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Only in Louisiana.

A lawsuit filed in 23rd Judicial District Court in Ascension Parish challenging the legality of the proposed approval of $450 million in industrial tax exemptions raises two immediate questions:

  • What are Projects Magnolia, Zinnia, Bagel and Sunflower/Sunflower Seed?
  • Why is the Ascension Parish Council being so secretive about the true identities?
  • Why did the Ascension Parish Council’s Finance Committee not follow the law in considering the proposed tax exemptions?
  • Most important of all, what is the Ascension Parish Council trying to hide?

These are all questions to which plaintiffs Dr. Henrynne Louden, George Armstrong and Lana Williams are seeking answers in their petition filed last Friday.

On Sept. 12, the council’s Finance Committee, which in truth is comprised of all 11 council members, met and added to its agenda for the full council meeting of Sept. 21 Item 7, calling for the consideration of “resolutions to award industrial tax exemption at levels recommended by the Ascension Economic Development board for the following projects:

  • Project Magnolia;
  • Project Zinnia;
  • Project Bagel;
  • Project Sunflower/Sunflower Seed.

Altogether, the four projects would cost Ascension Parish $55.6 million—for a grand total of 32 new jobs, or $1.7 million per job.

To see the lawsuit in its entirety, click HERE.

Ascension_code_names.PNG

“The identity of the projects on the agenda for the meeting of the council held on September 21, 2017, are fictitious,” the lawsuit says, adding that neither the plaintiffs “nor any other member of the public could determine, from a review of the consent agenda:

  • The identity of the company (or companies) seeking the benefit of an industrial tax exemption;
  • The amount of the exemption sought for each project;
  • The cost of granting each of the exemptions;
  • Whether any of the projects comply with requirements of the Louisiana State Constitution, or
  • Whether any of the projects comply with requirements of Executive Order Number JBE 2016-73.

“There are two things at issue in this suit,” said a spokesperson for an organization calling itself Together Louisiana: “Whether public subsidies can be approved by a public body without disclosing the identity of the entity receiving the subsidies, and whether reasonably specific public notices must be provided regarding approval of such subsidies.”

Article 7, Section 21(F) of the Louisiana State Constitution of 1974 spells out the requirements for approval of the ad valorem tax exemptions for new manufacturing facilities.

“After being elected,” the lawsuit says, Gov. John Bel Edwards determined that the Board of Commerce and Industry “…had approved industrial tax exemptions contracts ultimately resulting in an average of $1.4 billion in foregone ad valorem tax revenue each year for the next five years for parishes, municipalities, school districts and other political subdivisions of the state that directly provide law enforcement, water and sewage, infrastructure, and educational opportunities to Louisiana citizens.”

On Oct. 21, 2016, Gov. Edwards issued Executive Order Number JBE 2016-73 entitled “Amended and Restated Conditions for Participation in the Industrial Tax Exemption.”

The executive order requires that the governor and Board of Commerce and Industry be provided with a resolution adopted by, among others, “the relevant governing parish council, signifying, “whether it is in favor of the project,” the lawsuit says.

The executive order further says that contracts for industrial tax exemptions which do not include a resolution by the relevant local governing authority “will not be approved by the governor.”

The agenda for the Sept. 12 Finance Committee meeting, the plaintiffs say in their petition, “failed to indicate that (it) would be considering whether or not to approve a resolution signifying that the council was in favor of one or more industrial tax exemption.” Despite failing to include the item on its agenda, the Finance Committee did, in fact, recommend approval by the council of such a resolution, placing the committee, the lawsuit says, in violation of the state’s open meeting laws.

“Not only are meetings of the public bodies to be open,” the lawsuit says, (but) “citizens have the right to know—in advance—the subject matter upon which governing bodies will deliberate and vote.”

The state’s open meeting laws require posting written notices of the agenda of all meetings “no later than 24 hours, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays, before the meeting” and “shall include the agenda, date, time, and place of the meeting.”

The committee’s violation of the open meeting laws, the plaintiff say, deprived the public of the right to:

  • Know what was being considered by the Finance Committee;
  • Directly participate in the deliberations of the Finance Committee;
  • Protect themselves from secret decisions made without any opportunity for public input.

The lawsuit is asking the court to declare actions of both the Finance Committee and the full council void as provided by law.

The plaintiffs and their attorneys, Brian Blackwell and Charles Patin of Baton Rouge are, in all probability, correct in their interpretation of the state’s open meeting laws (Article XIL, Section 3 of the 1974 Louisiana State Constitution and Louisiana Revised Statute 42:19).

But this is Louisiana and it has been the experience of LouisianaVoice and other members of the media that the law is whatever some judge says it is. Judges apparently have wide discretion in concocting their own interpretations of the law to accommodate whomever the judges wish to accommodate—usually campaign donors.

The three plaintiffs in this case have the full moral support of LouisianaVoice but the reality is there is usually negligible correlation between law and justice once you walk through those courtroom doors.

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You would think a room full of lawyers wouldn’t have to be told the legal definition of a public meeting as it pertains to cameras. But then again, members of the Louisiana State Law Institute’s Children’s (LSLI) Code Committee aren’t used to media coverage.

So, it might be somewhat understandable that they were a little surprised when blogger Robert Burns showed up with a video camera. But freaked out to the point that members demanded that Burns turn off his camera? Seriously?

