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In terms of head-scratching bewilderment, the appointment of Stephen Russo as interim secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH)—even with that word “interim” thrown in—by Gov. John Bel Edwards makes about as much sense as his reappointment of Mike Edmonson as State Police Superintendent back in 2016.

The governor’s announcement of Russo’s appointment to fill in for the departed Dr. Rebekah Gee was made on Friday (Jan. 31).

Compounding the obvious lack of vetting, word is that while a brief story by Sam Karlin in the Baton Rouge Advocate quoted Edwards as saying he has a “long list” of potential candidates for permanent secretary, the fix is apparently in for the appointment of Courtney Phillips. Click HERE to read that story.

I’ll get to Phillips later. First, let me re-hash a couple of LouisianaVoice stories that featured Russo rather prominently—and not in a particularly favorable light.

LouisianaVoice on January 18, 2018, almost two years ago to the day, published a story detailing a sexual harassment lawsuit settlement by an LDH female employee. More specifically, the story told of how the perpetrator, Attorney Supervisor Weldon Hill, was shielded and protected by Hill’s boss, Executive Counsel Stephen Russo. You can read that story by clicking HERE.

When the woman complained to Human Resources and to Hill’s supervisor, she was moved from her eighth-floor office to a converted storage room on the fifth floor. She was not provided a telephone nor was she allowed to take her computer with her to her new location.

Besides the legal settlement, that lawsuit cost the state more than $76,000 in LEGAL FEES.

We followed that story with another exactly three months later on April 18 in which we published a string of emails written by Russo on his state computer on state time on behalf of Dr. Gee during her negotiations  with LSU to retain her medical license, credentials and board certifications through continued part-time employment as a physician at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

(That alone should have triggered conflict of interests questions since she would be performing work for an agency overseen by—and which receives funding from—the agency she was heading at the time.)

Her appointment as LDH secretary was announced on Jan. 5, 2016, and by 3:12 p.m. on Jan. 13, Russo was already emailing LSUHSC Chancellor Dr. Larry Hollier on Dr. Gee’s behalf.

A rank and file employee would be called on the carpet and perhaps fined for such a breach of ethics. A civil service employee of another agency, for example, was once fined $250 because a vendor had sent her—unsolicited—a baked ham for Christmas.

So, now the message is clear: vastly different standards apply dependent upon whether you are a rank-and-file civil servant or a privileged executive counsel of an agency. Play your political cards right and you might even get appointed interim secretary. Never mind those sexually harassed employees you leave in your wake.

Which now brings us back to Courtney Phillips, a Port Sulphur native who previously worked as Deputy Secretary of LDH, then known as the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), in the Bobby Jindal administration. She left that position in February 2015 to become CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

On Feb. 13, 2015, LouisianaVoice posted a story dealing with her employment at DHH during which time her mother was hired as a DHH employee, raising questions of NEPOTISM.

She left Lincoln in August 2018 for Austin to become Executive Commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Agency but not before leaving a path of destruction and low morale in her old agency.

On March 6, 2018, BRAD GIANAKOS, chief counsel for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, by all accounts a professional who cared deeply about his work, was summoned to the office of the agency’s chief operating officer where he was summarily fired and escorted out of the building.

He wasn’t the only one. Others met similar fate with no explanation other than the agency wanted to move “in a different direction.”

But when Gianakos interviewed for other state jobs, he found the doors closed. He concluded that he was being blackballed even though there never any allegations of wrongdoing or criticisms of the job he had done for two decades at HHS.

A month later, he was dead. Suicide.

And four months later Phillips moved on, leaving behind an agency missing many longtime managers and administrators who also left but for different reasons: a harsh working environment.

And now, less than four years after leaving Louisiana in the broad daylight and less than two years after departing Lincoln, she may again be on the move—this time back to Louisiana where she will rejoin Russo.

It’s enough to make you scratch your head in bewilderment.

 

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It looks as though the John Hays Memorial Rumor Mill might become a regular feature of LouisianaVoice.

For the unindoctrinated, Hays, who died five years ago following a protracted battle with cancer, was publisher of Ruston’s Morning Paper, a weekly edition that took on the entrenched power structure and never let up.

But what began as a one-man crusade against the local hospital and local, municipally-run power plant quickly expanded into the scourge of any would-be swindlers, scam artists and flim-flam peddlers. He once took on Ponzi schemer Steven Hoffenberg who headed up a scam called Towers Financial Corp. (TFC) and sent Hoffenberg packing off to federal prison, copping his Morning Paper a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in the process.

As I said yesterday in the column immediately below this one, the misfortune of having one’s name crop up in his Rumor Mill was the local equivalent to having Mike Wallace show up at your office for an interview on 60 Minutes.

