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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

No sooner had The Donald pulled off the biggest political upset since dewey-defeats-trumanthan the speculation on who would hold which cabinet position had begun. And it got downright scary.

There was former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani being touted as Attorney General.

Yep. That’s all we need: A doddering old has-been who has all he can handle to remember his own name standing in as the premier legal authority in the land. He’s probably the only one who could make John Mitchell look good.

And Newt-for-God’s-sake-Gingrich as Secretary of State?

And the Republicans thought Hillary was bad in that role?

Next thing you know, Trump will be tossing out Charles Koch’s name as Secretary of the Interior.

And how about Chris Christie as Secretary of Defense?

Or Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as Secretary of the Treasury? I mean, look what he’s done for that state’s finances.

But according to The Wall Street Journal, in a story quickly picked up by state media, a familiar name (to Louisianans, that is) is being pitched as a potential choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Bobby Jindal.

Are you kidding me?

Apparently not. http://www.wdsu.com/article/report-former-gov-bobby-jindal-being-considered-for-cabinet-role-in-trump-administration/8263712

For some reason the locals believe that because he worked for former Gov. Mike Foster as Secretary of Health and Hospitals and for former President George W. Bush as a special adviser to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, he somehow has a shot at a similar role in the Trump administration.

I would refer those reporters to chapters 30 through 37 of my book Bobby Jindal: His Destiny and Obsession. Those chapters include the sordid details of how Jindal single-handedly dismantled the state’s model public teaching hospital system to benefit a few greedy political hangers-on—even to the point of signing off on a contract containing 50 blank pages. A rhetorical question: would anyone reading this ever sign his or her name to any document containing even one blank page?

As an added bonus, I would refer you to Chapter 17 of the book which details how Jindal’s Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols landed a cushy lobbying position with Ochsner Health System after helping negotiate a deal whereby Ochsner would partner with Terrebonne General Medical Center to take over operation of the state’s Leonard Chabert Medical Center in Houma.

At least the WSJ thought to mention failed GOP presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson as also being under consideration for the Health and Human Services post.

That would, after all, make a little more sense. After all, Carson did pipe up from time to time on behalf of Trump’s candidacy. We heard nary a peep from the Louisiana wannabe wunderkind Piyush Jindal after he removed himself from the Republican presidential sweepstakes last November…and no one noticed (of course they didn’t notice while he was running, either). All he did was join the board of some Texas corporation and quickly fade from memory—helping the Republican Party but crushing my book sales in the process.

Hey, Donald, here’s a heads-up. After Tuesday’s race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by David Vitter, there are two former U.S. Representatives who ran unsuccessfully for the upper chamber who are now unemployed.

And they both just happen to be doctors.

But how can you trump (pun intended) a Rhodes Scholar?

If James Comey wasn’t doing such a splendid job, you might even consider Louisiana State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson to head up the FBI. Think how regal he’d look sitting behind old J. Edgar’s desk.

But while you’re at it, you may be needing a new Secretary of Immigration and Border Protection. We understand David Duke just pulled an astonishing 3 percent of the vote in that same U.S. Senate race and may be looking for something to do. And we already know the rapport he has with minorities. Why, he’d fit right in.

And while you’re at it, you may be on the lookout for someone to replace Jeh Johnson as Secretary of Homeland Security.

There’s this fellow who previously did such a stellar job running the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control—into the ground. Troy Hebert did even worse than Duke, racking up a whopping .5 percent of the vote in the 24-person Senate race. That’s one-half of one damn percentage point. Imagine what he could do for Homeland Security.

He may even still have his badge from his ATC days.

Yep, Donald, if you’re looking for washed up political has-beens to lead your administration—and it appears that you are—we have a boatload of ‘em down here in Louisiana.

Take your pick.

Please.

(Apologies to Henny Youngman.)

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Contests for the U.S. House and Senate are going virtually unnoticed as the nation becomes more and more transfixed, shocked—and disgusted—at each new charge of sexual abuse and deleted emails that arises in a sordid presidential race no one dared imagine could ever happen in this country.

Also generally overlooked are scores of local elections scattered across Louisiana’s landscape.

