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An interesting scenario is playing out up in Bossier Parish that could impact the landscape in the 2019 state elections and the 2020 congressional elections with key players being U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson and Bossier Parish Superintendent of Schools Scott Smith.

Back in 2015, there was an uproar over students’ plans to install “prayer boxes” at Airline High School in Bossier City. While the controversy died down rather quickly, it provided a window for then-State Rep. to lead the fight against the ALCU right on into Congress.

Today, the dispute is between the Bossier Parish School Board and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State over last May’s Benton High School graduation ceremonies that opened and ended with prayers and Smith is right in the middle of the controversy.

http://www.shreveporttimes.com/story/news/education/2017/09/25/bossier-schools-respond-complaint-graduation-prayers/699983001/

Cynics are asking, “Why Bossier?” and “Why now?”

The scuttlebutt, when plotted out, makes good political sense and a couple of comments from Smith’s wife, former State Rep. Jane Smith only serve to validate the rumors.

But first some background:

During Johnson’s time in the State Legislature, he authored House Bill 707, known as the MARRIAGE and CONSCIENCE ACT, which would have prohibited the state from denying any resident, nonprofit or business a license, benefits or tax deductions if the business took actions “in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction” about marriage.

Critics said the bill had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with discrimination against same-sex marriage and the bill died in committee only to have Bobby Jindal promptly issue an executive order to enforce the intent of Johnson’s bill—a similar one of which had already been struck down in Kentucky by the courts.

JANE SMITH, a former Bossier Parish School Superintendent in her own right who was in her third term and term-limited by the Louisiana Constitution, was appointed by Jindal in 2012 as deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Revenue even though, as she admitted to a friend, she knew “nothing about revenue.”

So, what to make of all this?

Well, word is that Johnson has his eyes on bigger and better things than being a lonely voice among 435 members of the U.S. House.

Governor?

Nope. That plum belongs to U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, presently a not-so-lonely down-home voice among 100. It’s the worst-kept secret in Louisiana that Kennedy wants desperately to challenge Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2019.

The plan, according to some observers is for Johnson to run either for lieutenant governor or attorney general. Barring entry by any other candidates in those two races, we would be left with the less-than-desirable choice between Johnson and Billy Nungesser or Johnson and Jeff Landry.

Should that scenario play itself out and should Johnson be elected to one of those statewide posts, that would leave the door wide open for Scott Smith, who those same observers in northwest Louisiana, is already being groomed to run for Johnson’s vacated seat in a special election in early 2020. Johnson is tight with Landry but if Landry opts for a run at higher office, Johnson may feel the job is his by divine right. At any rate, speculation is the deal has already been cut.

Far-fetched? Perhaps not so much. The information making its way down to LouisianaVoice is that Jane Smith is already telling close friends that she has accepted a lobbying job in Washington.

All we can say for certain in all of this is anytime a politician waves a Bible while wrapped in the flag, little good can come from it. Sanctimony is not a trait becoming to anyone.

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As I listened to testimony on Public Radio during Monday’s House Intelligence Committee hearings on efforts by Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, I was struck by a number of things, all of which precipitated thoughts that were something akin to, for lack of a better term, free-association.

I’m not into psychoanalysis or Freud, but it was borderline eerie how the testimony carried me back through this country’s darkest moments, culminating with the traumatic years of Watergate and Richard Nixon.

Three similarities struck me all at once, similarities that are not so much striking as chilling.

First, the indignant shock of having an adversary interfere with our elections is nothing more than what the old folks back in Ruston used to call the chickens coming home to roost.

This is in no way meant to apologize for Donald Trump because, quite frankly, he scares me to death. Nor am I justifying meddling in our electoral process by Vladimir Putin. If he did corrupt our democratic process—and all evidence certainly points to that—it is reprehensible on his part and treasonous on the part of any American, including Trump, who might have had a hand in that scheme.

But I would suggest it might be a bit disingenuous to beat our breasts about interference in free elections when one considers our own track record in that dark little chapter of American history that they don’t teach in schools.