And as I said in the opening paragraph, his Rumor Mill may, of necessity, become a permanent feature here after picking up on the rumor we heard today.

(Drum roll, please):

Politics can be a dicey game as two high-ranking officials in the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office apparently have learned, according to reports that have reached the executive offices of LouisianaVoice in beautiful downtown Denham Springs.

Without naming names (we’ll do that when we get official confirmation), word is Gov. John Bel Edwards has sent down word from the State Capitol’s Fourth Floor that the two LSFM officials, one stationed in the LSFM’s Baton Rouge headquarters and the other in Lafayette an hour to the west, should no longer be considered state employees.

Their sin? Backing the wrong horse in the recent gubernatorial election and doing it openly.

But, hey! That’s the price you pay for working as an unclassified state employee. Unclassified means you are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the governor, unprotected by Civil Service.

Unclassified, unlike classified (Civil Service) employees are free to participate in political campaigns, but they best be careful which candidate they back. Support the wrong one and your career can—and will be—cut short.

These two, we’re told, actively campaigned for Republican Eddie Rispone, apparently fairly certain that a Democrat couldn’t possible be elected governor twice in such a red state dominated by the likes of Lane Grigsby, Rispone’s mentor and principal benefactor. Surely Edwards’s win over David Vitter four years ago was an anomaly, more of an indictment of Vitter than an endorsement of Edwards, a (shudder) Democrat.

That may have been where the smart money was but the smart money doesn’t always take into account the intangibles in a tight election and the intangibles in this one included the impotence of Donald Trump’s support of Rispone (three trips to Louisiana) and an unexpectedly high turnout in support of Edwards.

And unclassified employees who rode the wrong pony are now paying the price.

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There was an interesting contrast between Donald Trump’s visits to Monroe on Nov. 4 and Bossier City 10 days later.

In Monroe, Trump endorsed challenger Robert Mills in a state senate race 100 miles to the west, as reported by, among others, THE HAYRIDE, one of the state’s principal cheerleaders for Eddie Rispone and Trump. (That was the same rally, by the way, in which Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin violated state law that prohibits the secretary of state from participating in any partisan campaign other than for his own election by ENDORSING Rispone for governor.)

Mills is seeking to unseat incumbent Ryan Gatti in Senate District 36, which encompasses all of Webster Parish and parts of Bienville, Bossier and Claiborne parishes. Both men are Republicans but Gatti has offended the Republican hierarchy with his non-partisan voting record in the House and by supporting some of the programs of Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

Around the same time that Trump was endorsing Mills in that Monroe appearance, Monroe radio personality Moon Griffon got Gatti squarely in his crosshairs, posting on FACEBOOK a copy of an invitation issued by Gatti for a luncheon hosted at his home at which Edwards would be the “special guest.”

Griffon, falling in line with Trump, Rispone, and The Hayride, obediently LAMBASTED Gatti on his radio show (to listen, go to the 10-minute mark of the link).

So far, so good. Everyone is in lockstep. Trump, Rispone, Griffon, The Hayride, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, LABI (Mills actually sat on the board of NORTH-PAC, one of LABI’s four directional political action committees).

Until last night, that is. When Trump appeared in Bossier Thursday night, he was smack dab in the middle of District 36 and in the perfect position to again throw his support behind Mills.

In fact, The Hayride on Monday of this week said, “It’ll get even worse when Trump repeats the (Monroe) performance in Bossier City Thursday, at which (time) the president will repeat his endorsement of Mills over Gatti inside of District 36 itself.”

Except he didn’t.

Conspicuously absent in Trump’s Bossier City rally last night was any mention of Mills.

None. Zip. Nada.

Could Ashley Madison have played a role in Trump’s decision not to call for the election of Mills?

LouisianaVoice on Oct. 31 had a STORY that Mills’s name had appeared on the Ashley Madison web page, the online dating service designed specifically for married people seeking a discreet extra-marital affair.

Oops.

So much for the presidential endorsement on the candidate’s home turf.

The absurdity of it all has prompted one lifelong Republican to observe, “This is the craziest election I’ve ever seen. Mike Johnson is behind all of it. (He’s a) fake Christian conservative hatchet man. I just voted for my first Democrat ever.”

 

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It’s been a long time since an election in Louisiana has featured the level of accusations and misleading ads.

Like four years.

It was in 2015 when then State Rep. John Bel Edwards rolled out his “Prostitutes over Patriots” ad to taint U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the latter’s attempt to succeed the controversial Bobby Jindal to the state’s governor’s mansion next to Capitol Lake.