One of those is the race for Mayor-President of East Baton Rouge Parish.

Incumbent Mayor-President and erstwhile candidate for Lieutenant Governor Kip Holden is term-limited and has now set his sights on the 2nd Congressional seat now held by U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond.

Predictably, the job has attracted quite a few applicants—12 to be precise. One of those is Republican State Sen. Bodi White of Central, coincidentally, the largest fundraiser to date.

With just over three weeks to go before the Nov. 8 election, White has begun his TV ad blitz. And like candidates before him (including Holden in his initial run) has included a campaign promise to “improve public education” by “building more schools.”

White knows full well there is no way he can make good on such a preposterous promise because the mayor-president has absolutely zero to do with education. That’s the responsibility of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board into whose operations the mayor and parish council have no input.

He knows that but to voters who do not know, it sounds wonderful, like a promise from on high. And that’s the sad part; voters are generally uneducated on the issues and their decisions are often based on cockamamie sound bytes like the one currently being aired by White. He could just as easily say he’s going to build a wall along our southern border and make Mexico pay for it. There are, I’m certain, voters who would buy into that just as quickly.

But there’s more to white than blustering campaign rhetoric.

In 2008, he introduced a bill in the Legislature to create the Central Recreation and Park District and take Central out of BREC (BREC is an acronym for Baton Rouge Recreation—we don’t get it, either).

On May 6, 2008, he revealed his ownership interest in a tract of land BREC wanted for a park. Then on May 14, 2008, White and BREC director Bill Palmer announced a “compromise” under which White would withdraw this legislation to take Central out of BREC.

That “compromise” consisted of a resolution for BREC to purchase some of White’s business partner’s land and develop the adjacent land for the company by whom White was employed.

Not too shabby a deal if you can swing it and apparently his position as a state representative gave him just the political stroke to pull it off. No abuse of his office there.

In addition, BREC agreed to pay Parcel 52, LLC, $130,000 to help build a 750-foot-long road with curbs and sidewalks to the BREC site. The road goes through the center of the eight-acre commercial property owned by Parcel 52, LLC, and adds significant value to the commercial property, which could be developed for 10-20 commercial sites or offices. http://www.tigerdroppings.com/rant/politics/bodi-white-proof-that-louisiana-has-low-standards-brec-bribed-him/28772800/

Parcel 52, LLC was registered with the Secretary of State. The partners in the company were Brandon and E. Gordon Rogillio, Jr.  and Rep. Mack (Bodi) White. White, who later relinquished his interest in the property, is a realtor who works for Brandon Rogillio. http://centralcitynews.us/?p=3373

Gordon Rogillio later explained that White invested nothing in the property and received nothing in the transaction. http://centralcitynews.us/?p=3427

White’s boss prospered nicely, however, and therein lies the possible quid pro quo.

A timeline provided by a local newspaper, the Central City News, published by former State Rep. Woody Jenkins, further revealed details of the entire transaction: http://centralcitynews.us/?p=3373

In a throwback to the days of raging newspaper wars (days we sorely miss, by the way), a rival publication, Central Speaks, attempted to exonerate White from any wrongdoing in the BREC flap. http://www.centralspeaks.com/old/rep-bodi-white-brec-sports-park-just-the-facts/

Just another day in good old-fashioned Louisiana politics.

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“Just because a cat has kittens in the oven doesn’t make them biscuits.”

It’s a quote attributed to Malcolm X, reprised by Kelsey Grammer in an episode of the number one sitcom Frasier, but actually has its origins in New England. It means, “Just because you were born here, it doesn’t make you one of us.”

It could just as easily be updated to apply to State Superintendent of Education John White’s lame explanation of a settlement of a lawsuit by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) against citizens James Finney, a technical college math instructor and Mike Deshotels, a former educator and past executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators.

White was quoted in the Baton Rouge Advocate as saying the ruling by 19th Judicial District Judge Janice Clark “merely resolved what had been a conflict between two laws” because federal law instructed the department not to release data that could be used to personally identify a child while state law mandated the disclosure of all public records.

http://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/courts/article_76e860ca-8bd9-11e6-9963-cf5829bedcf3.html?sr_source=lift_amplify

Bull feathers.

