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Editor’s note: The following (with added comment) is a guest column provided to LouisianaVoice by the Healthcare Alliance for Regulatory Board Reform (HARBR):

By Christian Wolff

Louisiana Senate Bill 286, dubbed the Physician’s Bill of Rights, fell into a “coma” before the Louisiana Legislature on last Wednesday but not before an outburst over the testimony of the bill’s author.

Sen John Milkovich (D-Shreveport) was in the middle of explaining the obvious conflict of interest on the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners when he was interrupted by New Orleans attorney Jack Stolier who twice shouted that Milkovich’s testimony was a “bald faced lie.” (Milkovich’s testimony and Stolier’s off-camera interruption can be heard beginning at the 7:15 MARK of this video of the House Health and Welfare Committee.)

Milkovich had just referenced an “affair” between Dr. Cecilia Mouton, then an investigator for the board of medical examiners, and Stolier, who represented physicians before the board in disciplinary matters.

But hey, the brief flareup was by far the most interesting—and probably the most intelligent—moment of this session sadly marked by legislative ineptitude, indecision, and concerted efforts to bow to the will of special interests st the expense of constituents and Louisiana (See the disgraceful Senate passage of the Payday Loan bill. How anyone can hold out one scintilla of hope for this bunch is beyond comprehension).

After Stolier was escorted from the committee room by Capitol security personnel, Milkovich read from a March 18, 2016, LouisianaVoice post which alluded to the relationship between the two. He also cited a letter from a board director which acknowledged a “personal relationship” between the two. Mouton, now Director of Operations for the board, and Stolier have since married but Milkovich called the romantic link between Mouton, who was prosecuting doctors, and Stolier, who was defending them, a blatant conflict of interest.

This, folks, is typical of the manner in which both the Board of Medical Examiners and the Louisiana State Board of Dentistry disregard due process and run roughshod over members of the medical profession who are charged and deemed guilty without even a nod at procedure. Guilty until proven innocent turns legal procedure on its head and is the very reason why some sort of checks and balances are desperately need to bring these rogue board under control.

But instead, the board, without objection, agreed that the bill be involuntarily deferred, meaning that for all practical purposes, it is dead for this session. (This, by the way, is the same Board of Medical Examiners that has defied a court order and continues to refuse to allow the legislative auditor to see its records so the auditor can do his job.)

Typically, the House does not entertain motions to override/hear bills that were involuntarily deferred in a committee.

This is the same legislature that is on the verge of approving (the Senate already has, by a 20-17 vote) an increase to 167 percent in interest rates payday loan predators can charge, along with doubling loan origination fees. Looks like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been busy this session—as it has in past years.

Advocates of SB 286 praised it on May 2 as an excellent piece of legislation. It was referred to it as “landmark” bill with implications for the due process reforms of healthcare licensing boards in every state in the nation.

Legislators’ indifference—not unlike their indifference to solving the state’s fiscal ills—could open the state up to litigation, leaving it to Attorney General Jeff Landry to try and defend the state, an interesting proposition in itself. Such potential litigation already has a precedent: a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v Federal Trade Commission. In that decision, SCOTUS laid out conditions by which licensing and regulatory boards could and could not act as agents of their respective states.

In order to be considered a “state agency,” boards now need to show that they have a voting minority of “market place participants” in the profession being regulated. The other means by which a state regulatory or licensing board may come into compliance with the SCOTUS decision, and now, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) mandate, is to have demonstrable and meaningful state oversight by an entity or entities which are not marketplace participants in the profession regulated by the board over which they are providing oversight.

The concern of SCOTUS and the FTC is that without meeting at least one of these two conditions, licensing and regulatory boards might act in their own interests rather than in the interest of the public. Moreover, SCOTUS and FTC, are concerned that beyond acting in the interest of their own professions over the interest of the public, boards may act in the interest of boards themselves over the fair and equal interest of given licensees or classes of licensees. This might be called “market capture via regulatory capture” and would be to the detriment of patients, the public, and licensees alike.