That ad was a reminder of Vitter’s embarrassing scandal over his skipping a vote to honor 28 soldiers killed in action in favor of taking a call from a PROSTITUTES.

That ad eclipsed Vitter’s attempt to smear Edwards for his visit to a black nightclub that featured semi-nude dancers.

In an ugly sidebar, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, a Republican who succeeded the colorful—and controversial—Harry Lee, got involved in the race, first by endorsing Edwards and then by collaring an apparent campaign mole attempting to record a session of Edwards supporters at a coffee claque.

Ugly indeed. Worthy of Earl Long.

Fast forward to 2019 and little has changed.

Both candidates, incumbent Gov. Edwards, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Eddie Rispone have unloaded a spate of attack ads against each other that have Louisiana voters suffering severe cases of campaign fatigue. If possible, the barrage is worse even than the avalanche of lawyer ads that seem to obscure local newscasts.

Edwards convinced black leaders in New Orleans to remove an ad comparing Rispone to David Duke, prompting Rispone to accuse Edwards of playing the race card, accusing Edwards’ family of racism because his ancestors were slave owners.

Ugly.

Even Donald Trump has inserted himself into the governor’s race, appearing at rallies over the state and charging that Edwards is pro-abortion and anti-2nd Amendment.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Edwards broke with his own party to support and sign into law one of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the nation—the constitutionality of which will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. And Edwards, himself a hunter, is a strong advocate of the 2nd Amendment.

Rispone has fashioned himself as a “jobs creator,” but Edwards ads point out that he has a record of outsourcing jobs to foreign workers who subsequently sued him over benefits. And as for the jobs Rispone says he “created,” Edwards has noted that Rispone’s company has received millions of dollars in tax exemptions for businesses that created precious few jobs.

Rispone has an ad attacking Edwards as being “too liberal for Louisiana” that inserts Edwards responding to the hypothetical “how liberal is John Bel Edwards,” saying “That’s a stupid question.”

Problem is, the Edwards comment is taken out of context. The remark was in response to Rispone’s debate question about New Orleans being a sanctuary city—which, in fact, was an uninformed question, much like Rispone’s claim that the State Constitution contained 400 pages just on the state tax code.

Ugly.

The Edwards campaign features an ad that shows Rispone introducing then-Gov. Bobby Jindal at some function (we don’t know what, but it does appear authentic). His introduction is interspersed with negative news headlines about major budget cuts and budgetary shortfalls that occurred during Jindal’s eight years. Rispone can be heard congratulating Jindal on “a great job.”

The end concludes with a warning that we can’t go back to the Jindal years.

Recently, Secretary of State KYLE ARDOIN apparently violated a state prohibition against him (or any secretary of state) from participating in any partisan election other than his own—because as secretary of state, he is in charge of impartially overseeing all elections in the state—when he appeared in a Trump rally in Monroe and endorsed Rispone.

Ugly.

A Rispone ad inaccurately accused one of Edwards’ supporters, a West Point roommate, of landing a STATE CONTRACT worth up to $65 million. The facts revealed that while Murray Starkel did bid on the coastal restoration contract, neither his firm nor any of the other three bidders received the contract. The ad was subsequently pulled.

A Rispone ad attacking Edwards’ MILITARY RECORD was particularly ugly, especially in light of the fact that Rispone’s primary benefactor, Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby, DROPPED OUT of West Point.

And while Rispone appears satisfied to attack Edwards vis TV ads, he seems reluctant to face Edwards face to face, one on one, other than the formal debates to which he committed earlier. But he was a NO SHOW at a Baton Rouge Area Chamber forum as well as a Baton Rouge Press Club debate, prompting one observer to speculate that he didn’t get Grigsby’s permission to attend.

And while Rispone offers no hard solutions to any of the state’s problems other than to say he is a “jobs creator,” Edwards can—and does—boast that he took over a state wallowing in eight consecutive years of budgetary deficits of the Jindal administration to produce a $300 million budget surplus.

Rispone’s most effective ad features his daughter Dena extolling his family values, his faith and the fact that he is not only a wonderful father, but a “good man.” It’s easily the least offensive ad that either candidate has rolled out, even more effective than the image of Edwards driving down the road in his pickup truck with his arm draped around his wife’s shoulder. That ad may have been genuine, but I couldn’t help but feel it appeared contrived, posed. Rispone’s daughter, by contrast, was about as sincere as any ad in the entire festering campaign and, looking directly into the camera, she comes across as a truly loving daughter. Nothing about it seems rehearsed.

Rispone, however, all but negates that ad with another in which he opens by saying Louisiana is the best state in the nation but immediately clicks off a multitude of poor rankings that causes one to question his claim of our being the “best” state.