Department legal counsel Joan Hunt said in a Wednesday email to members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) that a declaratory judgment was sought to resolve “tension” between free disclosure of public records and protection of student information according to federal law.

Balderdash.

Neither Deshotels nor Finney ever requested information that would identify a single student.

Period.

And John White knew that. Period.

Since becoming Superintendent of Education in January 2012, White has made a career of stalling on compliance with public records requests if not denying them outright.

LouisianaVoice was once forced to sue white over public records and won an award of $2800 ($100 per day for each day delayed per request), plus court costs. The only downside of that judgment was that White was not held personally liable, meaning the $2800 and court costs were picked up by Louisiana taxpayers.

But in suing two Louisiana activist citizens (who admittedly had been something of a nuisance to White with their monitoring of the department), White reached a new low in attempting to avoid being held accountable for the manner in which he runs the department.

His lawsuit, in terms of disgraceful acts, ranks right down there with those judges in Monroe who sued the Ouachita Citizen, a newspaper in West Monroe. The newspaper’s sin? It made public records requests of the court.

Do we detect a disturbing trend here? You bet we do. The Louisiana Department of Education, district courts, and other public bodies have virtually unlimited financial resources at their disposal and most, like the Department of Education, have in-house legal counsel like Joan Hunt. They can initiate lengthy—and costly—legal action against any citizen and people like John White and district judges don’t have to pay a penny of the costs of litigation, courtesy of Louisiana taxpayers.

Private citizens do not enjoy that same advantage. It’s not a level playing field. And even if the public body does not sue, it can drag its heels on compliance, forcing the citizen making the request to either give up or enter into expensive legal action with no guarantee the court will uphold the public’s right to know.

At last Monday’s hearing, Judge Clark let it be known that her patience was wearing thin with public officials who attempt to hide behind legal maneuvers in an attempt to avoid compliance with the law.

The LDOE attorney opened by saying the department had “informal guidance” from the federal government that “we do not have to comply with FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests.”

Perhaps sensing the mood of the court, the state withdrew its demands for attorney fees from Deshotels and Finney, adding that “only two people are interested in the data.”

Judge Clark said it was an “improper purpose” to deny information to the public as a retaliatory action.

“Counsel should meet and work this out,” she said. “The public (meaning the court) takes a dim view of public officials using public resources to delay compliance with public records laws.”

Deshotels attorneys J. Arthur Smith and Chris Shows met outside chambers for more than two hours with LDOE attorneys but were unable to arrive at an agreement on the release of the requested documents.

When informed of the continued impasse, Judge Clark, visibly angry, said, “I am issuing a subpoena for John White to be in court at 9:30 tomorrow (Wednesday) morning for cross examination.”

When White got word of that, it was something akin to Moses coming down from the mountain with the 10 Commandments. Suddenly minds came together and miraculously, there was accord and LDOE agreed to three stipulations which settled the suit filed in April by White and the department against Deshotels and Finney. http://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/education/article_536e2fac-b5e2-575c-87f6-1a991bf0f455.html?sr_source=lift_amplify

The first stipulation mandates that the suppression of data in the economically disadvantaged and English language learner or English proficiency sub-groups of the Education Department’s multi-stat reports is not in compliance with the Louisiana Public Records Act.

The department agreed not to suppress student enrollment data in responding to requests made under the act in the second stipulation.

The final stipulation says requested data will be made available to the public dating back to 2006.

Deshotels said the declaratory judgment filed against him and Finney was never about clarifying the legal issues relative to certain public records and student privacy as claimed by White.

Instead, he said White’s action was “purely an attempt to discourage citizens from seeking to independently research the claims and conclusions made by White and his staff.” “If citizens are forced to face legal challenges and high legal fees for seeking public records, the Department can continue to manipulate and spin what should be factual information about the operation of our schools.”

Sadly, Judge Clark’s ruling will do little to expedite timely compliance with future public records requests to other state agencies.