States whose regulatory boards do not comply with the conditions set forth in North Carolina Dental Board leave every member of every board including administrative staff and legal counsel legally exposed in their professional capacities and as individuals. Suits might be based in the violation of anti-trust laws, or on injury against persons (such as licensees) who were harmed without the benefit of due process of law.

Healthcare licensees in every state across the nation are being awakened to the injustices which have befallen physicians, and increasingly, other healthcare providers, since the passing of the short-sighted Healthcare Quality Improvement Act in 1986.

Louisiana is not alone by any stretch. It was foolish and immature for the Louisiana House Health and Welfare Committee to put SB 286 to rest in the way it did. When the Physicians’ Bill of Rights awakens from its “Involuntary Deferment” it may well be in a different state already positioned to make the proper move. The first state will set the landmark precedent and if the precedent does not affect national policy, it will be followed by every state in the nation.

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Louisiana residents victimized by floods and hurricanes don’t need a reminder of the frustrating-ineptness of the Feeble Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or of the soul-crushing corruption of the Department of Housing and Urban Discrimination (HUD).

FEMA trailers, more appropriately designed as egg incubators than dwellings for human beings, stand as mute testimony to mismanagement on a grand scale. At a COST of $150,000 to $170,000 per trailer, including purchase and set-up following the 2016 flood, only to SELL the units for as little as $5,000 each a year later, it’s difficult to imagine even the Pentagon being able to match FEMA in a waste-for-waste competition.

With 144,000 trailers PLACED following hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike, and another 4,500 (upgrades vastly superior to the earlier models but still little better than a tent) following the 2016 floods, one can readily see how FEMA now claims to be broke.

Another reason? Try this: Following Hurricane Katrina, The Shaw Group was contracted to place tarpaulins over damaged roofs at a rate of $175 per square (one hundred square feet per square) after Katrina. That’s $175 for draping a ten-foot-by-ten-foot square blue tarpaulin over a damaged roof. Shaw in turn sub-contracted the work to a company called A-1 Construction at a cost of $75 a square. A-1 in turn subbed the work to Westcon Construction at $30 a square. Westcon eventually lined up the actual workers who placed the tarps at a cost of $2 a square.

In normal circumstances, MIKE LOWERY, an estimator for an Austin, Texas, company, said, his company would charge $300 to tarp a 2000-square-foot roof in Austin. For that same size job, the government is paying $2,980 to $3,500, or about 10 times as much, plus additional administrative fees that couldn’t be readily calculated.

FEMA ISSUED 81,241 blue roof tarps across Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, said spokesman Aaron Walker ($14.2 million total cost: $8.1 million for Shaw as opposed to $162,000 for those who did the actual work).

But if you think that’s bad, consider this: “Overall, Restore Louisiana (the program set up to assist flood victims) has awarded $207 million of the $1.3 billion allotment from the federal government to homeowners,” according to a story in the Baton Rouge ADVOCATE. Of that amount, only $60.5 million has actually been paid to those driven out of their homes by the floods. The remaining $147 million is being paid in increments to contractors as work progresses.

At the same time, however, the state has shelled out $75 million to IEM, the contracted administrator for environmental reviews and program management. That means administrative costs are 23.4 percent higher than the amount actually spent helping flood victims. Said another way, the amount spent on actual work is only 80 percent of administrative costs so far.

IEM’s total contract to administer the $1.3 billion Restore Louisiana program is for an eye-popping $308 million. That computes to administrative costs that are 19.25 percent of the total contract but which appear to be running closer to 26.6 percent at the present time.

Contrast that, if you will, with contracts the Ruston firm of Hunt, Guillot has received to date to administer Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for the recovery of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike and to administer CDBG funds for the Restore Louisiana program set up immediately following the 2016 floods.

