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In the evolving efforts by public officials (mostly elected and appointed political toadies) to prevent you from having unfettered access to public records, three tactics have emerged:

  • CRAPP (Crazed Retaliation Against Public Participation).

This is the strategy employed by Sheriff Jerry Larpenter of Terrebonne Parish.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2016/08/30/louisiana-sheriff-jerry-larpenter-illegally-uses-criminal-libel-law-to-unmask-a-critic/?utm_term=.e2a1770cf5a0

When a local blogger posted critical stories about him and his political cronies, the good sheriff of Terror-Bonne got a friendly judge (who must’ve received his law degree from eBay) to sign off on a search warrant whereby Larpenter could conduct a raid on the blogger’s home.

All the offending blogger, who obviously was a dangerous criminal on a par with John Dillinger, Willie Sutton, and Bonnie and Clyde, had done was illustrate how the family tree of Terror-Bonne elected officials has no branches—that it’s all just one main trunk, sucking the life out of everything around it.

Deputies seized his laptops and about anything else they could lay their hands on in an attempt to discourage him from writing further disparaging comments about the fine public servants of Terror-Bonne, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution notwithstanding.

Of course, a federal judge quickly ruled the raid unconstitutional and gave Larpenter a stern lecture on Civics—not that it did any good.

And then there’s the second approach:

  • BLAPP (Blowhard’s Letter Against Public Participation).

With this method, a public body like, say, the Gravity Drainage District 8 of Calcasieu Parish, has an attorney, say Russell Stutes, Jr., to write a nasty letter to a citizen, say, Billy Broussard, who had performed extensive work for the drainage district for which he was not paid following Hurricane Rita, threatening Broussard with jail time if he persisted in making public records requests. https://louisianavoice.com/2016/12/05/hurricane-cleanup-contractor-threatened-by-attorney-over-requests-for-public-records-from-calcasieu-drainage-district/

Stutes wrote that all Calcasieu Parish employees “have been instructed not to respond to any additional requests or demands from you associated with the project,” neglecting for the moment that any citizen has a right to request any public record and that it is patently illegal for a public official, i.e., the custodian of the records, to ignore a legal request.

“Accordingly, the next time any Calcasieu Parish employee is contacted by you or any of your representatives with respect to the project, we will proceed with further civil actions and criminal charges,” Stutes continued. “A rule for contempt of court will be filed, and we will request injunctive relief from Judge (David) Ritchie. Given Judge Ritchie’s outrage at your frivolous claims last year, you and I both know the next time you are brought before him regarding the project, it will likely result in you serving time for deliberately disregarding his rulings.”

Stutes ended his asinine communiqué by writing, “Consider this your final warning, Mr. Broussard. The harassment of Calcasieu Parish employees must completely and immediately cease. Otherwise, we are prepared to follow through with all remedies allowed by law.”

I wrote then and I’ll say it again: What a crock.

  • SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation)

This is the preferred ploy being employed these days to shut down criticism—or inquiries—from the nosy citizenry.

The first two (CRAPP and BLAPP) are the acronyms created in the not-so-fertile mind of yours truly, although the events are very real as are SLAPP actions that are more and more often employed. The most recent cases involve two such lawsuits right here in Louisiana.

In the 3rd Judicial District (Ouachita and Morehouse parishes), judges, of all people, filed a lawsuit against a newspaper, The Ouachita Citizen, for seeking public records, even while admitting the records being sought were indeed public documents. https://lincolnparishnewsonline.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/judges-admit-dox-are-public-records-in-suit-against-newspaper/

More recently, Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White filed a SLAPP lawsuit against a citizen, James Finney, who was seeking information related to school enrollments and statistical calculations. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mercedes-schneider/la-superintendent-john-wh_b_10216700.html

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit association dedicated to assisting journalists created in 1970, says SLAPPs “have become an all-to-common tool for intimidating and silencing critics of businesses, often for environmental and local land development issues.”

https://www.rcfp.org/browse-media-law-resources/digital-journalists-legal-guide/anti-slapp-laws-0

The California Anti-SLAPP Project (CASP), a law firm specializing in fighting SLAPPs and in protecting the First Amendment, says protected speech and expression on issues of public interest that may be targeted by SLAPPs include:

  • Posting a review on the internet;
  • Writing a letter to the editor
  • Circulating a petition;
  • Calling or writing a public official;
  • Reporting police misconduct;
  • Erecting a sign or displaying a banner on one’s own property;
  • Making comments to school officials;
  • Speaking a public meeting;
  • Filing a public interest lawsuit;
  • Testifying before Congress, the state legislature, or a city council.

