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Once upon a time, there were 10 ventilators in a building on East Airport Drive in Baton Rouge that could have been used to treat COVID-19 patients.

Once upon a time, that 22,000-square-foot-building on East Airport Drive also contained four operating rooms, two recovery rooms, a CT scanner, an MRI scanner, oxygen, a lab and sterilization facilities.

No more. Not since 2016 when state authorities raided the offices of Dr. Arnold Feldman at the behest of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners which decided it would come down hard on Dr. Feldman for offenses that have never been fully explained.

They pulled his license as his punishment. But then, the board has since offered to reinstate him—provided he pays nearly half-a-million dollars in extortion fees.

Why would I call it extortion? Consider this: His fine was $5,000 but the “cost” of the proceeding [court costs, if you will] was a cool $456,980.60. Anyone from the board care to explain that in a way that makes sense?

Didn’t think so.

Could it have been coincidental that Dr. Feldman was considered to be competition for Dr. J. Michael Burdine, who was founder of and a PARTNER in The Spine Diagnostic Promotional Clinic on Flanders Drive?

Could it also have been mere coincidence that Burdine was serving as president of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners at the time Feldman was shut down?

An added note of interest is that Burdine is an officer in the LOUISIANA SOCIETY OF INTERVENTIONAL PAIN. A fellow officer in the organization is lobbyist Alton Ashy.

Ashy is a power player of some renown around the Louisiana State Capitol. Among his long list clients is the Spine Diagnostic Center of Baton Rouge.

So Burdine, in his capacity as president of the State Board of Medical Examiners, took out one of the main competitors of his Spine Diagnostic Center which is represented before the legislature and the governor by lobbyist Alton Ashy who sits on the board of the Louisiana Society of Interventional Pain with Burdine.

You’d be surprised what small circles some people move in in Baton Rouge. Tight little circles like that are difficult to penetrate and like tightly-formed hurricanes, pack considerable clout.

Meanwhile, 10 ventilators and an assortment of other critical medical equipment are no longer available. They were sold by Dr. Feldman, who now resides in a motor home in Florida when he could be in Baton Rouge treating coronavirus patients.

Only in Louisiana…

 

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Hey, folks, you want to see how your government really works for you? Read on.

In May 2018, House Concurrent Resolution 47 by State Rep. Kirk Talbot (R-River Ridge) was approved unanimously by both the Louisiana HOUSE and SENATE.

The RESOLUTION called on the Louisiana Department of Insurance to “assemble a task force to address the high automobile insurance rates and (to) submit a report with findings and recommendations to the Senate and House committees on insurance by March 1, 2019.”

An 11-person task force was chosen on July 31 and Talbot, who received $19,000 in campaign contributions from insurance interests in 2019, was named chairman and Sen. John Smith (R-Leesville) was named vice-chairman. Also named from the legislature was State Sen. Wesley Bishop. [Smith was term-limited and unable to seek re-election in 2019 and Bishop in January pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.]

Other than those three, the committee was pretty much top-heavy with members from the insurance industry. Six members represented:

  • The Property Casualty Insurers Association;
  • The American Insurance Association;
  • The National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies;
  • The Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of Louisiana;
  • The Professional Insurance Agents of Louisiana;
  • The Louisiana Department of Insurance.

One of those is Kevin Ainsworth, a registered lobbyist who lists Progressive Insurance among clients he represents before the legislature. He also is an attorney with the politically-connected firm Jones Walker, which has contributed more than $300,000 to political candidates since 2015.

Only two of the 11 members (other than the three legislators) could be considered consumer advocates and one of those has questionable credentials as a former appointee of Bobby Jindal:

  • A representative from the Louisiana Association for Justice, an organization comprised mostly of lawyers who, for the most part, represent consumer plaintiffs in civil lawsuits, and
  • A representative (Chance McNeely) of the Louisiana Motor Transport Association.

McNeely, you may recall, is the son-in-law of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco who was APPOINTED by Jindal as Assistant Secretary, Office of Environmental Compliance at the Department of Environmental Quality at $102,000 even as the Jindal administration was laying off employees by the hundreds. He didn’t miss a beat when John Bel Edwards became governor, moving seamlessly over to the job as Assistant Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Development at $99,000.

Given Chance’s track record on behalf of the general public at DEQ, the wisdom of his appointment to the insurance task force is questionable at best.

The task force met exactly three times— on Sept. 13, Oct. 18 and Nov. 14—for approximately 90 minutes per session to discuss the complex problem of Louisiana’s high auto insurance rates. And while the meetings were recorded, they were not videoed.

An actuarial subcommittee was appointed and was comprised exclusively of representatives of the insurance industry. The task force never investigated the findings of the actuarial subcommittee.

Moreover, the task force’s actuary report is not posted on any public website nor is it posed in the legislative archives, or the Department of Insurance Archives.

So much for transparency.

The March 1, 2019 deadline for the submission of recommendations to the Senate and House committees on insurance came and went with no recommendations being submitted.

Talbot on March 29, 2019, filed HB 372 entitled “The Omnibus Premium Reduction Act,” named for his task force and consisting of four parts which did little to actually lower insurance premiums.

