Here’s a story no one saw coming:
There’s political chicanery afoot in Baton Rouge.
Okay all that was said tongue-in-cheek.
The truth is, we’ve become so inured to political sleaze in Louisiana politics that it’s become difficult to be either surprised or outraged, leaving only indifference as our emotion of choice.
All the ingredients are in place for graft, corruption, and exploitation and there are plenty of those more than willing to take advantage of the opportunity:
- A contract to manage Louisiana’s flood recovery program worth anywhere from 16 percent to 22 percent of $1.6 billion in federal funds;
- A former state senator, Larry Bankston, convicted two decades ago on two counts of racketeering who now advises the State Contractor Licensing Board that has managed to insert itself into the debate over the proposed contract;
- Claims of bid irregularities by a losing bidder;
- Support of that claim by Bankston who neglected to mention that his son worked for one of the losing bidders;
- Cancellation by the state of the $250,000 contract so that it may be re-advertised;
- A potential 2019 gubernatorial candidate questioning the propriety of Bankston’s employment by that state board;
- Up to 150,000 homes and nearly half-a-million residents affected by Louisiana floods in 2016, many of whom are still waiting for the political inertia called Restore Louisiana to start things moving so they can get back into their flooded homes.
Anytime there’s big money involved, especially federal money, the potential always exists for political and legal jockeying and manipulation. The temptation can be overwhelming.
Stephen Winham recently wrote a column for LouisianaVoice on this very subject: https://louisianavoice.com/2017/03/18/forget-blaming-fema-guest-columnist-area-reporters-correctly-place-fault-with-state-for-flood-recovery-failures/
The fact that the plight of the state’s flood victims has been obscured, seemingly forgotten, in the process of too-long delayed recovery only makes the state of affairs all the more shameful and disgusting. But when you have no voice, you are quickly forgotten in the scramble for big bucks.
And the bigger the bucks, the more greed manifests itself. And the more the greed, the less focus there is on the victims. That’s the way it’s always been and apparently that’s the way it will always be.
And hardly addressed is the issue of just what the deliverables on such a contract would be. Here we have companies crawling all over each other in order to obtain a contract which represents 20 percent of the total allocation for flood recovery.
And those companies won’t put up the first piece of drywall or sheetrock. They won’t perform any plumbing or electrical work. They won’t install any flooring or apply the first coat of paint, nor will they hammer the first nail. In short, they will do nothing meaningful toward flood recovery other than to approve payments to those who do the actual work.
But they will collect up to 20 percent of the recovery money—likely more if they can succeed at the usual practice of coming back for a contract amendment a few months down the road.
This story has received fairly significant play in the Baton Rouge area but if you’ve not kept up with The Advocate’s coverage, here’s essentially what has transpired:
A team led by IEM, a North Carolina company affiliated with several Baton Rouge engineering and consulting firms, easily had the best score—by at least 16 points—among the five teams submitting proposals and also quoted the lowest price—$250 million.
But PDRM, led by CSRS of Baton Rouge, whose bid was $65 million higher, filed an official complaint with the State Licensing Board for Contractors, pointing out that IEM did not possess a commercial contractor’s license at the time of its bid.
The Request for Proposals issued by the state, however, said only that bidding companies had to possess a license or be able to obtain one. IEM did, in fact, obtain a license prior to the time bids were opened. Ironically, PDRM, the company which blew the whistle on IEM, did not possess a contractor’s license at the time it submitted its bid either.
Bankston, legal counsel for the licensing board, opined that eligible bidders needed a contractor’s license at the time of bid submissions—and the licensing board agreed. The following day, March 17, the state decided to CANCEL IEM’s contract and re-bid the project.
By offering the opinion that he did, apparently disqualifying both IEM and PDRM in the process, the winning bid would have then gone to the third lowest bidder had not the administration decided to pull the plug on the whole thing and start over.
That third company whose bid was $350 million, $100 million higher than IEM, was Rebuild Louisiana Now and was led by a Texas firm called SLS. SLS also owns a company called DRC Emergency Services. Bankston’s son, Benjamin Bankston, works as regional manager for DRC. Larry Bankston said he was unaware his son’s firm had any relationship to any of the bidding companies when he wrote his opinion.
DRC had its own legal problems back in 2012 over payments and gratuities the company was accused of giving former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle after the firm received two CONTRACTS from the then-sheriff totaling more than $3 million.
In March 2002, the Louisiana Supreme Court REVOKED Bankston’s law license after his conviction on two counts of racketeering in 1997 in connection with then-State Sen. Bankston’s sham rental of his Gulf Shores condo to video poker operator Fred Goodson for $1,555 per week.
Bankston’s conviction was UPHELD by the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in July 1999.
Contracting board Chairman Lee Mallett of Iowa, said he retains “full confidence” in Bankston.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry DISAGREES. But Landry’s desire to run for governor against John Bel Edwards in 2019 is the worst-kept secret in Baton Rouge, so he’s going to do and say anything he can to embarrass the governor.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, also being mentioned as a potential opponent for Edwards in two years and who was instrumental in obtaining federal flood recover money for Louisiana, also takes issue with the decision to cancel the IEM contract and to start the bid process all over.
“This is very disappointing news,” Graves said, adding that the decision will only serve to further delay needed flood relief funds. “It is impossible to explain to flood victims why $1.6 billion in recovery dollars are stuck in the bureaucracy while homes remain gutted, molded and uninsulated.”
Graves said obtaining the federal money “wasn’t easy and now every time we talk to the Appropriations Committee and leadership folks, they cite the fact that we haven’t spent what we already received. It’s a concern absolutely.”
That politicians, lawyers and contractors would put their own interests ahead of those of people who have been forced out of their homes—some for a year now—only serves to drive home the point that while there has been a change of administrations in Louisiana, nothing really has changed.
Yep, there’s political chicanery afoot in Baton Rouge.