SLAPPs are often brought by corporations, real estate developers, or government officials and entities against individuals or organizations who oppose them on public issues and typically claim defamation (libel or slander), malicious prosecution, abuse of power, conspiracy, and interference with prospective economic advantage. https://www.casp.net/sued-for-freedom-of-speech-california/what-is-a-first-amendment-slapp/

CASP says that while most SLAPPs are legally meritless, “they can effectively achieve their principal purpose (which is) to chill public debate on specific issues. Defending a SLAPP requires substantial money, time, and legal resources, and thus diverts the defendant’s attention away from the public issue. Equally important, however, a SLAPP also sends a message to others: you, too, can be sued if you speak up.”

In 1993, Florida Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth released a Survey and Report on SLAPPs in that state. Five years later, in urging the Florida Legislature to enact a strong anti-SLAPP statute, the Attorney General wrote: “The right to participate in the democratic process is a cherished part of our traditions and heritage. Unfortunately, the ability of many Floridians to speak out on issues that affect them is threatened by the growing use of a legal tactic called a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation or SLAPP. A SLAPP lawsuit is filed against citizens in order to silence them. The theory is that a citizen who speaks out against a proposal and is sued for thousands of dollars for alleged interference, conspiracy, slander or libel will cease speaking out. And, as demonstrated in a report prepared by this office on SLAPPs in 1993, the tactic is successful. Even though the SLAPP filers rarely prevailed in court in their lawsuits, they achieved the desired aim—they shut down the opposition.” http://news.caloosahatchee.org/docs/SLAPP_2.pdf

Fortunately, there are options for those who are victimized by SLAPP lawsuits.

The Public Participation Project and the Media Law Resource Center grade each state on the basis of existing or absence of anti-SLAPP laws.

Whereas only five states (Texas, California, Oregon, Nevada and Oklahoma) and the District of Columbia have what are considered as excellent anti-SLAPP state laws with grades of “A,” Louisiana is one of seven states (Georgia, Vermont, Rhode Island, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas are the others) which have what are considered to be good anti-SLAPP laws on the books. These seven states were given a grade of “B.”

Sixteen states, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Ohio, New Hampshire, and New Jersey, have no such laws and are rated “F.”

A key feature of anti-SLAPP statutes is immunity from civil liability for citizens or organizations participating in the processes of government, including:

  • Any written or oral statement made before a legislative, executive, or judicial body or in any other official proceeding authorized by law;
  • Any written or oral statement made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial body or in any other official proceeding authorized by law;
  • Any written or oral statement made in a place open to the public or in a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest; and
  • Any other conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition or the constitutional right of free speech in connection with a public issue.

When a citizen or organization is sued for protected activities, anti-SLAPP statutes provide for expedited hearing of a special motion to dismiss the SLAPP suit. The burden is placed on the plaintiff to prove that the defendants had no reasonable factual or legal grounds for exercising their constitutional rights and that there was actual injury suffered by the plaintiff as a result of the defendants’ actions. No action can be taken in furtherance of a SLAPP suit unless the plaintiff first demonstrates to the court that there is a “probability” of success. Attorneys’ fees and court costs are awarded to SLAPP defendants who win dismissal.

TOMORROW: A look at how one city council member’s questions produced not one, but four separate SLAPP lawsuits in a coordinated effort shut him up.

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Title 44 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes is designed to guarantee citizens the right to examine copies of public documents at no cost and, if they wish, the right to purchase copies of documents at a “reasonable” cost, generally not to exceed 25 cents per page.