Even as this is being written, former commissioner of administration Kristy Nichols has already cost the state more than the original judgment against her in another lawsuit by LouisianaVoice.

LouisianaVoice received a pittance in a lawsuit in which the Division of Administration (DOA) under Nichols had dragged its heels for more than three months on several separate public records requests.

LouisianaVoice calculated DOA owed some $40,000 in penalties for non-compliance but was awarded less than $2,000, plus costs and legal fees, by the court. Even then Nichols appealed the decision. And although the court held Nichols personally liable, meaning she alone was responsible for the penalty, the state is picking up the tab for that appeal, which partially upheld the district court ruling.

Nichols, still not satisfied, and still not paying a cent of the legal costs (though LouisianaVoice is paying its legal costs, applied for writs to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

As of this date, the state has spent far, far more than the penalty imposed on it in trying to avoid paying the penalty and LouisianaVoice has spent more than it will ever be awarded, provided the Supreme Court even upholds the lower court.

And while the obvious question is: Is throwing good money after bad a wise way to spend state funds? An original penalty of less than $2000 has now cost the state several times that in defense costs and the tab is still running.

And John White’s obfuscating dribble notwithstanding, that’s what Louisiana citizens are faced with in trying to hold its state government accountable.

 

 

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MAGNIFYING GLASS

By Ken Booth

Guest Columnist 

Under the provisions of Louisiana 44:1 et seq. (The Public Records Law), should any local or state government official raise questions as to whether requested records are public, the agency’s custodian of public documents is required to notify in writing the person making the request of the custodian’s determination and the reasons, including the legal basis. Said notice shall be made within three days of the request exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays (emphasis added).

The law is pretty plain. It doesn’t say “may be made,” “might be made” or “should be made” within three days. The word used was shall.

MIKE EDMONSON PHOTO

But with the introduction of the new administration, elected and appointed officials in Louisiana seem to have decided they are exempt from provisions of the state law…one of them, the head of the State Police, of all people, even having “manufactured…own loophole for denying public records requests,” as reported by Louisiana Voice. https://louisianavoice.com/2016/06/01/lsp-stakes-out-claim-that-investigations-records-are-exempt-from-public-records-law-if-no-disciplinary-action-is-taken/

Are they perhaps taking their cues from federal officials?  Within the past week, for instance, the State Department told a federal court that processing a demand for documents relating to Hillary Clinton and her aides would take as long as 75 years and would stretch “generations.”

Besides Obama, of course, Nixon, both Bushes and Bill Clinton have regularly invoked executive privilege as a means of protecting documents from public scrutiny.

What brings this to mind are a series of demands for public records recently involving three areas of significant public interest but which have either gone unacknowledged or denied or even fought with lawsuits against the public seeking the records.  That’s a mean stretch even by Louisiana’s political and corruption standards.

When the weekly Ouachita Citizen sought to follow-up on a state audit that pointed to possible payroll fraud involving a law clerk for the 4th Judicial District Court, the court’s judges balked and denied the paper’s request for disciplinary action taken against court clerk Allyson Campbell over her alleged falsification of time sheets and other public documents.

When the newspaper filed a complaint with the District Attorney, the court filed a lawsuit against the newspaper which from a financial standpoint would effectively throttle further attempts to litigate the issue.

The paper has multiple public requests in at the office of state Attorney-General Jeff Landry which have for weeks gone unanswered.

Similarly, a couple of my own requests (shown here) to the new “transparency-minded” and “aggressive” Republican Attorney-General remain without result except for one letter which said it “may take some time.”

In a June 7th E-mail to Landry’s office, I wrote: “I would very much appreciate either the documents requested sixteen days ago or an opinion from that office on why they cannot be produced. Please know this is a public records request that will not go away silently.”

Landry’s press secretary Ruth Wisher has made sure that reporters know that her boss doesn’t always return her texts. Well, that certainly makes everything hunky-dory.

BOOTH REQUEST

AG RESPONSE TO BOOTH

BOOTH FOLLOW UP REQUEST
           Known records requests to the AG’s office also demand access to a state police report on its investigation into the allegations of possible payroll fraud and destruction or concealment of court documents. A report on the findings from a companion investigation by the Inspector General’s office was released back on April 15th. The state police report is known to be in the hands of the Attorney General.