There can be no denying there are lingering problems that are so entrenched from decades of back room politics that put lawmakers’ personal gain of the state’s best interests.

In 2018, Louisiana had an unemployment rate of 4.9 percent, fourth-highest in the nation, and a poverty rate of 18.6 percent, the nation’s third-highest.

There are those who are not as enamored as Rispone’s daughter. And the skeptics include at least two elected Republicans.

One, a state senator, cautioned, “If you think Jindal was bad, just wait until you see what happens if Rispone is elected.”

Another, a parish official, said Rispone would bring back former commissioners of administration Kristi Nichols and Angelle Davis from “political oblivion” to work in his administration.

Those two, and others Republicans with similar opinions, will be targeted by the State Republican Party as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).

Regardless, the citizens of Louisiana will breathe a sigh of relief when this circus is over.

Political campaigns in Louisiana can wear even the most resilient observer down to his or her last nerve.

Ugly.

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John Paul Funes walked into federal district court in Baton Rouge on Thursday, not in an orange prison jump suit but in a dark business suit with a nicely-pressed blue shirt accented by a pink tie, for his sentencing in connection with his EMBEZZLEMENT of nearly $800,000 from a Baton Rouge hospital foundation—a children’s hospital foundation at that—and received a whopping 33 months in prison.

Funes, 49, was already receiving more than $350,000 per year in salary from the foundation he headed but that, apparently, was not enough.

He could have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for his transgressions but U.S. District Judge John deGravelles, who earlier accepted Funes’ guilty pleas, apparently felt that 33 months was punishment enough for the white-collar crimes of wire fraud and money laundering.

Contrast that, if you will, with the sentence handed down to one BERNARD NOBLE, an African-American not pulling down $350 thou a year.

Back in 2010, he was arrested while biking in New Orleans—a bicycle, mind you, not a Lexus or BMW—for possession of three grams of marijuana. It would be seven years before he saw his family again.

Sentenced to 13 ½ years in prison at hard labor without the possibility of parole as a habitual offender—he did have previous drug arrests, none of them violent and none which involved stealing from cancer-stricken children—he spent seven years behind bars before being finally freed on parole, thanks in large part to the efforts of billionaire New York hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb who spent years lobbying courts and Louisiana elected officials to reverse Noble’s sentence.

Three grams. Enough for two whole joints.

Meanwhile, Funes pilfered gift cards intended for cancer patients. He flew family and associates to LSU and Saints football games on charter flights he labeled on the books as “outbound patient transports,” and funneled nearly $300,000 to the parents of two former LSU football players–$107,000 to the mother and sister of former quarterback Rohan Davey (they kicked back $63,000 to Funes) and $180,000 to James Alexander, father of former LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander.

But for DEREK HARRIS of Abbeville, an unemployed Gulf War veteran, things didn’t turn out so well. He’s currently serving life imprisonment for selling $30 worth of weed to an undercover agent.

After posting bond following his 2009 arrest, Harris, who also happens to be African-American, waited three years for his trial to start. He chose a trial by judge rather than facing a jury. On June 26, 2012, the judge found him guilty and imposed a 15-year sentence.

But that apparently wasn’t enough for the district attorney, who then filed a habitual offender bill of information based on Harris’s prior arrests and on Nov. 15, 2012, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—his service to his country be damned. For $30 worth of marijuana, which shouldn’t rise to the level of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from a foundation intended for children suffering from cancer and giving it to football players’ families.

Did I mention that Funes got just 33 months for that? Or that he was making $350,000 a year when he went off the rails?

Noble was riding a bicycle and Harris was unemployed and were sentenced to 13 ½ years and life, respectively, for pot. Funes stole from sick babies. And he’ll serve maybe half of those 33 months before he’s a free man again. Maybe.

Following Noble’s conviction, two district court judges attempted to lower his sentence to five years because of his lack of a violent record but Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro put the kibosh on those attempts. Loeb, a major supporter of criminal justice reform efforts, eventually learned of his case and became involved.

Appeals to then-Gov. Bobby Jindal fell on deaf ears and it wasn’t until John Bel Edwards became governor and efforts were begun to reduce maximum sentences for marijuana possession. Finally, through the combined efforts of Loeb, Nobel’s attorney Jee Park of the Innocence Project of New Orleans (IPNO), Cannizzaro finally relented and he was re-sentenced to eight years.

Funes, however, received 33 months for embezzling from a charitable foundation to which people contributed in good faith in the belief they were helping sick children, some of them terminally ill.

Of course, Funes did help a couple of LSU football players and he did make restitution of $796,000, which is equivalent to little more than two years’ salary for him, so that must make it all right.

 

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