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Archive for January, 2014

What do Louisiana and New Jersey have in common besides having governors who yearn to be president and who share the character traits of a bully who will seek vengeance against perceived opponents and throw subordinates under the bus?

No, it’s not that the governors are the back-to-back chairmen of the Republican Governors Association or that neither one looks very good in a suit, though those would be good guesses.

Try what the Wall Street Journal calls cronyism and contract abuse.

Accounts of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s questionable contracts and nefarious deals are fast approaching the status of legendary, from the giveaway of LSU hospitals, to the CNSI debacle; from Magellan to Alvarez and Marsal; from the SAS Institute contract by the director of the Office of Workers Compensation three weeks before his resignation and the subsequent hiring of that same director by SAS to several contracts with IT firms that have experienced major problems in other states and in some cases, had those contracts cancelled after repeated delays and cost overruns. There are others but the list quickly becomes tedious.

And now both MSNBC and the Wall Street Journal have begun focusing attention on a Louisiana firm with more than $200 million in contracts with both the Chris Christie and Jindal administrations for federally-funded relief to hurricane victims.

Hammerman & Gainer, Inc., or HGI, of Lutcher, was awarded a $68 million contract in May of 2013 to oversee two programs distributing $780 million in federal money to Sandy victims. That contract was cancelled only six months later, on Dec. 6, 2013, because of mounting complaints about delays in processing claims. http://www.state.nj.us/treasury/purchase/noa/contracts/g8043_13-r-23132.shtml

New Jersey homeowners say they have been unable to get answers, paperwork has been misplaced and HGI employees, most of whom are temporary employees, could not be reached by phone and that the company’s recovery centers change rules midstream and that no reconstruction program grants to thousands of applicants already approved have yet been awarded.  http://www.njdems.org/cronyism_exposed_in_christie_contracts

HGI also just happens to hold a $60 million contract with the Louisiana Office of Community Development’s Disaster Recovery Unit to administer the state’s Road Home Program. That contract began on March 20, 2012, and ends on March 19, 2015. Prior to that contract, HGI had a similar contract for $83.3 million which ran from March 20, 2009 to March 19, 2012. The $83.3 million contract replaced a $912 million contract with ICF Emergency Management Services of Baton Rouge.

One must wonder just how long that Road Home is, how long will it take to disperse federal funds to begin recovery from a hurricane that occurred more than eight years ago, in 2005. Or will the program continue to languish so that firms contracted to oversee the federal grant money can extract as much money for themselves as possible?

In New Jersey, HGI hired Glenn Paulsen, former chief of the Burlington County Republicans, as its legal counsel when it submitted its bid to run the two Sandy relief programs. Paulsen’s law firm Capehart Scatchard, made a $25,000 contribution to the Republican Governors Association which Christie now heads.

In Louisiana HGI eschewed the middle man and contributed $15,000 to Jindal in three equal contributions in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The company also gave $7,500 to Robert Wooley ($2,500 in 2003 and $5,000 in 2002), $5,000 to the Republican Party of Louisiana, $5,000 in 2011, to New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin in March of 2006, only months after Hurricane Katrina, and $7,500 to his successor Mitch Landrieu in equal contributions of $2,500 in 2010, 2011 and 2012. In addition, HGI President Larry Oney gave $5,000 to Jindal’s campaign in 2008.

Two New Jersey Democratic congressmen on Wednesday called upon the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan to investigate New Jersey’s dealing with HGI. In a Jan. 29 letter to Donovan, Reps. Bill Pascrell, Jr. and Frank Pallone said, “We respectfully request that your department investigate the circumstances surrounding the termination of this contract and appoint an official within the Department of Housing and Urban Development to independently monitor New Jersey’s usage of (Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery) funds.”

Their letter said there had been a “lack of transparency” with the selection criteria and distribution process of CDBG-DR funded programs administered by HGI.

http://www.ahherald.com/newsbrief/monmouth-news/16943-pascrell,-pallone-call-for-federal-investigation-into-handling-of-sandy-recovery-funds

In Louisiana, no one has requested a federal investigation…yet, but the Legislative Auditor’s review of 24 loans to property owners through the state’s Small Rental Property Program has indicated that the state could be on the hook for at least $116 million and possibly as much as $600 million in improperly received or misspent disaster aid following Katrina and Rita. http://app1.lla.state.la.us/PublicReports.nsf/830C07388A1CA59886257B49006AE5FE/$FILE/00031C15.pdf

So perhaps John McCain was correct in hyping a ticket of Christie-Jindal to head the GOP presidential ticket in 2016. The way each has managed federal hurricane recovery funds makes them perfect for the Republican Party.

