The Louisiana Auctioneers Licensing Board doesn’t like former board member Robert Burns. Neither does the board’s attorney, convicted felon Larry Bankston.
That’s understandable. They haven’t like him since he uncovered payroll fraud and other irregularities and was bounced off the board by Bobby Jindal, whose idea of accountability is to hold whistleblowers fully accountable. When he was shown the door, Burns began video recording board meetings. During one meeting he even captured the board’s attorney saying Jindal’s office had advised the board not to worry about a legislative auditor’s report critical of illegal payments and illegal pay raises to part time executive assistant Sandy Edmonds.
Burns can be much like a canker sore when he puts his mind to it—irritating, always there, and impossible to ignore. But there’s nothing in the state public meeting statutes that says spectators—or media—must be liked. In fact, when the media (and Burns, through his newly-launched Web blog, is a member of the media whether that fits the board’s definition or not) become too cozy with public officials, then they no longer serve their purpose as the public watchdog.
Today (Aug. 31), we received a disturbing email from Burns. The Louisiana Auctioneer Licensing Board is considering turning off and removing his video recorder if he leaves it unmanned to go to the restroom or leaves the room for any other reason. “Frequently I am the only one in attendance” at board meetings, Burns wrote. True, the Auctioneer Licensing Board flies pretty much under the radar and attracts little to no media attention other than from Burns.
“If I need to go to the restroom or something,” he continued, “I leave the video camera running while on its unipod.” (I still don’t know why he doesn’t invest in a tripod which, unlike a unipod, is free-standing, but that’s another story.)
The AGENDA released for Tuesday’s (Sept. 1) meeting contains item number 8, which says:
- Revision of Board Meeting Rules- In the event that the public videos or records the proceedings, such equipment must be manned at all times. Any equipment left unattended will be removed and turned off.
Now I am no attorney, though Mr. Bankston is, or at least he has been since he got the Louisiana Supreme Court to reinstate his licenses after his release from prison.
In 1994, then-State Sen. Bankston (D-Baton Rouge), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (appropriately enough), met in his law office with one Fred Goodson, owner of a video poker truck stop in Slidell. There followed a discussion of a plan to manipulate the legislative process so as to protect the interest of video poker companies.
And what did Bankston get as quid pro quo? Well, it seems he owned a beachfront condominium in Gulf Shores, Alabama, so Goodson agreed to pay Bankston $1,555 per month for the “non-use” lease of the condo—a bribe, as it were.
Indicted on October of 1996, he was convicted on two counts of racketeering the following year and sentenced to a 41-month sentence in federal prison and ordered to pay a $20,000 fine.
He was released on Nov. 6, 2000, and served the remainder of his term in a half-way house in Baton Rouge. He was disbarred on March 9, 2002, retroactive to Nov. 19, 1997, but on Feb. 5, 2004, with only one dissenting vote, the Supreme Court’s disciplinary committee recommended that he be re-admitted to the bar.
So today, he provides legal advice to the Auctioneer Licensing Board—a board that winks and looks the other way at payroll fraud on behalf of one of its part time employees.
“If the proposed rule passes,” Burns wrote, “the board apparently believes it has the right to ‘remove and turn off’ any video recording equipment left running. I see nothing in the statute that requires any equipment to be manned, nor do I see where they have any authority to tamper with my video equipment, much less ‘remove it.’
“This is just another effort by a public body hell-bent on deterring public transparency,” he said, adding that he was going to go on the assumption that Attorney General Buddy Caldwell “has been perfectly willing to aid and abet” in the proposed action.
Duly indignant over this flagrant violation of state law, I fired off my own email to the board which first cited the applicable state law on public meetings:
- The law grants the public the right to attend and record the deliberations of public bodies including city and parish governing bodies; school boards; levee boards; port commissions; boards of public utilities; planning, zoning and airport commissions; other state, local or special district boards, commissions or authorities with policy making, advisory or administrative functions; and committees or subcommittees of those bodies. Judicial proceedings are exempted.
After providing that remedial lesson on the law, I wrote:
I am given to understand this item is to discuss a new rule which would allow the board to turn off Mr. Burns’ video recorder should he have to leave the meeting for a few minutes for any reason. I have a problem with this and I am personally prepared to take you to court over both.
First of all, you have no right to tamper with his video equipment. It is perfectly within the law for him to record the meetings as per the section on public meetings laws highlighted above. Whether he happens to be in the room at the time or not is irrelevant. It is his equipment, not yours, and he has every right under law to record any open meeting.
Moreover, if you follow through on this action, I will pay the costs of Mr. Burns’ filing a lawsuit holding the board chairperson and its legal counsel personally liable for all applicable fines and legal costs. Mr. Burns will not only file suit for damages under the open meetings laws but for harassment and intimidation, as well.
There’s another twist in this sordid soap opera. Item 2 on the agenda calls for a discussion of Burns. He recently lost a public records lawsuit against the board, not because he was wrong in his contention, but because, in the presiding judge’s words, the office of Attorney General Buddy Caldwell gave the board bad advice.
Be that as it may, the agenda said that the discussion of Burns may require an executive session.
The only reason for an executive, or closed session is to discuss ongoing negotiations, pending litigation or personnel matters. In the case of Burns, he is not an employee of the board, so any claim of discussing personnel would be invalid as would any claim of ongoing negotiations. As for pending litigation, it is no longer pending. The ruling has been made and the case is over, so all excuses for executive session are out the window. So, if there is to be a discussion of Burns, he has every right under law to insist that all such discussion be done in open session for all (including video cameras) to see and hear. If the board does otherwise, it will be yet another claim in future litigation.
In fact, the board is now skating dangerously close to civil rights violations, which would throw any lawsuit into federal court.