Political scientist DOV LEVIN, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie-Mellon University, has conducted independent research that shows that the U.S. attempted to influence the elections of foreign countries at least 81 times between 1946 and 2000. Those efforts, often covert in their execution, included everything from CIA operatives running successful presidential campaigns in the Philippines during the 1950s to leaking damaging information on Marxist Sandinistas in order to sway Nicaraguan voters in 1990. Altogether, the U.S. likely targeted elections in 45 sovereign nations around the world during this period.

The second thing that struck me was the concern over leaks expressed by committee members during the questioning of FBI Director James B. Comey and National Security Administration Director Admiral Michael S. Rogers. Some seemed far more concerned with leaks of classified information about surveillance of American citizens than with the accuracy of what has been going on with the Trump administration and its close ties with Russia. U.S. Rep. Trey GOWDY (R-S.C.) used most of his time trying to establish that there was no exception for reporters who published classified material. He hinted that those reporters should be prosecuted for publishing classified information.

He’s a poor student of history—and of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of free speech and a free press via the First Amendment.

He also must have a short memory, or perhaps he’s just a lot younger than I.

In the dustup to Watergate, the Nixon administration in 1971 did its dead-level best to squelch the publication by The New York Times of a highly classified document that came to be known as THE PENTAGON PAPERS.

Officially entitled United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, it was a U.S. Department of Defense history of the U.S. political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.

So dull was most of its narrative that it could have served as a cure for insomnia. But other parts literally crackled with insights into how Lyndon Johnson “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress,” wrote The Times. The papers also revealed that the U.S. had secretly enlarged the scale of the war by bombing nearby Cambodia and Laos and conducted coastal raids on North Vietnam, none of which were reported in the mainstream media.

The papers were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the study.

And before there was a Watergate break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters on June 17, 1972, there was the September 1971 break-in of the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist by Nixon’s White House Plumbers, so called because of their attempts to stop leaks.

Now, nearly half-a-century later, Trump advisor Stephen Bannon says the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and admonishes them to “keep its (sic) mouth shut and just listen for a while.” He is followed by Rep. Gowdy who suggested on Monday that reporters should be prosecuted for publishing classified information.

Well, looking back some 46 years, the publishing of the Pentagon Papers was probably the best thing that ever happened to this country because it revealed just how duplicitous our Vietnam policy was and just how badly—and often—our leaders lied to us. So I can’t help but wonder if the leaks of classified information today may be yet another informational breakthrough that will ultimately expose even more lies and deceit.

Which brings me to my third point.

So, perhaps Gowdy and his colleagues should not wax so indignant about leaks. Perhaps they should tone down their rhetoric a bit because there were some other stories, editorials and essays which appeared in The Nation magazine over a period of six decades as layer after layer was peeled off the rotting onion that was Watergate—and beyond—which turned out to be eerily prophetic in their characterization of Nixon and what might follow if we as a responsible electorate did not remain vigilant and informed.

Those essays, editorials and stories have been compiled into a fascinating book entitled Smoking Gun: The Nation on Watergate, 1952-2010. Following are excerpts from that book.

Robbins Burling, on Dec. 10, 1973, wrote an article headlined “Impeachment—or Else: The Future of the Presidency.” Here are a few highlights from that article:

  • “Our most serious danger is not the tyranny of the next few years. It is that if we fail to root out the tendencies toward tyranny shown by the present (Nixon) administration, we shall set precedents that will lead inexorably to more vicious tyrannies in the future. How do we prevent, not just in the years but in the decades to come, a repetition of the horrors that we have recently endured?”
  • “Would-be tyrants will always aspire to the Presidency, and an occasional rascal is certain to gain the office. What we need is to remake the Presidency so that such men cannot do irreparable damage.”
  • “If the President escapes punishment this time, every future President will know himself to be immune from punishment. It will not be long before another man with tyrannical inclinations turns his own band of henchmen loose upon the nation. The next time we may not have a Congress controlled by the opposition party. The next group of burglars may be less clumsy than the bunch that bungled the Watergate job. If future Presidents know they are safe from punishment, we can be certain that they will abuse their powers. They will subvert the system that put then into office.”