All of this is at odds with the very public Landry who has been throwing his weight around the capitol lately pushing for control of his agency’s own finances, making national headlines while trying unsuccessfully to crack down on illegal aliens, and squaring off (at least publicly) with the Gov. John Bel Edwards as if he hopes to succeed him some day.

But Landry and the 4th Judicial District Court in Ouachita Parish are not the only ones playing keep-away with public records.

LouisianaVoice has been repeatedly stymied by the Louisiana State Police with respect to sought after records.

In fact, as a recent LouisianaVoice post notes, Edmonson has manufactured his own loophole for denying public records requests after tiring, he suggests, of the public learning of “far too many instances of misconduct at LSP followed by a mindset of circling the wagons.”

Several high-profile cases of alleged improper State Trooper conduct have been determined to have been free of wrong doing and are therefore exempt  from public records laws if no diciplinary action is taken. That’s staking out a rather questionable claim by the Supertindent.

Curiously, however, his agency did release records showing payroll fraud had occurred at Troop D headquartered in Lake Charles when the lieutenant there was accused of having instructed the men under his command to pad their time sheets to reflect work that had not been performed.

Ironically, that’s the same charge investigated by the same LSP against the law clerk in Ouachita Parish, the report of which has been hidden from public scrutiny even amid growing speculation nothing will come of the charges against her or the Judges who approved her bogus time sheets. It should be noted that the Troop D lieutenant was found to have engaged in “no wrong doing” and access to any investigation findings with respect to him has been denied. However, a trooper he supervised and who figured in the padded time sheets was fired.

The Superintendent of the Louisiana State Police is appointed by the Governor with consent of the State Senate. Edmonson had—and continues to have—the support of Gov. Edwards.

Edwards is also credited with preserving through his influence, at least indirectly, the job of another Jindal administration hold-over department head, Education Superintendent John White. While White actually is appointed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education over which the governor has little control since most board members are elected, his stated support of White certainly didn’t hurt.

JOHN WHITE PHOTO

White, a 2012 BESE appointee, has been under considerable public fire over his steadfast defense of the Common Core program.

White has filed a lawsuit against two individuals seeking public records in five different requests from the Department of Education, presumably to block their access to dirty laundry in that agency as might be said of the lawsuit by the Judges in Monroe against The Ouachita Citizen.

Even considering Louisiana’s notorius reputation for politial scandals, suing private citizens or even the news media by government agencies has plunged the state’s standards to a new low.

As has been pointed out elsewhere the use of unlimited financial and legal resources—all paid for by the taxpayers—to block citizens with limited financial means is a dangerous threat to the very notion of checks and balances that are supposed to protect the public from abuse.

For those elected Louisiana officials to sit back and do nothing to put a stop to this unprecedented assault on the public’s right-to-know is pretty much tantamount to an endorsement of such actions.

And if the civilian public looks the other way when this kind of mess is exposed and doesn’t demand that it stop then expect the level of distrust to grow.

 

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By James C. Finney, Ph.D.

Guest Columnist

(Editor’s Note: James Finney is one of two Louisiana citizens (Mike Deshotels is the other) who was named as a defendant in a lawsuit by State Education Superintendent John White in an effort to thwart efforts by the pair to obtain public records from the Department of Education. White has defended his action by pointing out he is not seeking monetary damages from Finney or Deshotel. He failed to mention, however, that it will cost them money from their personal funds to defend the lawsuit while White has the financial resources of the State of Louisiana at his disposal.)

 

Much has been written about the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program, otherwise known as the Louisiana Scholarship Program, or the voucher program. To summarize: The Department of Education allows vouchers for almost any private school that wants them (or so it seems) and then performs minimal oversight.

The students are tested, but the Department works hard to make sure taxpayers don’t get to see any useful data. The program is based on a premise that it helps poor kids access private schools. But “poor” is 2.5 times the poverty level which, for a family of four, means an annual income of $59,625 is low enough to put a kid in a private school at taxpayer expense. And, of course, the state refuses to release any data about how many children are at which ends of that range of income. And the point is, allegedly, to allow kids to escape failing public schools.