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The latter part of January 2014 should probably be remembered when the policies of Gov. Bobby Jindal began to unravel in rapid succession and as a time when he was finally exposed as far more goobernatoral than gubernatorial.

If that seems harsh and disrespectful of the man and the office, then so be it; it’s only because he has earned it—in spades.

He has submitted executive budget after executive budget crafted around one-time funding for recurring expenditures—something he vowed never to do when he was running for office. He has sold off state property and entire agencies to finance those budgets. He has gone on a privatization rampage that is now coming home to bite him in the posterior, to the surprise of few observers. He has stacked board after commission with campaign lackeys who possess few, if any, qualifications for their positions of responsibility for running such things as the state’s flagship university. He has embarked on an ambitious quest for the Republic presidential nomination that is doomed to failure and disappointment.

That said, let’s examine the developments of the past few days that have converged to upset the house of cards upon which his administration has been built over the past six years:

  • The Office of Group Benefits (OGB) was privatized only a year ago. In that time, some 100 state employees lost their jobs, a $500 million reserve fund has dwindled to half that because of an ill-advised decision by Jindal to reduce premiums to some 250,000 state employees, dependents and retirees by 7 percent to make the privatization more palatable—and to reduce the state’s share of premium payments thereby helping Jindal balance his budget. Meanwhile, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana, the third party administrator who assumed management of OGB as a “cost savings plan” was forced to draw down that cash reserve to pay claims.

The folly of that ploy, of course, manifested itself this week when it was learned that double digit (some say as much as 25 percent) premium increases are imminent in order to keep what was once arguably the best-run agency in state government afloat. Meanwhile, yet another CEO has departed and the fourth in less than three years has been ushered in.

  • The crash and burn disaster of the administration’s privatization of the LSU hospital system is even more dramatic. The Biomedical Research Foundation of Northwest Louisiana (BRF) took over the LSU Medical Center in Shreveport and E.A. Conway Medical Center in Shreveport last October because Jindal assured us that it would save taxpayer dollars. Yet, less than four months after BRF assumed operation of the two facilities, it is asking the state to bankroll more than $120 million in hospital improvements and expansions.

And don’t forget this privatization deal was approved by the LSU Board of Stuporvisors. One of the board members who voted for the deal which at the time, included a contract with more than 50 blank pages, just also happens to be the CEO of BRF but Jindal pooh-poohed the very idea that there could be a conflict of interests.

  • Another hospital privatization, that of the Interim Louisiana Hospital which replaced the old Big Charity that was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, is also proving to be a tad more costly than we had been told by Jindal, thanks to the scrapping of a $46.5 million medical records system that is less than two years old.

On Friday, Jan. 24, ILH CEO Cindy Nuesslein notified employees of the one-time LSU Medical Center now jointly run by Children’s Hospital of New Orleans and Touro Infirmary that the electronic health record system installed by Epic Systems Corp. was being scrapped in favor of something called the Soarian Clinicals Siemens platform. No cost estimate was provided for the changeover, but it’s a good bet that the cost will be borne by the state.

The Epic system only went live in July of 2012 and the Epic contract, which began on May 18, 2010, expired on May 17, 2013.

  • When Jindal privatized the University Medical Center in Lafayette, he also closed the medical center’s First Step Detox, a “first step” treatment center for those suffering from chemical dependency—typically chronic alcoholics, IV heroin and/or other opiate abusers, including polysubstance abusers. When First Step Detox reopened, it sublet the center to Compass, a private entity that accepts only private pay and insured patients.

The news release announcing the reopening of First Step made no mention of the new admission policy, nor did it mention the ever-shrinking number of options for treatment for indigent patients. Now former patients are referred to the overburdened Baton Rouge Detox where they are instructed to fax their paperwork in order that they may be placed on a long waiting list.

  • Another private contractor with four contracts worth more than $385.5 million has been the subject of two critical audits by the Legislative Auditor’s Office. Moreover, a north Louisiana doctor claims that physicians are refusing to accept patients with Magellan insurance.