All that sounds well and good but for the unsuspecting activist or muckraker venturing off into these uncharted waters, there are undercurrents and unseen obstacles that can quickly throw you off course.

When perusing Title 44 and you scroll down to 44.4, you begin to see the subtle way lawmakers, in their infinite wisdom, managed to protect bureaucrats—and themselves—from the prying eyes of those who would hold them accountable.

R.S. 44.4 begins somewhat ominously in saying, “This Chapter shall not apply:”

There follows page upon page of exceptions.

We would expect information containing addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, medical information, student information, pending litigation and proprietary information to be off limits. It’s easy enough, after all, for scammers to obtain that information for the purposes of identity theft, without opening the doors for them.

But we did not expect to see exempted:

  • All risk-based capital reports filed with the Department of Insurance;
  • Any documents concerning the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice medicine or midwifery;
  • Any documents concerning the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice as a registered nurse; however, any action taken by the Louisiana State Board of Nursing, and any legal grounds upon which such action is based, relative to the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice as a registered nurse shall be a public record;
  • Any documents concerning the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice as a dentist or as a dental hygienist; however, any final determination made by the Louisiana State Board of Dentistry, and any legal grounds upon which such action is based, relative to the fitness of any person to receive or continue to hold a license to practice as a dentist or a dental hygienist shall be a public record;
  • Any documents concerning the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice as a veterinarian; however, any final determination made by the Louisiana Board of Veterinary Medicine, and any legal grounds upon which such action is based, relative to the fitness of any person to receive or continue to hold a license to practice as a veterinarian shall be a public record;
  • Any documents concerning the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice as a chiropractic; however, any final determination made by the Louisiana Board of Chiropractic Examiners, and any legal grounds upon which such action is based, relative to the fitness of any person to receive or continue to hold a license to practice chiropractic shall be a public record;
  • Any documents concerning the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice social work; however, any final determination made by the Louisiana Board of Social Work Examiners, and any legal grounds upon which such action is based, relative to the fitness of any person to receive or continue to hold a license to practice social work shall be a public record;
  • Any documents concerning the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice as a medical psychologist; however, any final determination made by the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners, and any legal grounds upon which such action is based, relative to the fitness of any person to receive or continue to hold a license to practice as a psychologist shall be a public record;
  • Any documents concerning the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice as a practical nurse; however, any action taken by the Louisiana State Board of Practical Nurse Examiners, and any legal grounds upon which such action is based, relative to the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice as a practical nurse shall be a public record;
  • Any documents concerning the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice or assist in the practice of pharmacy; however, any action taken by the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy, and any legal grounds upon which such action is based, relative to the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice or assist in the practice of pharmacy shall be a public record;
  • Any documents concerning the fitness of any person to receive, or continue to hold, a license to practice optometry; However, any final determination made by the board after an adjudication hearing, other than by consent order, agreement, or other informal disposition shall be a public record.
  • Any records, writings, accounts, letters, letter books, photographs, actual working papers, or copies thereof, any of which is in the custody or control of any officer, employee, or agent of the Louisiana Cemetery Board and which pertains to an investigation of the business of a cemetery authority that is under investigation; however any such record shall be public record and subject to the provisions of this Chapter when introduced as evidence before an administrative or other judicial tribunal or when the investigation is complete.

You will notice that in the cases of the practice of medicine or midwifery, there is no provision to open records once any action is taken on a complaint. Those records are closed regardless of the outcome of any complaints lodged against a doctor of midwife.

As for the Department of Insurance, it would seem in the public’s interest that we be able to examine these risk-based capital reports. After all, quite a few Louisiana policyholders were left high and dry when companies have gone under in the past because someone obviously wasn’t minding the store. Risk-Based Capital is merely a method whereby the minimum amount of capital appropriate to support a company’s business operations is determined so as to protect it from insolvency.