Nearly nine months later and only three weeks after Nixon’s Aug. 8, 1974, resignation, Mark Harris on Aug. 31 wrote a scathing article entitled “Nixon: A Type to Remember.” In it, he listed some of Nixon’s characteristic traits:

  • He asserts that poor people are dishonest (“welfare chiselers”) but he lines his own pockets.
  • He prefers capital punishment, prisons and other forms of punishment to rehabilitation and education.
  • He favors legislation assisting the rich, the powerful, the corporate and the military.
  • He is always discussing himself, even when he hopes you will think he is talking about, say, international relations.
  • He suddenly reverses himself.
  • He denies that he will reverse himself.
  • He presents himself as a “manly” man.
  • He commands young men to go to war, but he does not wish to pay his taxes.
  • He employs the media to publicize himself; he condemns the media when they displease him.
  • He calls for “unity” while dividing.
  • He advocates economy but he spends lavishly, especially for such products as military machinery.
  • He speaks often of bargaining from strength (but) when he traveled to Russia his situation was weaker than any President’s had ever been.

But it was Gene Marine, writing “What’s Wrong With Nixon?: Public Life of a Cardboard Hero” way back on the Aug. 18, 1956, when Nixon was still Eisenhower’s Vice President, who said it best:

  • “Among Nixon’s critics the idea is widespread that he is quite without convictions (and) that the cardboard figure he presents is in fact all there is to him: the face turned ever toward personal gain, the back turned always on scruple or principle—no more to him than that.”

And now, as the House Intelligence Committee plows through information on leaked documents—then and now—interference in democratic elections—then and now—and shadowy deals by a paranoid, self-absorbed, President—then and now—does any of this bring on a faint sense of déjà vu?

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Okay, class, listen up. Today’s lesson is about a place called the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center—so called because it originally was constructed as a weather station..

For the sake of simplicity (and because I’m too lazy to write it out every time) we will hereafter refer to it as M-WEOC.

If you are of my generation and you read the book or saw the 1964 movie Fail Safe, featuring Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman, Walter Matthau and Dom Deluise, among others, it  was called Mount Thunder, but the reference was obvious.

M-WEOC is a civilian command facility located in Virginia and is a major relocation site (read: a place to run and hide) for high-level (not you and me, noooo) civilian and military officials in the event of a national disaster so there may be a continuity of government. (Some—any—continuity of government would be pretty nice right now.)

The underground component—the bunker—contains 600,000 square feet. Following the 9-11 attacks, most of the congressional leadership (read: cowards) was evacuated to Mount Weather by helicopter. Being elected Speaker of the House does carry certain privileges.

The National Gallery of Art from 1979 to 1981 developed a plan to transport valuable paintings in its collection to Mount Weather via helicopter. (Are you kidding me?). While I approve of the arts, there are a lot of things I would be trying to save before some painting of a limp pocket watch or a Campbell soup can or something painted by a guy with only one ear. Apparently those high-level civilian and military functionaries plan to sell the artworks when they emerge from the underground bunker at M-WEOC—if there’s anyone left to sell them to.

Would you like to hear who else is included among the A-list to be evacuated to M-WEOC?

FEMA. That’s right, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the same people who brought you those splendid recovery efforts for Katrina and more recently the devastating floods of Southeast Louisiana.

M-WEOC, it seems serves as FEMA’s center of operations.

If an enemy ever attacked this country, FEMA, with its unprecedented record of ineptitude, might be spared just so it could finish off what the bombing missed. Given its performance record, that scenario may be closer to the truth than we would like to believe.

A friend and regular reader of LouisianaVoice observed somewhat caustically, “If we have a nuclear attack or other disaster that takes most of the rest of us out. High-ranking FEMA officials will be among those saved. What a waste.”

The Baton Rouge Advocate’s REBEKAH ALLEN wrote on Tuesday (Dec. 12): “For the amount of money FEMA is spending on temporary mobile homes for flood victims, the federal agency could buy displaced residents modest houses in some parts of Baton Rouge.”