Hunt, Guillot received a contract for $18.2 million to administer the disbursement of $7.5 billion in grant funds for LOUISIANA. That contract ran from Oct. 31, 2007, to Oct. 30, 2010. The firm was given an additional contract of $3 million for the period of Feb. 1, 2011, through June 3, 2011 for Katrina and Rita recovery grant funds. IEM’s $308 million contract is 14.5 times the size of Hunt, Guillot’s $21.2 million in contracts even though Hunt, Guillot oversaw the disbursement of nearly six times the amount in federal grants that IEM is responsible for.

IEM’s contract was not without CONTROVERSY, but it probably didn’t hurt that IEM and the company’s CEO, Madhu Beriwal, combined to contribute $15,000 to the campaign of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

But even putting aside all the outrageous administrative costs that are eating up dollars intended to help flood victims, here is the one overriding factor that leads writers like Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine) and others to write INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS about the incestuous relationship between natural disasters and corruption?

Could it be that 19 months after thousands of Louisiana residents were forced out of their homes in South Louisiana, only $207 million of a total allocation of $1.3 billion for reconstruction has been approved and checks written for only $60 million even as administrative costs mount?

Could it be that a visit to observe activities at Restore Louisiana headquarters reminds visitors of the organizational skills of a sack of rats in a burning meth lab?

Could it be the frustration encountered by State Rep. Rogers Pope who, first told he qualified for an SBA loan of $250,000 (even though he never applied) but later told it was actually for a lesser amount, responded that he was not interested in a loan of any description but that $50,000 was nevertheless deposited in his bank account by the SBA—and when he insisted again that he did not want the money, was charged $384 in interest for the week that it was in his bank account? (for those of you who may be wondering, that computes to an annual interest rate of 40 percent.) And get this: Pope is a member of the Restore Louisiana Task Force and even he can’t deal with the feds.

Could it be that an applicant who applied for assistance was told that because he had obtained an SBA loan of $124,000, he was ineligible for a grant? The person in question here was yours truly and I was told that the loan was considered a benefit. I’m a 74-year-old retiree on a fixed income, with a brand-new $124,000 mortgage and I’m supposed to consider that a benefit?

What’s more, I’m told, even if I had been offered the loan, and turned it down, I’d still be ineligible because it was offered. (I think that’s what’s called a Catch-22.) And just to add insult to injury, I was told (after at least four separate on-site inspections by FEMA, Restore Louisiana, and Shelter at Home) I was only allowed $60,000 for reconstruction (someone needs to tell my contractor who charged what I considered to be a reasonable fee of $90,000 to make my home livable again—the remainder went to replace furniture and appliances).

I was told at the time of receiving the news of my ineligibility that I could, of course, appeal. “But the appeal won’t do any good,” the nice man said, “because we’re only going by the rules established by FEMA and HUD guidelines.” (A Catch-22 variable.)

It’s the kind of FUBAR guvmint that can send you to a padded room where you’re allowed only crayons as a means of communication.

And if you think I’m angry, consider the frustration level of Stephen Winham of St. Francisville.

Winham, often a LouisianaVoice guest columnist, for 12 years was the state’s budget director, serving under three governors, so he, of all people, should be accustomed to navigating the confusing waters of state bureaucracy. He was, nevertheless, finally moved to send the following email to an official of Restore Louisiana:

I have NEVER seen as poorly run a program as Restore Louisiana and I have seen some poorly run programs in my 21 years of state budget analysis.  If the contractor for whom you work represents the benefits of privatizing public services we are in deep manure, particularly since our worst governor ever, Bobby Jindal, moved us to new heights in that direction.

I have talked on the phone and communicated with your company many times.  I did not initially apply because I knew I was not eligible.  I allowed one of your employees to talk me into applying anyhow, so I did – I assume this was done to get the numbers up.  In subsequent steps, it was confirmed I was never eligible and should never have bent to the pressure put on me to apply.  In other words, I was officially ruled ineligible months ago.

This correspondence and any phone conversations I might have with you would be a waste of my time – your company is apparently going to get its money no matter what so I have no interest in saving you money.  Your company has spent $75 million on itself so far and only disbursed $60 million to the people who really need it – the homeowners.  Do you not see a problem with that?