Just as it is important to parse any public information request precisely as to the record you wish to examine because state agencies will not assist you by opening up their records carte blanche, it is also important to notice that the various boards’ complaint records are public if—and only if—formal action is taken. That means if there are scores of complaints against, say, a pharmacist or a dentist, or a nurse, you don’t get to see the complaints unless action is taken. So: no action, no public record. The door is closed. Please go away and don’t bother us.

Unless the complaint is against a cemetery authority. In such cases, the records become public at the moment they are introduced as evidence.

That can mean only one thing: The Cemetery Board has a weak lobby.

As for the rest of them and your right to know what’s going on, fuggedaboutit.

And if you persist, there is always the growing trend toward SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) actions which LouisianaVoice will be examining tomorrow.

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The most recent audit (August 2017) of the Foster Care Program of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) found that:

  • DCFS did not conduct proper criminal background checks on non-certified foster care providers;
  • DCFS allowed nine certified providers with prior cases of abuse or neglect to care for foster children during fiscal years 2012-2016 without obtaining required waivers.
  • DCFS does not have a formal process to ensure that caseworkers actually assessed the safety of children placed with 68 non-certified providers.
  • DCFS did not always ensure that children in foster care received services to address physical and behavioral health needs.
  • State regulations require DCFS to expunge certain cases of abuse or neglect from the State Central Registry, which means those records are not available for caseworkers to consider prior to placing children with providers.

(See the DCFS audit summary HERE.)

So, the question now is this: What steps will the state take to protect these children now that the Legislative Auditor has pointed out these serious deficiencies?

If the results of a 2012 audit of the Louisiana Department of Economic Development’s Enterprise Zone Program is any indication, then the answer is nothing.

Under state statute, Louisiana’s Enterprise Zone (EZ) program is designed to award incentives to businesses and industries that locate in areas of high unemployment as a means of encouraging job growth. (The summary of that audit can be viewed HERE.)

That audit found that:

  • Approximately 68 percent of the 930 businesses that received EZ program incentives from the state were located outside of a designated enterprise zone. These businesses received nearly $124 million (61 percent) of the $203 million in total EZ program incentives during calendar years 2008 through 2010.
  • Approximately $3.9 billion (60 percent) of the $6.5 billion in capital investment by businesses receiving EZ incentives was located outside a designated enterprise zone.
  • Approximately 12,570 (75 percent) of the 16,760 net new jobs created by businesses granted EZ incentives were located outside an enterprise zone.
  • Four other states with which Louisiana was compared exclude retail businesses from EZ incentives. Louisiana does not, allowing such businesses as Walmart to take advantage of the incentives.
  • None of the four neighboring states allows businesses to count part-time employees among the new jobs created. Louisiana does.
  • Louisiana state law prohibits disclosure of the amount of incentives received by businesses.

Little, if anything, has been done to rectify these deficiencies in the oversight of the EZ program.

There has been precious little reaction from this year’s audit of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries which found that thousands of dollars in equipment had been stolen, a story LouisianaVoice called attention to last year. Go HERE for a summary of that audit report or HERE for our story.

Some remedial steps have been made in addressing a multitude of problems exposed in a 2016 audit of the Department of Veterans Affairs (See audit summary HERE).

Yet, we can’t help but wonder where the oversight was before a critical audit necessitated changes. Among those findings:

  • Payment of $44,000 to a company for improperly documented work without the required contract.
  • The use of $27,500 in federal funds specifically earmarked for the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Cemetery in Slidell for the purchase of a Ford Expedition for the exclusive use of headquarters staff.
  • The failure to disclose information of potential crimes involving veteran residents at several War Veteran homes.
  • The possible falsifying of former Secretary David Alan LaCerte’s military service as posted on the LDVA website.
  • LaCerte’s engaging in questionable organizational, hiring, and pay practices that led in turn to a lack of accountability.