The basis on which she wrote that was a document provided to U.S. Rep. Garrett Graves which revealed that FEMA’s typical cost for the purchase, transport and installation of each FEMA trailer placed on the property of a flood victim is a cool $129,200.

If the “manufactured housing unit” (a FEMA euphemism for trailer but hey, a rose by any other name…) is placed in an existing commercial mobile home or travel trailer park, the cost of leasing the site pad increases the tab to $149,000 and if placed in FEMA designated group sites, then the price jumps to $170,000.

That’s for a living space of a whopping 980 square feet. My 2,300-square-foot home cost me less than $129 thou.

(And John Kennedy thinks the state has a spending problem.)

“You’re saying, ‘We may be slow, but at least we’re more expensive,’” Graves said.

Here’s the breakdown, according to Allen:

  • Cost of FEMA trailer: $62,500;
  • Installation: $23,000;
  • Maintenance: $15,400
  • Transportation: $5,000
  • FEMA’s administrative overhead cost: $23,000.

Tito Hernandez, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer (how’s that for a snappy title?), had a well-reasoned, logical explanation.

Of course he did.

The FEMA trailers meet strict safety standards set by the federal government.

Well, Tito, every doublewide mobile home sold on every commercial lot in America meets “strict safety standards” set by the federal government. “The FEMA unit is strong, it’s a higher quality, it’s more solid than many being sold commercially,” he said.

Sure they are, Tito. And we still remember those pieces of crap foisted off onto those wretched Katrina victims. Weren’t we also told then what a great deal those were?

Borrowing the mantra of former Wisconsin Democratic Sen. William Proxmire, Graves calls the money spent on the trailers the “fleecing of America, example no. 10,000.”

That same friend/reader that I alluded to earlier experienced his own FEMA nightmare when his 33-year-old rental trailer flooded in Central:

“We had little choice but to get a new one at 100 percent our expense or walk away from the property entirely. Why didn’t we have flood insurance you might well ask?  Even if we had, we would have gotten nothing because a 33-year-old trailer has no value. We replaced this old trailer with a brand-new, but smaller one (1,000 sf living area) – ordered it a week after the flood and it still is not ready for occupancy since we still don’t have it plumbed so there is no water.

“Everything about this has been a nightmare from permitting through trying to get people over there to do site prep, electrical, etc.  We are very lucky to have finally convinced the City of Central to give us a “temp to perm” electrical connection so the air conditioning could be installed last Thursday. I could go on and on and on, but to get to the cost:

“I had a slab poured, lot work done, including demolition of the old trailer, paid extra to have the new trailer elevated to 2 feet above the basic flood elevation, paid and engineer to do two flood elevation certificates during the permitting, have done extra work on the trailer, including adding two porches at a cost of $7,000 and doing other extras like fence repairs, putting in blinds, buying new hardware for the washer/dryer, etc. I project with all this, my total cost will be about $62,000.

“This whole FEMA thing is utterly and completely stupid. With all the extras I did that FEMA isn’t even doing, it cost me less than half what they paid for doing a piss-poor job of installing some trailers. And what are they going to do with them when they get them back in 18 months? FEMA is another of the many fine reasons people have absolutely no faith their government can do anything right. Everybody would have been a lot better off if FEMA had simply given them $129,000 and, based on the total costs, it would have probably cost taxpayers less and would certainly have been less hassle for everybody. Don’t you think somebody could rent a pretty nice place for $7,166.67 per month for the 18 months they are allegedly loaning people the ridiculous trailers for? I am disgusted and angry about this whole thing. I don’t know what the answer is at FEMA, but some ass-chewing and firing might help.”

But not to worry. When the next national disaster hits, our critical congressmen, generals and FEMA will be safely ensconced in that underground bunker at M-WEOC (with sufficient food and drink) while the rest of us kick into survival mode.

We can only hope FEMA has a better contingency plan for that disaster than it does for hurricanes and floods.

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How much does a legislator cost in Louisiana?

Certainly, that’s a loaded question, an ambush question, if you will.