Although I am not eligible, I have a sister-in-law who is.  My wife and I have tried to help her work through the many meaningless steps necessary to get her Restore Louisiana grant and she has not gotten a dime yet.  My wife has hauled her down to Celtic Studios more than once.  She has had visits from what I assume are project managers/coordinators many times.  She has completed the necessary paperwork at every step.  She has been advised of the amount of her “award” (her part of the $207 million in reported awards, $147 million of which apparently remain undisbursed), but has gotten ZERO.  The people who live across the street from my East Baton Rouge property just started LAST WEEK on work to restore their home pursuant to their Restore Louisiana “award”

I think your company is taking the public for a ride – oh, I know, this is federal money – I am doing my federal taxes today – I guess that never was my money to begin with, or something.  These things should be block granted.  If the eligible recipients take their grants down to a convenient casino and blow it rather than fixing their homes, that’s their problem and it is also better than creating what to me is essentially a pyramid of contractors and sub-contractors each getting their golden crumbs as the grants trickle down to the people who should be getting the money.

Sorry for taking this out on you and you probably haven’t even read this far, but on the off chance you have, LEAVE ME ALONE and devote your attention to eligible recipients many of whom have been waiting over a year and a half for relief.

Your federal—and state—guvmint hard at work for you, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer. The best we can hope for is that we never need the their “help” in the future.

(Editor’s note: for the record, a class-action lawsuit is being considered because of the discriminatory policies of HUD and FEMA. More details on that as they are forthcoming.)

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Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Legislature could probably learn a thing or two about building budgetary surpluses from the St. Landry Parish Fire Protection District No. 2—except at least one St. Landry Parish citizens thinks the surplus may be the result of smoke and mirrors and a little voodoo tax millage assessment.

On the other hand, the State Ethics Board appears to be taking its cue from the Attorney General’s office in stonewalling tactics.

The district had a bank balance of more than three times its annual budget at the end of 2016, according to a state AUDIT of the its books. The audit showed nearly $8.4 million in the bank as of Dec. 31, 2016, after expenses of $2.6 million.

And a formal complaint made to the Louisiana State Board of Ethics last May against the district and its secretary-treasurer has produced only a letter of acknowledgement but no results after nine months.

Despite annual revenues of nearly $3.7 million for both 2015 and 2016, the district’s board seemingly felt it could not afford to hire a qualified employee to apply generally accepted accounting principles in recording the districts financial transactions or preparing its financial statements, the audit indicated.

“A material weakness is a deficiency, or combination of deficiencies, in internal control such that there is a reasonable possibility that a material misstatement of the entity’s financial statements will not be prevented, or detected and corrected on a timely basis,” the audit said. “we identified certain deficiencies in internal control that we consider to be material weaknesses.”

Nor did the board seem to feel it was in a position to hire additional firefighters in order to cut back on more expensive overtime pay. Board members paid themselves nearly $16,600 in 2016 and paid out $1.2 million in salaries. An additional $329,677 was paid in overtime (listed as “extra shifts and call out time”).

Auditors recommended that the board examine the following options and implement policies and procedures in order to reduce excessive payroll expenditures:

  • Establish set annual/monthly salaries for management-level positions in order to eliminate overtime paid;
  • Hire additional firefighters in order to decrease overtime pay;
  • Better utilize volunteer firefighters in an effort to minimize costs.

While Edwards and the legislature might be scratching their heads if they knew of the district’s fiscal wizardry, a closer look at a curious tax millage might clear things up.

It seems that district voters may have once approved a 17.5 mill property tax but the district somehow managed to collect two identical millages of 17.5 mills each until January 2018, when one of the assessments expired.

St. Landry Parish resident and local taxpayer Charles Jagneaux, who filed the complaint with the state ethics board, which has been basically toothless since it was gutted by Bobby Jindal in one of his first acts as governor in 2008, has a theory about that dual tax millage.