Likewise, some positive steps have been taken in shaping up the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) trusty oversight programs but that resulted as much from a thorough investigative report by Baton Rouge Advocate reporters as a 2016 audit (see HERE) that found:

Because the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola’s trusty policy, 1,547 (an astounding 91 percent) trusties at Angola were not eligible for the program and even after the policy was revised, 400 (24 percent) of 1705 trusties were ineligible. All 400 were considered by DOC to be eligible as a result of having an undocumented, implicit waiver for a sex offense or time served less than 10 years.

Equally troubling, the audit found that 14 of 151 (9 percent) of trusties assigned to work in state buildings in Baton Rouge were not eligible because of crimes of violence, including aggravated battery, manslaughter, and aggravated assault with a firearm. The report further found that if those 151 were required to comply with the requirements in place for Level 1 trusties, 49 (32 percent) would be ineligible.

Indicative of the monumental waste brought about by the proliferation of boards and commissions in state government, a 2017 audit (see HERE) of “Boards, Commissions, and Like Entities) noted that the number of boards and commissions had been reduced from the 492 in 2012 to “only” 458 in 2016. Texas, by comparison, has 173, Mississippi about 200. The appointment of members of those boards and commissions take up a lot of time as the governor’s office supposedly vets each new member.

Four boards did not respond to the auditor’s request for data in 2017 and 2016.

There were 11 inactive boards which were not fulfilling established functions, five of which were also inactive the previous year.

Some of these boards, as illustrated on numerous occasions by LouisianaVoice, often go rogue and there seems to be no one to rein them in. These include the Louisiana State Police Commission, The Louisiana Board of Dentistry, the Auctioneer Licensing Board, the State Board of Cosmetology, and the State Board of Medical Examiners, to name but a few.

Take, for example, the 2016 audit of the Louisiana Motor Vehicle Commission (see HERE):

  • The commission did not have adequate controls over financial reporting to ensure accuracy.
  • The commission did not comply with state procurement laws requiring contracts for personal, professional and consulting services, failing to obtain approval for contracts for two vendors totaling $80,000.

The point of this exercise is to call attention to the one office in state government which, with little fanfare and even less credit, goes about its job each day in attempting to maintain some semblance of order in the manner in which the myriad of state agencies protects the public fisc.

The Legislative Auditor’s Office, headed by Daryl Purpera, performs a Herculean, but thankless job of poring over receipts, contracts, bids, and everything related to expenditures to ensure that the agencies are toeing the line and are in accordance with established requirements and laws regarding the expenditure of public funds.

Thousands of audits have been performed. We pulled up only a few random examples: there are others, like the Recovery School District, the Department of Education, Grambling State University (only because it has so many audits with repeated findings), levee districts and local school boards and parish governments. Untold numbers of irregularities have been uncovered—only to be largely ignored by those in positions to take action against agency heads, who, because of political ambitions, allow attention to be diverted from their responsibilities of running a tight ship.

In cases of egregious findings, the media will jump on the story, only to allow it to fade away and things soon return to normal with no disciplinary action taken against those responsible.

If all elected officials and members of the governor’s cabinet were held accountable for their sloppy work or the outright dishonesty of their agency heads, it would send a message throughout state government and this state might well save hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted expenditures and theft.

It calls to mind the lyrics of a 1958 Johnny Cash song, Big River, recorded when he was still with Sun Records:

“She raised a few eyebrows

And then she went on down alone”

Through it all, Purpera and his staff trudge ever-onward, raising a few eyebrows and then continuing (alone) to do their jobs even as those above them do not.

They—and the taxpayers of Louisiana—deserve better.

 

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The shakeup continued at Louisiana State Police (LSP) Friday afternoon with the reduction in rank of former Superintendent Mike Edmonson’s top aid and heir-apparent and the promotion and reassignment of two others, according to the email below that was sent out to all LSP personnel:

From: Rhonda Fogleman On Behalf Of Deputy Secretary
Sent: Friday, March 31, 2017 2:45 PM
To: _DPS_Personnel
Subject: Transfer & Promotion Effective March 31, 2017
Importance: High

The following personnel changes are made effective at close of business on Friday, March 31, 2017:

Major Mike Noel transferred and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Interim Assistant Superintendent/Interim Chief of Staff

LTC Charlie Dupuy transferred and reassigned as Major, Command Inspector, Training

Major Frank Ducote transferred and reassigned as Major, Command Inspector, Patrol Operations/Region I

Authority of:   Colonel Kevin Reeves, Superintendent

In another development, LouisianaVoice has learned that Lt. Stephen Lafargue has resigned his position as trustee for the Louisiana State Police Retirement System. He was considered one of six Edmonson supporters on the board which will take up Edmonson’s retirement later in April.