It’s a poor reflection on a committee, whose membership includes a judge and a ton of lawyers, to even suggest, let alone demand, that Burns, who publishes the video blog Sound Off Louisiana, shut his camera off during its meeting on Friday. And it’s even more astonishing that one member, an attorney, would tell Burns that his interpretation of the open meeting laws entitled him to record the meeting on video was incorrect.

Judge Ernestine Gray, a judge of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court since 1984, should certainly know better than to chirp, “As an individual, I have a right not to be on there (the video).”

Um…sorry, your honor, but you do not have that right. This was an open meeting of an official state government body and the open meetings statutes clearly contradict your claim. And it’s a sad indictment of our judicial system that you, a sitting judge, should lay claim to such blatantly inaccurate privilege.

The committee was meeting pursuant to House Concurrent Resolution 79 of the 2016 legislative session in which State Rep. Rick Edmonds (R-Baton Rouge) requested that LSLI “study and make recommendations to the legislature regarding abuse of incentives in the adoption process.”

The full text of HCR 79 can be seen HERE.

LSLI was to have a report to the legislature “no later than 60 days prior to the 2018 regular session of the legislature.” That would put the committee’s deadline somewhere around Jan. 18, 2018 and more than a year after passage of HCR 79, nothing had been done by the committee, which found itself up against an imposing deadline when it convened last Friday.

In fact, member Isabel Wingerter kept repeating during the meeting that there was no way the committee could have a report completed in time for proposed legislation to be introduced in 2018.

Edmonds, however, told members that while he had gone through the committee out of respect, there would be legislation filed for the upcoming session and that he already had a number of co-sponsors for his anticipated bill.

Abuses in the child adoptive process is a subject that Burns has already done extensive work on and, with his assistance, LouisianaVoice is going to be taking a long look at those who broker adoption deals between birth parents and adoptive parents and how those individuals can sometimes become part of a “bidding process,” playing one set of adoptive parents against another in order to broker a better deal.

It’s a murky area, virtually unknown outside the immediate circle of those families actually involved in the process of adoption and frankly, those involved would like to keep it that way. While LouisianaVoice is coming in a little behind the curve already established by Burns, we feel strongly that the entire process deserves a thorough investigation—from the aforementioned so-called “bidding process,” to the shirking of responsibility for investigating same by various state agencies who consistently punt when the subject of a possible criminal enterprise is brought to their attention.

All that probably explains the sensitivity to video on the part of the committee members but it certainly does not excuse either their attempted evasion of the open meetings law or of their trying to make up new law on the fly.

The meeting started with LSLI staff attorney Jessica Braum can be heard on the video whispering to Burns to turn his camera off. “It’s a public meeting,” Burns responds, “and I’m going to videotape it.

Burns said Braum made her request after being prodded to do so by fellow LSLI member attorney Todd Gaudin.

Moments later, Burns was again confronted, this time by committee member Isabel Wingerter who asked if he was videotaping the meeting to which Burns responded, “Clearly, yes.”

“We are not sure that’s appropriate,” Wingerter said. “What would you do with the film?”

Burns responded with a question of his own: “Is this or is this not a public meeting of a public body?”

“Yes, it is.”

“That’s all I have to explain,” Burns said, “and I’m not going to explain any further.”

It was at this point in the exchange that Judge Gray said she had a right not to be on video. “Not if you’re part of a public body,” Burns said. “Not if you’re attending a public meeting.”

Baton Rouge attorney Todd Gaudin inquired of Wingerter if Burns would be publishing the video. When Wingerter relayed the question to Burns, he again responded, “Is this a public meeting?” When she again affirmed that it was, Burns said, “It has every right to be republished.”

And this was when it really got interesting. Gaudin, whose practice primarily is in the area of adoption services and who served as the attorney for a prospective adoptive couple who ended up losing the child to another couple at the last minute, told Burns, “I don’t agree with your interpretation of the statute.”

That’s quite a statement coming from someone who is supposed to know the law.

Burns, digging his heels in, told the committee, “I have a right to videotape these proceedings and short of law enforcement coming in here and dictating it be turned off and escorting me out, the camera stays on.”

The camera stayed on.

And for Gaudin’s erudition, it can be found in R.S. 42:13. Here is the link: Public policy for open meetings.

And just in case he’s too busy to read the entire statute, here are the relevant parts:

  • “Meeting” means the convening of a quorum of a public body to deliberate or act on a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power. It shall also mean the convening of a quorum of a public body by the public body or by another public official to receive information regarding a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.
  • “Public body” means village, town, and city governing authorities; parish governing authorities; school boards and boards of levee and port commissioners; boards of publicly operated utilities; planning, zoning, and airport commissions; and any other state, parish, municipal, or special district boards, commissions, or authorities, and those of any political subdivision thereof, where such body possesses policy making, advisory, or administrative functions, including any committee or subcommittee of any of these bodies enumerated in this paragraph.
  • Every meeting of any public body shall be open to the public unless closed pursuant to R.S. 42:16, 17, or 18. (R.S. 42:16, 17, and 18 give very specific reasons under which a public body may enter into executive session—that that is a moot point since the committee never entered into executive session.)

And there is this statute which addresses the right to video record public meetings:

23. Sonic and video recordings; live broadcast

  • A. All or any part of the proceedings in a public meeting may be video or tape recorded, filmed, or broadcast live.
  • B. A public body shall establish standards for the use of lighting, recording or broadcasting equipment to insure proper decorum in a public meeting.

Again, it’s worth mentioning that the members of the LSLI Children’s Code Committee are law school graduates.

Could it be that Gaudin, Wingerter, Judge Gray, and Braum were all absent on Videotaping Public Meetings day?

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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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