with contingency revenue and the spending of one-time money on recurring expenses.”

He said last year’s budget contained contingency expenditures. “That would be, for example, the inclusion of anticipated revenue for the sale of prisons or state hospitals. If the sales don’t materialize (they didn’t in the 2011 session), then we have a problem, a financial shortfall.”

Likewise, he said the suit is also seeking a decision on the requirement under state law that the governor’s executive budget “shall not exceed the official of the Revenue Estimating Conference (REC)” estimates and also per state law, appropriations from the state general fund and dedicated funds in the final, enacted bills comprising the state budget “shall not exceed the official forecast in effect at the time the appropriations are made.”

The official revenue forecast for fiscal year 2012-2013 at the time House Bill 1 was passed, as issued by the REC on April 24, 2012, reflected just over $8.1 billion in state general fund revenue available for appropriation.

Instead, the amount actually appropriated in HB1 was $8.34 billion, thus exceeding the REC estimate and the constitutionally-mandated appropriation limit by $240 million, the suit says.

The REC is required by law to meet at least four times per year—by Oct. 15, Jan. 1, the third Monday in March and Aug. 15 subsequent to final adjournment of the regular session. State law requires the REC to establish, by Oct. 15 of each year, an official revenue forecast for the ensuing fiscal year, that runs from July 1 to the following June 30.

State law requires that legislative enactment of the state budget must conform with a subsequent revised forecast issued by the REC by the third Monday in March.

“The REC did not meet by Oct. 15, 2011, by the third Monday of 2012, by Aug. 15, 2012 after adjournment of the 2012 regular session, or by Oct. 15, 2012, as required by law,” the petition says.

The Jindal budget also included $35 million in contingency revenue from the anticipated sale of New Orleans Adolescent Hospital and HB 822 directed State Treasurer John Kennedy to transfer $35 million of the proceeds from the sale or lease of the facility to the Overcollections Fund.

After numerous delays, the Jindal administration finally released the appraisals on the hospital property in November. That appraisal showed the property worth, at most, $20.9 million.

Rep. Neil Abramson (D-New Orleans) has questioned how the Jindal administration arrived at a $35 million estimate. “I was surprised to see the money in the budget at all because that property’s in my district and no one had ever said anything to me,” he said.

Welcome to the real world, Mr. Abramson. That the way the Jindalistas do business.

“…There is no reasonable basis for expecting the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital to, in fact, sell or lease for $35 million during the 2012-2013 fiscal year,” the lawsuit said. “As such, appropriations of those funds are, in fact, prohibited contingent appropriations.”

Henry, reminded that Piyush had already demoted him once, jokingly feigned innocence at first. “This is all Talbot’s fault,” he said. “I thought I was signing up to buy Girl Scout cookies. Next thing I know, I’m a plaintiff in a lawsuit.”

He quickly turned serious, however.

“We first sought a legal opinion from the attorney general and he told us he would not render an opinion on the constitutionality because that was a matter for the courts.

Gov. Jindal forced us to do this. He thinks he is right and we think we’re right. If we are ultimately found to be right, we can avoid a repeat of the practices that have put us in such a fiscal dilemma,” he said.

The lawsuit has been assigned to 19th Judicial District Court Judge Tim Kelley who is married to Jindal’s one-time commissioner of administration Angéle Davis.

Kelley, in another lawsuit, ruled in December that Jindal’s school voucher program unconstitutionally diverted public funds to private and parochial schools. That ruling is presently under appeal.

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A wrongful arrest lawsuit filed in 8th Judicial District Court in Winnfield names as defendants a former Louisiana Wildlife Commission chairman and a Department of Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries agent but the litigation is only the latest in an ongoing dispute whose roots go far deeper into the lush pine forests of Winn, Caldwell and LaSalle parishes.

Wyndel Earl Gough (pronounced “Goff”) and Gary L. Hatten filed the lawsuit on Jan. 10, naming William “Bill” Busbice of Broussard, former chairman of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission during the administration of former Gov. Mike Foster, as one of the defendants.

Also named were Terry Carr, identified as an overseer or manager of Busbice’s Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) land, and wildlife agent Rusty Perry after Gough and Hatten were arrested by Perry in December of 2010 for illegally hunting deer on DMAP land without Busbice’s permission.