Some go pretty cheap. Others not so much.

For the record, State Rep. Terry Brown (I-Colfax) says he is not for sale.

Brown, testifying before the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee last Wednesday in favor of House Bill 11, did what few legislators will ever do: he related payoff overtures he said were made by representatives of the target of the bill, Clean Harbors and its efforts to burn some two million pounds of explosives from Camp Minden in Webster Parish.

A massive explosion occurred at Camp Minden in October 2012, creating a mushroom cloud that loomed 7,000 feet over the town. That led to decision to burn 15 million pounds of explosives on open “burn trays” at the site.

That decision set off a firestorm of protests that involved citizens and officials from Baton Rouge to Washington and the plan was eventually scrapped in favor of moving the burn to the Clean Harbors location in Grant Parish where (surprise) the plan was met with an equally hostile reception.

Clean Harbors, Inc. was founded in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1980 and has expanded to 400 locations, including more than 50 hazardous waste management facilities, in North America. Revenues for the company in 2016 totaled $3.28 billion, according to the Clean Harbors Web site. http://ir.cleanharbors.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=96527&p=irol-news&nyo=0

Clean Harbors in February withdrew its permit request to quadruple the amount it can burn at its facility located about five miles northwest of Colfax, although the company continued its open burning of explosives at the site. http://www.thetowntalk.com/story/news/local/2016/02/19/hb-11-next-battleground-colfax-open-burning/80565032/

HB 11, by Reps. Brown and Gene Reynolds (D-Minden), would prohibit open burning statewide as a method of disposal of explosive materials, such as those burned at Clean Harbors’ Colfax facility.

“…I was asked as a state representative by a person representing Clean Harbors, ‘What would it take for me to pull this bill?’” Brown testified. “They (Clean Harbors) started out by saying they would pay for our sewer system in South Grant Parish, that they would give my schools playground equipment, my Little League ball teams uniforms—and they would make me a part of it.

“Ladies and gentlemen of this panel, I am not for sale,” Brown said.

Here is the link to his testimony: http://house.louisiana.gov/H_Video/VideoArchivePlayer.aspx?v=house/2016/apr/0427_16_NR

It was a long committee meeting, lasting just more than five hours. To get to Brown’s testimony, move the cursor below the video to 3:04:30.

The bill barely made it through the committee by a 9-8 vote and will be debated on the House floor on Wednesday.

Representatives voting against the bill in its amended form were Committee Chairman Stuart Bishop (R-Lafayette), James Armes (D-Leesville), Jean-Paul Coussan (R-Lafayette), Phillip DeVillier (R-Eunice), John Guinn (R-Jennings), Christopher Leopold (R-Belle Chasse), Jack McFarland (R-Jonesboro), and Blake Miquez (R-Erath).

Amendments to the bill http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=998279 included a self-defeating provision allowing the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources to authorize open burning of munitions or waste explosives by the military or by state police and one that would make the effective date of the bill January 1, 2018, which would allow continued burning for an additional 18 months.

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Twenty-four hours of reflection and some well-chosen observations from retired State Budget Director Stephen Winham have us now considering the possibility that the letter from those 11 Republican Louisiana House members seeking advice on the controversial SAVE bill may not have been so much a capitulation to Grover Norquist as it was a set up that left Bobby Jindal looking like the fool he is on the eve of his formal entry into the GOP presidential sweepstakes.

And that classic no-response response by Norquist only adds to the speculation that the whole thing was a devilishly clever trap designed to ensnare Jindal in his own web of deceit and rigid demagoguery.

If that indeed was the purpose of the letter, we at LouisianaVoice have more than a little egg on our faces and an apology to the 11 legislators on our lips because, quite frankly (and there is no spin we can put on this) we were taken in as were most of us who read the letter for the first time.

Unlike traditional media, we do not bury our “clarifications” in some obscure part of our publication with a two- or three-sentence acknowledgement of the error; we put it out there for all to see.