The first state audit, released in mid-December, says that the Department of Health and Hospitals provided no external evaluation of the performance of Magellan under its $361.4 million contract to handle paperwork and connect Medicaid 151,000 patients with mental health care providers.

Last August, the legislative auditor’s office said claims payments have been problematic for four state agencies and blamed Magellan for failing to meet significant technical requirements.

DHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert disputed that claim, saying that the privatization is working. She said the number of health care providers has expanded from 800 to 1,700—a claim hotly disputed by Scott Zentner, a Monroe neuropsychiatric doctor.

“I wish I could get to the bottom of Kliebert’s phony numbers regarding the supposed increase in providers since the Magellan takeover because the evidence is clearly to the contrary,” Zentner said. “I would bet my medical license that people are being counted now (that) weren’t before.”

Zentner said Magellan’s contract extends to private and public providers in a number of treatment settings. “Previously, they (providers) were reimbursed by fee for contracted services through DHH and some were not billing Medicaid at all, such as employees with the Office of Family Support.” Now, though, providers who were already delivering services before Magellan are now being included in the count who were not before, he said.

“I find it despicable that the head of DHH is twisting the numbers to cover up for a dramatic decline in services,” he said.

Zentner retired in 2012 after 20 years that included work as a medical director and staff psychiatrist for DHH and as a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at LSU. He said he returned to private practice after being “unable to further tolerate Jindal’s dismantling of our mental health system.”

He said he accepts all private insurances now except Magellan after “having been burned by them in the past for unpaid claims. They are the ultimate master in the use of passive-aggressive stall tactics in denying payments to providers, typically for silly technicalities; eg, misspellings resulting from typos.”

“In the northeast region of the state, with Monroe as the center of a 12-parish district, 75 percent of the physician/psychiatrist coverage has abandoned the community mental health system since Jindal took office,” he said. “Several Medicaid rehab agencies have shuttered their doors, one mental health clinic has closed in Rayville and others, including those in Winnsboro and Jonesboro, have been reduced to part-time outreach clinics operated by skeleton crews. Other outreach clinics, providing the most basic of mental health services, have closed in Tensas and East Carroll parishes,” he said.

“Other regions in the state have experienced even greater cuts than ours, but I doubt any of the regional administrators who are still employed would admit this publicly lest they be fired by Jindal.

“I’m highly skeptical of their (DHH) claims that provider rolls have increased, as (their figures) grossly contrast with reality,” he said.

The second audit was of the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) and cited the office for its failure to develop a plan to monitor OJJ contracts managed by Magellan.

Magellan has a $22.4 million two-year contract with the Department of Children and Family Services also scheduled to expire on Feb. 28.

That contract calls on Magellan to provide an array of coordinated community-based services “for children and youth with behavioral health disorders and their families that risk out of home placement.”

Magellan’s contract calls for it to take over management beginning Jan. 1, 2013, at Harmony Center-Camellia Group Home in Baton Rouge, Boys and Girls Villages in Lake Charles, Boys Town of Louisiana (two facilities, in New Orleans and Baton Rouge), Harmony Center-Harmony III Group Home in Baton Rouge, and Allen’s Consultation, Inc., in Baton Rouge.

The contract requires that Magellan submit a written report detailing its progress to OJJ every six months but as of December 2013, OJJ had not received any such report documenting use of contract funds or of meeting specific goals of the contract.

  • Finally, in what is probably the most heartless, most ungrateful act yet by this administration, Jindal last week ordered the Louisiana National Guard (LNG) not to process any benefits for gay veterans on state property—in open defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. Apparently Jindal based his position on some state’s rights legal opinion which he feels gave him the leverage needed to deny benefits on state property. It looks to us like more work for Jimmy Faircloth to try and defend another administration policy of questionable legal merit.

What makes this order so egregious is the blatant flag waving hypocrisy in which Jindal envelopes himself.

This is the same governor who, in a great show of his patriotism for the benefit of newspaper photographers and television cameras, traveled all over this state to hand out those appreciation medals to military veterans. The bill to award the medals was passed in the belief that legislators would benefit from the goodwill but Jindal stole that opportunity from under their collective noses with his shameless traveling awards show, denying lawmakers the chance to get in on the act. (Just for the record, as a matter of principle, I chose not to stand in line to have him present my medal nor did I apply for it to be mailed to me even though I served.)