Never mind that the students may have never attended a public school. Ever.

But this post isn’t about that voucher program. It’s about the sneaky alternative that funds private schools by way of tax rebates. The Tuition Donation Rebate Program allows donors to fund private school tuition and recoup most of that donation as a tax rebate.

As might be expected, there are middlemen taking their cut of the money. At the beginning of the program, there was only one such organization—Arete Scholars Louisiana. The registered agent, Gene Mills, he of the Family Forum, has apparently neglected the paperwork required to keep charter 41200779N active with the Louisiana Secretary of State.

Mills, founder of Louisiana Family Forum, was the centerpiece of an extraordinary post by Jason France on his Crazy Crawfish blog in October 2012. https://thecrazycrawfish.com/tag/louisiana-family-fourm/

Founded in 1998, Louisiana Family Forum included as its “Independent Political Consultant” and “Grassroots Coordinator,” former State Sen. Dan Richey. http://www.lafamilyforum.org/about/

As an example of the family values for which Family Forum supposedly stands, Richey, while serving as a state senator from Ferriday in the 1980s, gave his allotted Tulane scholarship to a Caddo Parish legislator’s daughter in exchange for that legislator’s awarding of his scholarship to Richey’s brother as a means of circumventing the informal prohibition against giving the scholarships to immediate family members.

Superintendent John White’s Department of Education, with the approval of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), thought it was critical that there be multiple organizations available to help people support private education rather than pay taxes. So they gave grants of up to $499,750 to ACE Scholarships Louisiana (charter 41590796K) and up to$500,000 for New Schools for Baton Rouge Excellence Scholarship Fund (charter41726088K) so that these limited-liability corporations could each set up their business of accepting donations, funneling them to private schools, and providing the documentation required for the donors to get tax rebates from the Louisiana Department of Revenue.

According to the Louisiana Nonpublic School Choice 2015 Annual Report, which was submitted to BESE but not accepted, the tuition donation rebate program started in 2013-14 with Arete.

Arete’s 2013-14 Arete’s 2014 Annual Report indicates that the organization disbursed 14 scholarships, worth a total of $60,975.02, and all funded by the Atlanta Falcons.

No, that’s not a typo: Those Atlanta Falcons. That amount was confirmed by the Louisiana Department of Revenue: One unnamed taxpayer was issued a rebate in the amount of $60,975.02 in tax year 2014.

According to the state’s 2015 annual report cited above, there were two Student Tuition Organizations active in 2014-15: Arete and ACE. Arete’s 2015 Annual Report confirms the number of scholarships reported by the state, 50, at 24 schools, with a total value of $180,381, while ACE Scholarships Louisiana LLC’s 2015 Annual Report reports 13 scholarships, three schools, and a total of $40,780.67.

The donors of note on Arete’s annual report include the Atlanta Falcons, Chik-fil-A, James Garvey and several other individuals. ACE’s donors were David George and Edward Rispone. According to the Louisiana Department of Revenue, the total of rebates awarded in 2015 was $101,659.85, and they ranged in size from $950 to $47,105.

The numbers exploded in 2015-16, though, especially for ACE.  The state’s voucher report indicates that Arete awarded (as of March 2016) 205 scholarships at 50 schools, ACE awarded 558 scholarships at 77 schools, and New Schools awarded 13 scholarships at four schools. The names of the schools, donors and dollar amounts likely won’t be available for several months, however.

The targets for total scholarship awards (remember those half-million dollar contracts a few paragraphs above) were 1,000 for this year and 1,250 for 2016-17 (ACE) and 75 and 125, respectively for New Schools. So apparently New Schools aimed low and shot lower. Perhaps that’s a good thing, in that taxpayers will see less revenue diverted away from the state’s coffers. On the other hand, this spreadsheet indicates that, as of the end of 2015, New Schools had already collected $300,000 on its contract, and ACE had already collected $249,874.98.

It’s interesting what a person can learn from availing themselves of their rights under Louisiana’s public records law (Title 44).

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