You’d think that John White would’ve learned from others’ mistakes.
He is, after all, the Louisiana Superintendent of Education and one of the definitions of education is the act or process of educating or being educated, according to our handy dandy Free Online Dictionary which also defines education as the knowledge or skill obtained or developed by a learning process.
Education.com further defines education as “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.”
It was only four years ago that the news broke that Paul Vallas, White’s predecessor at the Recovery School District had taken 30 personal trips to his hometown of Chicago between 2007 and 2009 in a state-owned Dodge Durango in violation of state regulations governing use of state-owned vehicles.
He even took one of those trips to appear on a Chicago TV station to announce his intent to run for governor and while he did make the announcement, he never ran for that office. He currently is a candidate for lieutenant governor in next year’s election.
The use of the Durango for personal trips did not become public knowledge until the vehicle was involved in an accident in Chicago and the Louisiana Office of Risk Management received a claim for damages from the Department of Education (DOE). Vallas was en route to a press conference to discuss a constitutional convention for Illinois at the time of that accident.
Then-State Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek, Vallas’s superior, said he was unaware that it was against regulations for Vallas to use the state vehicle for such trips, an incredulous claim at best.
Vallas subsequently moved on to Hartford, Conn., (where he would ultimately be deemed by a state judge to be unqualified and directed out of office) and was replaced by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s choice, John White. When Pastorek was booted, White was then promoted to State Superintendent.
So, the precedent was clearly there for White to see and to learn from. Certainly he was perceptive enough to avoid that particular pitfall. Pastorek, after all, had to pony up about $4,000 (an amount that also covered $946 in fuel costs) in reimbursement to the state on Vallas’s behalf though it was never made clear why Vallas himself was not held accountable for the costs.
So White would never repeat that mistake, would he? Of course not. We’re not going to catch DOE employees running all over creation in state-owned vehicles, no siree.
That’s what Enterprise Car Rental is for.
John White’s expenditures on Enterprise rental cars make Vallas look like Ebenezer Scrooge.
Remember that Vallas accounted for an estimated $4,000 in documented personal travel in a state vehicle over a period covering nearly three years, including fuel costs.
Seven current DOE unclassified employees with combined annual salaries totaling north of $1 million have tallied more than $63,700 in car rental fees in just over a year—and that does not even include fuel.
And while state regulations stipulate that only compact or intermediate vehicles may be rented by state employees at monthly fees not to exceed $680, some employees have been cruising around town in vehicles like Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Liberty, Jeep Compass, GMC Terrain, Nissan Murano, Chevrolet Yukon, and Cadillac Escalade at monthly rentals as high as $1,450.
And with the exception of a couple of skipped months, the vehicle rentals, while charged on a monthly basis, would appear to be on a permanent basis for the employees, each of whom has been on the job for less than two years.
The records could be incomplete because LouisianaVoice initially requested the records on Oct. 18 only for the months of July 1, 2012 through Oct. 18, 2013. The records were only made available on Wednesday, Dec. 11, nearly two months after they were first requested.
State law requires that public records be produced on demand unless they are unavailable. In such case, the state must respond immediately as to when the records will be available within three working days of the request.
LouisianaVoice has made a supplemental request for Enterprise car rental records for each of the seven employees for their entire tenure at DOE as well as a complete record of fuel costs for the rental vehicles.
Neither White nor his Chief of Staff Kunjan Narechania responded to an email request from LouisianaVoice asking them to justify the issuance of permanent rental cars to state employees in light of the state’s ongoing budgetary problems.
Of course no story of DOE chicanery would be complete without the participation of our old friend David “Lefty” Lefkowith.
He is, as might be expected, one of the Enterprise Seven.
You will remember the ubiquitous Lefty as the motivational speaker who worked with pre-collapse Enron and Jeb Bush’s administration in an ambitious but unsuccessful effort to corner the market on drinking water in the state of Florida.
He next showed up first as a contract worker for DOE and then as the head of the Office of Portfolio for the department at $146,000 per year. He currently works with the department’s course choice program which has had its own image problems.
Despite Jindal’s oft-proclaimed goal of keeping the best and brightest Louisiana citizens in Louisiana, the administration seems hell bent on going outside the state for its talent and Lefty is no exception. He has maintained his residence in Los Angeles and actually commutes from that city to his day job at DOE. He apparently works only four days a week and heads west on Fridays and returns Sunday night or Monday morning.
Of course when he is in town he needs a vehicle to get around Baton Rouge and to take him to and from New Orleans International Airport each weekend. Records show he rents his Enterprise vehicles on a weekly basis, usually for four days at a pop (Monday through Friday) with sometimes a couple of hours extra thrown in.
Incomplete records show that he has spent about $6,000 on car rental fees (not counting fuel, of course) since Oct. 14, 2012. LouisianaVoice has requested complete records dating back to his date of employment with the department and including the cost of fuel for his vehicles.
To his credit, it should be pointed out that Lefkowith generally stuck to the compact car requisite rate of $32 per day for his rentals. On those occasions when he did upgrade, it was only to $36 per day—unlike some of his co-workers who did not appear to even attempt to stay within the state-approved rate mandates.
Following is an itemized list of the remaining six employees, number of months they have driven an Enterprise rental car, the type cars and the total cost (In some cases, the make of vehicle was not provided):
- Kerry Laster, Executive Officer ($135,000)—nine months, from Nov. 2, 2012 through Aug. 20, 2013 (no record for Feb. 9 to Mar. 4, 2013): GMC Terrain, Hyundai Tucson, Cadillac Escalade (four months), Grand Cherokee, Ford Explorer (two months)—$11,205;
- Melissa Stilley, Liaison Officer ($135,000)—12 months, from Aug. 13, 2012 to Sept. 5, 2013: Malibu, Jeep Liberty, Jeep Compass, Dodge Journey (three months), Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Edge (four months)—$13,550;
- Warren Drake, Liaison Officer ($160,000)—12 months, from Sept. 10, 2012 to Sept. 5, 2013: Honda Accord, Kia Sorento, Ford Flex, Grand Cherokee (nine months)—$8,160;
- Gayle Sloan, Liaison Officer ($160,000)—12 months, from Sept. 4, 2012, to Sept. 30, 2013 (no record for December of 2012); Chevrolet Impala (three months), Toyota Camry, Jeep Liberty (seven months), Jeep Patriot—$9,060;
- Francis Touchet, Liaison Officer ($130,000)—15 months, from July 11, 2012, to Sept. 16, 2013; Nissan Altima (two months), Nissan Murano (seven months)—$11,800;
- Gary Jones, Executive Officer ($145,000)—12 months, from Sept. 17, 2012 to Sept. 13, 2013; Nissan Sentra (nine months), Ford Fusion (three months)—$7,980.
The free use of a rental car on a year-round basis could pose another problem besides the obvious criticism that might come from the Legislative Auditor.
These Enterprise rentals are not the occasional rentals for quick one- or two-day trips on departmental business; they are perks by every definition of the word—used year-round, nights and weekends, for personal use as well as the occasional business-related trip.
And perks are taxable in-kind income.
Or at least they should be…unless DOE neglected to report the in-kind payments and the employees neglected to report them on their tax returns.
If that is the case, then DOE and the seven employees could have some explaining to do to the IRS and the Louisiana Department of Revenue, that is if Revenue Secretary Tim Barfield should be inclined to pursue the matter.
But don’t count on that.