Moreover, as thousands of Louisiana guardsmen were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade or so, never once do I remember anyone in this administration inquiring if anyone being placed in harm’s way for his or her country was gay. Apparently it’s perfectly okay to get shot or blown up by a roadside IED if you’re gay but if you’re lucky enough to survive, don’t bother coming home and applying for benefits.

Never, in my 70 years, have I witnessed an act so gutless, so callused. To hide behind the flag and to call oneself a Christian and a patriot while at the same time issuing such a cowardly order is beneath contempt.

It is the act of a petulant little ingrate who would defend the senseless and insensitive comments of a Phil Robertson while pretending to support the men and women who wear the uniform that he never had the courage to wear.

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The death of anti-war activist singer Pete Seeger at age 94 on Monday stirred a lot of memories among people of my generation. We bridged the gap between liking Ike and agonizing over a war in a little Asian country called Vietnam that few could locate on a map but which nonetheless drained this country of its innocence, its financial resources and worst of all, some 58,000 of her young men.

If the loss of 58,000 lives in the jungles of that country was tragic, the damage done to the psyche of the survivors who returned to an ungrateful country was worse by far. Veterans were spat upon, accused of killing babies, and even worse, denied medical and disability benefits by the Veterans Administration, a despicable act of neglect that forced thousands of our veterans into homelessness. Some thanks.

For one of the best histories of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, please read Bob Mann’s superb book A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam. It is without question the most definitive history of our most foolish, wasteful and unjust war ever written, beginning with the Truman administration and bringing us forward through Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford.

One thing that horrible war did give us, though, was some of the finest anti-war songs ever recorded, songs that our political leaders should take the time to listen to again and again whenever they consider sacrificing the lives of our young people by involving us in yet another senseless war for the benefit of the military-industrial complex about which President Eisenhower warned us as he left office more than half-a-century ago.

Seeger’s group, The Weavers, had a monster hit of Goodnight Irene, written by Shreveport’s Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. Like him or loathe him, Seeger was at the forefront of war protest music with three of his biggest songs that became hits for other artists: Peter, Paul and Mary’s If I had a Hammer (Trini Lopez’s version doesn’t even register), the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! The third, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? was recorded by many artists, including the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Johnny Rivers and Joan Baez, among others. His We Shall Overcome was not a song made famous by any one artist or group but instead was the anthem of the civil rights movement.

It was only appropriate that a host of up and coming performers would follow in Seeger’s activist footsteps in waging their campaigns against war and injustice with their music, whether classified as folk, protest or rock. Even blues singer John Lee Hooker got in on the movement with I Don’t Want to Go to Vietnam.

Bob Dylan is probably the elder statesman of the protest movement now that Seeger is gone. His songs Blowin’ in the Wind (also recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary) and The Times, they Are A-Changing define the protest songs of the 60s and 70s.

Arlo Guthrie, son of folk icon Woody Guthrie recorded Alice’s Restaurant in 1967 as an instruction manual on how to avoid the military draft and in the process, an expense paid trip to Vietnam (the secret was to get an arrest record, even for such a trifling offense as littering).

For pure, hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll protest songs, Creedence Clearwater Revival has to be considered the cream of the crop with Fortunate Son, Running through the Jungle and Have You Ever Seen the Rain?

The angriest war protest song of the entire Vietnam era was probably Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction and the most poignant had to be One Tin Soldier by The Original Caste. The lines “Go ahead and hate your neighbor/Go ahead and cheat a friend/Do it in the name of heaven/You can justify it in the end” speak as clearly to the greed and power grab mentality indicative of today’s society as it did in the 1970 movie Billy Jack.

When Bernie Taupin wrote the song Daniel, the song originally included a verse dealing with the Vietnam War but for whatever reason, the verse was removed prior to its being recorded by Elton John.

Not all songs about the Vietnam War were protest songs, of course. We will be forever stuck with super patriotic The Ballad of the Green Berets by Barry Sadler and of course there’s that butt-kicking favorite by Merle Haggard, Fightin’ Side of Me.

Johnny Cash got in on the war protest act, but he went all the way back to World War II with The Ballad of Ira Hayes, a chronicle of the exploitation of Native American Ira Hayes, one of the marines who helped raise the American flag over Iwo Jima.