“My understanding is that the second millage was passed by calling it a renewal when in fact, it was a second identical millage,” he said. “The board attempted to put the expiring millage on the ballot (for a renewal) this year but the parish council would not let them since there was a multi-million-dollar surplus.”

The ethics complaint was filed against Johnny Ardoin, secretary-treasurer of the district’s board. Ardoin, it turns out, is also a member of the Port Barre TOWN COUNCIL, which would appear to be a case of dual office-holding, illegal under Louisiana law.

As a point of clarification from a reader who is in a position to know, dual office holding falls under (drum roll, please…) the attorney general’s office, not the ethics board so the ethics board would not address that matter,

A second, more serious ethics violation, however, seems to arise from Ardoin’s membership on the fire district board.

The Port Barre Town Council appoints two members of the fire district’s board of commissioners.

That would seem to constitute a built-in conflict of interest for Ardoin. Given his position as a member of the town council, he is in the unique position to appoint himself to the fire district’s board of commissioners.

That ethics complaint, like most complaints to the state ethics board these days, is in all likelihood, a dead-end street, particularly as it regards dual office-holding. But even in cases when ethics fines are assessed, which is seldom, they often are ignored and never collected, thanks again to Bobby Jindal and his ethics reform agenda.

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You have to give credit to Lake Charles attorney Ron Richard: he certainly knows how to milk a case for all it’s worth in order to keep the meter running.

It apparently wasn’t enough that his four SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) against Welsh Alderman Jacob Colby Perry were tossed by the presiding judge.

And no matter that a recall petition was initiated against Perry and that POSTCARDS were mailed to Welsh residents that DEPICTED Perry and fellow board of aldermen member Andrea King as “terrorists.”

And never mind that Mayor Carolyn Louviere desires to shut down a bar that just happens to be adjacent to a business owned by her son.

Now Richard, his four LAWSUITS against Perry—filed by him on behalf of the mayor, her son, her daughter, and Police Chief Marcus Crochet—having failed the smell test of 31st Judicial District Court Judge Steve Gunnel, who not only dismissed the four lawsuits aimed at silencing Perry’s criticism of Louviere’s administration but also awarded ATTORNEY FEES of $16,000 to Perry, is now challenging another RECALL PETITION, this one against his client, her honor the mayor.

So, it seems to boil down to the apparent belief that a recall against an alderman who seeks answers to budgetary questions is fine and dandy but to suggest a recall against the mayor who draws up that city budget constitutes a technical foul.

It’s all a sordid little mess punctuated by what appear to be excessive expenses of the police department, ($818,000 for nine months, form June 2016 through February 2017—for a town of 3,200 living, breathing souls), 18 police cars (again, for a town of 3,200), removal of Perry from the town’s Facebook page, and a mayor’s son (one of the four plaintiffs in lawsuits against Perry) who has a less than stellar past of his own.

Basically, with all that is going on there, it doesn’t really appear to be a town where most people would care to call home these days. That’s no dig on all the decent, minding-their-own-business residents living there, but a sorry commentary on the town’s leadership—if one wishes to be overly generous in calling it that.

Meanwhile, Richard manages to keep the meter running as the legal fees continue to mount for Madam Mayor. Of course, it has to be the client’s decision to retain him to pursue these objectives. He’s just a lawyer who ostensibly takes direction from his client. But often times, a client’s decision on a course of action is predicated upon the attorney’s advice, so in trying to determine who is actually calling the shots, we may just have the age-old chicken or egg question.

Still, it’s enough to make one wonder who is paying those legal bills: the client or the city?

Perhaps that’s another question for Mr. Perry to ask.

If he can get an answer, that is.

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?

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By now, thanks to the Internet and network TV news, virtually everyone in the U.S.—and apparently some foreign countries—knows about the ham-handed manner in which the Vermilion Parish School Board shut down one of its teacher’s comments during a recent board meeting.