Dupuy, once the odds-on favorite to eventually move into Edmonson’s position, was implicated in that October trip to San Diego by Edmonson and 16 subordinates to see Edmonson receive a national award. The four who drove to San Diego via Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon did so in the state vehicle assigned to Dupuy.

Maj. Noel, who previously served as a command inspector for the Gaming Division, will take over as lieutenant colonel in the position of Interim Assistant Superintendent and Interim Chief of Staff to Col. Kevin Reeves who assumed Edmonson’s duties last Saturday.

Noel, a veteran of 27 years with LSP was earning $140,900 as a major but will receive a significant pay increase to $161,300 as lieutenant colonel as he takes over the day-to-day operations of LSP.

Those at LSP who are familiar with Noel told LouisianaVoice he was a good choice for the position. “He’s an excellent choice,” said one trooper who asked not to be identified. “He’s even-handed and has a great disposition. Col. Reeves couldn’t have picked a better person for the job.

Ducote’s reassignment to the position previously held by Reeves was described as a lateral transfer. He presently earns $140,900.

Dupuy, on the other hand, will realize a significant reduction in pay to $140,900 from his current level of $161,300 as he returns to the position he held at the State Police Training Academy before being tapped by Edmonson as his chief of staff.

It may not be the last change at LSP as Reeves settles into his position One State Police insider said the transfer of Dupuy could signal that the Reeves appointment by Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Noel appointment are permanent instead of interim and that more demotions, transfers and retirements could be in the offing.

Others who might yet be transferred to other positions include Master Trooper Thurman Miller, Lt. Col. Jason Starnes who now presides over the Management and Finance Section, and Trooper T.J. Doss who currently serves as the State Trooper representative and as chairman of the Louisiana State Police Commission. Doss has been considered by some as Edmonson’s plant on the commission. Doss, from Ruston, has been TDY’d (assigned temporary duty) to Baton Rouge and presently resides at the State Police Academy.

The shakeup at LSP has been a long time coming as the agency has been buffeted by one damaging story after another—all reflecting on Edmonson’s leadership and administration of some 1,500 troopers statewide.

The San Diego trip was the tipping point as Edwards seemed determined to stick by his decision to reappoint Edmonson following his election in 2015 despite the controversy swirling around LSP. Edmonson had the support of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association which had endorsed Edwards in his runoff against former Sen. David Vitter.

Even before the San Diego trip, there were disciplinary problems, illegal campaign contributions and other issues that proved to be a source of constant embarrassment to the governor.

LSP is currently under investigation by the Division of Administration, the Legislative Auditor’s Office, and the FBI, all of which eventually forced Edwards to make the decision to allow Edmonson to announce his retirement, which took effect March 24.

When Edwards appointed Reeves to succeed Edmonson, there was speculation within the department that Edwards had prevailed upon Reeves to retain Dupuy as chief of staff to mollify the sheriffs but with Dupuy’s demotion and transfer, that now appears not to have been the case.

LSP public information officer Maj. Doug Cain said Reeves has had a busy first week in his new leadership role. “He’s been meeting with (Department of Public Safety) unit heads and senior staff within LSP in an effort to communicate his agenda for the department.”

Maybe it’s just us, but it seems a lot of meetings weren’t necessary to know there is a real problem at LSP. But the first step in resolving problems is to first acknowledge them.

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Here’s a story no one saw coming:

There’s political chicanery afoot in Baton Rouge.

Who’d-a-thunk it?

Okay all that was said tongue-in-cheek.

Unfortunately.

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.

Who’d-a-thunk it?

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