My personal favorite post-Vietnam song is one called Old Hippie by the Bellamy Brothers which shares the mental anguish and disorientation suffered by Vietnam vets years after returning from the war.

Here are a few other classics and not-so-classics from America’s most unpopular war (so far). See how many you can remember:

War by Edwin Starr;

Universal Soldier by Donovan;

Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen;

For What it’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield;

Guns, Guns, Guns by The Guess Who;

I’m Your Captain by Grand Funk Railroad;

Kent State Massacre by Jack Warshaw;

Lay Down (Candles in the Rain) by Melanie;

Requiem for the Masses by The Association;

Sky Pilot by The Animals;

We Gotta Get Out of this Place by The Animals;

Bungle in the Jungle by Jethro Tull;

Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon;

Imagine by John Lennon;

Revolution by The Beatles;

Saigon by John Prine;

Shape of Things by The Yardbirds;

Paint it Black by The Rolling Stones;

Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks;

Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

There are others, of course, many others. The list is much longer and you can probably think of some that are not on this list.

But one thing is certain: Pete Seeger led the way. He was an original. All others only aspired to his ability to communicate and to channel his outrage in a song.

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“Do not ask about the law. Do not research the law.”

—Message written on a white board in a Division of Administration office.

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Did Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols violate state law when she approved an amendment to the Alvarez & Marsal (A&M)?

In May of 2011, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin (R-Jonesboro) sharply criticized the Division of Administration (DOA) for DOA’s approval of a $6.8 million contract amendment for F.A. Richard and Associates (FARA), the firm that initially took over the operations of the Office of Risk Management.

Fannin and other members of the committee were upset that DOA did not seek approval of the contract amendment from the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB).

Things got tense as Fannin tore into Assistant Commissioner of Administration Steven Procopio. “All I’m seeing here is where FARA had a $68.2 million contract that somehow went to $74.9 without anyone’s coming to the … Committee … for approval,” Fannin said.

The JLCB was the committee that approved the original $68.2 million contract the year before. “Isn’t a contract a contract?” Fannin asked.

“It is until it’s amended,” Procopio said in typical administration double-speak. “Then it’s another contract.”

It was at that point that Patti Gonzales, Assistant Risk Director for ORM stepped up to the plate to rescue Procopio before he could do any further damage.

“We are allowed one amendment up to 10 percent (of the original contract amount) without legislative approval,” she said, adding that the Office of Contractual Review approved the amendment.

Suffice it to say committee members weren’t very happy to learn that under state law, the Office of Contractual Review may approve contract amendments of up to 10 percent one time without legislative concurrence.

Fast forward to January 2014.

Nichols announced last week that the $4.2 million contract with A&M had been amended by $800,000 to a nice round $5 million.

That’s the controversial contract under which A&M is charged with finding $500 million in state savings. If the firm’s initial report is any indication, the contract is going to go pretty much the way everything else this administration has done—that is to say, bad.

But wait. An $800,000 amendment to a $4.2 million contract?

Really?

Excuse us for questioning the validity of the amendment, but according to our math, that’s a 19 percent amendment. Of course we went to public schools in Louisiana, so Jindal may be able to discredit our figures.

But wouldn’t the approval of a 19 percent amendment without concurrence from the JLCB be in violation of that obscure law?

Well, the Office of Contractual Review is required to give its stamp of approval to the amendment.

But wait. The Office of Contractual Review is part of DOA and as such, takes its marching orders from Nichols who takes her marching orders from Jindal who takes his marching orders from…Timmy/Taylor Teepell? ALEC? Bobby Brady? Pick one.

But it was clearly stated back in 2011 that the law allows a one-time 10 percent amendment to contracts without JLCB concurrence.

To paraphrase Rep. Fannin, isn’t 10 percent 10 percent?

Isn’t the law still the law?

Well, that depends.

Remember that whiteboard sign in one of the DOA offices we alluded to on Jan. 23? That’s the one that says, “Do not ask about the law. Do not research the law.” (If there is a functioning brain cell left in this administration, assuming there ever was one, that message most probably has been erased by now.)

And then there was the consultant a few years back who told DOA officials, according to sources present at the meeting, to not let the law stand in the way of the administration’s objectives.

So, what are a few percentage points among friends?

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