We’re still not certain that the letter was written with the intent of putting Jindal in a box from which there was no graceful exit as opposed to the first blush appearance of pathetic groveling, but it’s sure beginning to look that way. And if that is what it was, we can only add, Touché.

The only thing that gives us pause is the fact that four members of the Ways and Means Committee who signed the letter—Cameron Henry of Metairie, Kirk Talbot of River Ridge, Joe Harrison of Gray, and John Schroder of Covington—also signed Norquist’s “no tax” pledge.

Moreover, five of the 11 (Brett Geymann of Lake Charles, Harrison, Henry, Schroder and Talbot are either current or former members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the national non-profit organization funded by some of America’s largest corporations, including Wal-Mart, major oil, pharmaceutical, and insurance companies and Koch Industries.

But perhaps the biggest indication that the letter was an elaborate ruse, and one we did not initially consider, is simply this: Why would the committee release the letter—and Norquist’s response—to the media unless it was just that: a scheme to back Jindal into a corner? It would be too convenient to say the letter was simply leaked; it’s more likely now, considering the meek response by Norquist, that it was spoon-fed to the media with the express purpose of embarrassing Jindal.

“I have read and re-read the letter,” said Winham in an email to LouisianaVoice, “and I still see it as a direct hit on Norquist and Jindal and that it serves as an official record of opposition  to SAVE and to Grover Norquist and to Bobby Jindal.

“I also agree that, in addition to its (SAVE’s) utter stupidity, it would establish a horrible precedent that (says) pure gimmicks suffice to do anything with taxes,” he said. “I am not anti-tax and (I) believe anybody ought to have sense enough to know which services we need and that they have to be paid for. I am not for using totally idiotic loopholes as a means to pass taxes and then pretend you didn’t.”

Winham said that had he been a legislator, “I would have signed that sucker” with the view of telling Grover where he could stick it and with the admonition to “leave us alone.”

Winham is not alone in concocting his theory, not by a long shot. Sharing his views were superb Baton Rouge Advocate political columnist Stephanie Grace who has recently been taking Jindal to task on his budget proposals and his silly presidential run.

In her Tuesday column, she said the letter makes a lot of sense on a number of levels—mostly because it puts the ball squarely in Norquist’s and Jindal’s corner.

http://theadvocate.com/columnists/12585102-123/stephanie-grace-saving-save-a#comments

Another is a blogger known only as Skydancer. In her most recent post, she pours the metaphorical gasoline on the fire that is quickly bringing to a boil the hot water that Jindal finds himself in only days before his (yawn) announcement that he is a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Skydancer notes that Rep. Joel Robideaux (R-Lafayette), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in the letter that the bill, if enacted, “would successfully and irreparably establish the precedent that future legislatures and governors can raise taxes on a nearly unlimited basis and then claim revenue neutrality solely based on the creation of a purely fictional, procedural phantom paper tax credit.” http://skydancingblog.com/2015/06/08/monday-reads-take-our-governor-please/

But the most important endorsement of Winham’s theory comes from none other than Norquist himself. The leader of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), Norquist initiated the infamous “no tax” pledge that a couple of dozen Louisiana lawmakers signed off on, including those four Ways and Means Committee members.

So, what was the response to the letter by Norquist? He punted. “ATR is agnostic as to whether a credit or deduction is good policy. We merely call balls and strikes regarding whether a change in tax law results in a net tax increase,” he wrote back. “ATR does not support or oppose the SAVE Act. While the SAVE Act does include a credit that can be used to offset other tax increases, there are other ways to achieve revenue neutrality, such as by repealing the corporate franchise tax and/or cutting the state income tax. If you don’t like the SAVE Act, why not find other offsetting tax cuts that are more to your liking?” he added.

Obviously, that response is significant.

First, it gives the Ways and Means Committee all the ammunition it needs to kill the SAVE bill and for the Legislature to move forward in the final week of the 2015 session in passing a budget that will almost certainly be vetoed by Jindal.

Second, it sets up a confrontation that could result in just the third override of a governor’s veto in Louisiana history.

That will look great on Jindal’s resumé when he makes his official announcement in New Orleans on June 24.

 

[TA1]

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