The manner in which Kaplan middle school English teacher Deyshia Hargrave’s was cut off from speaking and subsequently manhandled by a city marshal was carried out with all the tact, consideration, delicacy, and diplomacy of Donald Trump discussing immigrants from $*%#hole countries.

And the fact that the school board employed the CITY MARSHAL who was previously accused of using excessive force against a 62-year-old man in poor health to carry out the handcuffing and arrest of Hargrave certainly didn’t help matters in what overnight brought national and international negative attention to Louisiana.

And the announcement by the city prosecutor that Hargrave would not be prosecuted only enhances her chances of reaping a financial settlement subsequent to the lawsuit she is almost certain to file for her rude treatment and public humiliation.

To provide a little background for anyone who may not have heard, Hargrave was at the board meeting to protest a $30,000-per-year proposed salary increase for School Superintendent Jerome Puyal (from $110,190 to $140,188) while teachers, cafeteria workers and, support staff received no salary increases. School Board President Anthony Fontana, an Abbeville attorney who has been on the board about a quarter-of-a-century, promptly gaveled her into silence, proclaiming her comments were not germane to the board’s agenda.

One report had Fontana referring to Hargrave, parish’s 2015-2016 teacher of the year, as “the poor little lady” in an INTERVIEW subsequent to the meeting. That charitable reference is almost certain to absolve him of any culpability in what has become a public relations nightmare sufficiently grievous to attract the attention of the ACLU and teachers’ unions, not to mention network television news.

But that all could have been avoided had Fontana simply consulted in advance with the good folks at Gravity Drainage District 8 of Calcasieu Parish Ward 1. Not those folks know how to shut a dissident up quietly and efficiently.

The secret is to get an attorney who isn’t afraid to threaten the dissident and a judge who can ignore the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and issue an order that the dissident may not make public records requests nor have any contact with any members or employees of the gravity drainage district.

Or, better yet, have a gaggle of judges file suit against a newspaper to prevent it from seeking public records from the court.

Problem solved.

Never mind that the gravity drainage district hired with Billy Broussard to remove debris from drainage canals following Hurricane Rita under a FEMA contract and then instructed Broussard to remove older pre-storm debris and that he would be paid to do so.

But when FEMA said the older debris was not part of the project, the drainage district flat-out refused to pay Broussard about a million dollars that was due him for the work. Moreover, some of that older debris consisted of large cypress logs—still very much useful in construction—which mysteriously disappeared.

So, when Broussard attempted unsuccessfully to get reimbursed for his work, RUSSELL STUTES, Lake Charles attorney for the drainage district, wrote a testy letter to Broussard in which Stutes, elevating himself to judge status, threatened Broussard with jail time “the next time any Calcasieu Parish employee is contacted by you or any of your representatives with respect to the project…”

Stutes even filed a petition for injunctive relief to bar Broussard from contacting members or employees of the drainage district and from seeking public records. Incredibly, 14th Judicial District Judge David Ritchie signed the order for the INJUNCTION that bars Broussard from his constitutionally-guaranteed right to seek answers from a public body. That right is also guaranteed under Louisiana R.S. 42:4.1 et seq.

Likewise, the judges of the 4th JDC up in Monroe filed SUIT against the Ouachita Citizen newspaper in West Monroe in order to stymie the newspaper’s efforts to obtain public records from the court.

So, you see, Mr. Fontana, it really wasn’t necessary to shoot yourself in the foot by having the city marshal strongarm Ms. Hargrave, your defense that he was authorized to do so notwithstanding. That just brought unwanted attention to a board what was already contentious in its membership makeup—some of that disharmony stemming from the performance of the very superintendent to whom you trying to give an extra $30,000 per year.

All you had to do was have the board attorney (and you are an attorney yourself) to find a judge who would sign an order for injunctive relief which, while questionable in its legality, would nevertheless have shut Ms. Hargrave up.

For a minute, anyway, to borrow a phrase from Ron “Tater Salad” White, one of my favorite stand-up comics, which he tags at the end of this joke but which is deleted from this VIDEO.

 

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