It was not until April of 2012, however, that a bill of information was issued by the district attorney charging the two with one count each. On Oct. 24, those charges were formally dismissed by the district attorney’s office.

Both Gough and Hatten deny ever having hunted on DMAP property.

Busbice began purchasing some 55,000 acres in the three parishes, mostly in Winn, after Louisiana-Pacific shut down its operations at Urania in 2002. Louisiana-Pacific initially sold the forest land to Barrs & Glawson Investments of Atlanta, GA, to Roy O. Martin Lumber Co. and to Martin-Urania Corp. for $74 million. Barrs & Glawson re-sold tracts totaling 50,383 acres in Winn, 6,068 acres in LaSalle and 4,800 in Caldwell to Six-C Properties, headed by Busbice.

Since purchasing the land, Busbice has erected eight-foot fencing around the property and constructed a hunting lodge on the land that caters to high rollers who don’t mind ponying up a few thousand dollars for the privilege to hunt deer.

Six-C subsequently donated 1,500 acres of the land to Make A Wish Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to granting wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions.

Additional property owners in the area, including other members of the Gough family, claim that Busbice’s fencing in 55,000 acres in the three parishes, mostly in Winn, has deprived them of their hunting rights.

One of those, Michael Atkins, sued Busbice and his company, Six-C Properties, after Busbice erected a fence completely surrounding 10 acres of land owned by Atkins. His lawsuit, which he won at the trial court level but which was overturned in part on appeal, contended that the fence not only prevented him from hunting but also blocked access to his property.

The latest lawsuit, however, goes back more than a decade and involves principals other than Busbice and the two plaintiffs.

Names that have surfaced in what has become a conspiracy-laden story include imprisoned former Winn Parish Tax Assessor A.D. “Bodie” Little, former Gov. Mike Foster and former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Landowners, including the Goughs, maintain that Foster hosted Cheney on a hunting trip in 2002 and shortly afterwards a federal grant came through Foster’s administration which was used to purchase the land which eventually came under the control of Busbice and Six-C.

Efforts by LouisianaVoice to confirm that allegation have been unsuccessful, though an entry of more than $87.86 million was included on page 29 in Foster’s fiscal year 2003-2004 executive budget under the column heading of Federal Funds.

Marty Milner, fiscal officer for the Office of Facility Planning and Control, said in a 2008 email to investigator Art Walker that he had found the $87.86 million but some projects were funded through the Department of the Military and the Department of Transportation and Development but his office did not handle the accounting for those departments. Accordingly, he said, he was unable to determine the disposition of the money.

Michael Gough, one of the landowners in the area, likened the Six-C hunting camp to the state’s arrangement with the White Lake Preservation in Vermilion Parish. In that case, BP donated the 71,000-acre preserve to the state but retained mineral rights on the property—and received millions of dollars in tax breaks.

Foster, governor at the time, negotiated the deal with BP and subsequently appointed a board comprised of private citizens to manage the property.

Another controversy surrounding the Six-C property arose in 2008 when a group of Winn Parish taxpayers filed suit against then-assessor Bodie, claiming that the increase in their taxes was a direct result of their opposition to Bodie’s election as sheriff.

Bodie was sentenced to a 13-year federal prison term last August for drug possession with intent to distribute.

An Alexandria Town Talk investigation revealed that several of Bodie’s friends benefitted from under-assessments. Among those was Six-C, which was the beneficiary of an assessment that was $351,800 low, according to one local resident.

Under the $20 per acre forestland value, Six-C was billed $98,601 on its Winn Parish properties, then consisting of 31,600 acres. Winn Parish resident Grady McFarland, however, said Six-C should have paid taxes based on an $88.90 per acre value, or $450,410.

Almost as an afterthought to the whole affair, Glenn Austin, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, accompanied Michael Gough on a tour of several locations around the boundary of Six-C property to inspect where “flood flaps,” made from old conveyor belts, were stretched across the bottom of the fence where it crossed streams and creeks in the area.

The flaps, installed to prevent wildlife from escaping, impeded the water flow, causing flooding and erosion. “There was sediment deposited within the channel banks at almost every location,” Austin said. “This increase in sediment load and increased turbidity in the water channels could be degrading the water quality” within the streams, he added.

Austin told Gough that if the area was deemed to be a wetland, then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have regulatory authority over the area.

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