Not only was there no report released by the task force, but the report has never been made public and no further action, meetings or inquiries have been made by the task force or any of its members to the actuarial subcommittee even though the actuary subcommittee has indicated that the four reform components of the Kirk Talbot bill would not lower rates.

No matter. Talbot and the insurance industry, through radio interviews, social media and numerous newspaper editorials, trumpeted the “drastically lower premiums” HB 372 would produce. Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport), though not a member of the task force and though he never attended any of the committee’s three meetings, testified on the House floor that the task force bill had been thoroughly vetted

Even though the task force did not, in fact, “thoroughly vet” or investigate in any other manner the findings of the actuarial subcommittee, and upon information and belief by some observers that the task force was caught off-guard by the results of the actuarial subcommittee, it chose to run with the bill anyway because of political pressure from the insurance industry.

An army of lobbyists was engaged to pushing the bill through the legislature. It did pass the House by a vote of 69-30 but never made it to the Senate floor.

“It is clear…that the bill, heavily marketed by the insurance industry, was designed to increase rates under the subterfuge of reducing rates,” one opponent said of HB 372.

That’s not surprising. Several years ago, I had a legislator introduce a bill that would’ve mandated a 10% premium reduction for anyone who voluntarily took a defensive driving class, the idea being if a person volunteered for a defensive driving class, s/he would become a better driver, thus reducing the accident rate and, in the process, lower the cost of insurance claims. You’d think the insurance industry would welcome such a bill but instead, their lobbyist came out with guns blazing and shot the bill down in committee.

So now, it’s 2020 and as we are set to open a new session on Monday, no fewer than 59 bills dealing with some form of insurance have been pre-filed, 11 of which deal with auto insurance rates. Most of those 11 are redundant, with only about four separate issues actually being addressed.

And good luck getting any of those passed.

All of which goes back to my oft-repeated rhetorical question: Who do our elected officials really represent?

 

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You’d think Gov. John Bel Edwards would be a little better at reading the tea leaves.

After all, it was Louisiana’s teachers who first pushed him over the top to win the governor’s election over David Vitter in 2015.

And the teachers again provided needed support when he was challenged by businessman Eddie Rispone who had the backing of would-be kingmaker Lane Grigsby.

So, how did Edwards reward teachers for their support?

A raise of $1,000 per year in 2019. That’s $83 per month before taxes—and that was nearly four years into his first term before he got around to doing that much.

Yes, I know a lot of workers in Louisiana didn’t get raises of $83 per month but before jumping in with that argument, consider what teachers are expected to do (other than teach in a classroom) and how their salaries stack up with other states.

Last April, the NEA released FIGURES that showed Louisiana’s teachers (before that $1,000-per-year boost) still ranked 13th lowest in the nation.

And those same figures showed that the national average teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, had actually decreased 4.5 percent over the previous decade. Teachers were paid 21.4 percent less than similarly-education and experienced professionals, the NEA study revealed.

The national average teacher salary increased from $59,539 for the 2016-17 school year to $60,477 for 2017-18,

The average pay for teachers in Louisiana was $50,256.

So, what did Edwards to this year to try and bring teacher into alignment with other states when he submitted his proposed budget for next year?

Crickets chirping. Nothing. Nada. Nil. Zip.

And his wife was a teacher before he was elected governor. His daughter is a school counselor.

As might be expected, teachers took umbrage at the governor’s slight—as well they should have.

An acquaintance offered a defense of sorts for the governor’s omission. “The Republican legislature wouldn’t approve another teacher pay raise anyway, so he just didn’t brother.”

My response to that is, “So what? Put it in the budget and put the onus on the legislators. Let them explain why Louisiana cannot support its teachers. There are, by the way, part-time legislators who pull down more than starting teachers in this state.

Gov. Edwards did finally reverse himself, but only after teachers bristled publicly. But you’d never know he truly felt their wrath when he offered up a $500 per year raise. That’s $42 per month, a little more than a dollar a day. You can’t even go to McDonald’s with that.

If Edwards is considering a run at John Kennedy’s Senate seat, he’d do well to remember the teachers.

And don’t give me that worn-out B.S. about teachers only working nine months a year. That’s pure bunk. No sooner than the school year is over than teachers must turn their attention to the coming year by preparing lesson plans, cleaning out classrooms, re-stocking supplies and attending meetings.

Teachers endure problems we can only imagine in our jobs. As a news reporter, I would get irate calls from subjects of my stories but try sitting across the desk from an arrogant parent who won’t accept the explanation that their kid, who never received discipline or help with his homework at home, is disruptive, a problem student and deserved that poor grade or suspension.

Teachers must watch for signs their students are abused at home. Ever had to do that in your job? Ever had to look at a bruised child and asked him or her to tell you what happened? It’s a pretty depressing responsibility and can leave teachers sickened with nightmares.

Sometimes teachers are called on to stop a bullet to save a child—and they do it, Alex Jones’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Test papers are taken home by teachers who, while the rest of the family is watching American Idol, must plod through 25 or 30 test papers for grading. They sacrifice time with their own families so they can devote time to their jobs.

Teachers dip into their own pocketbooks to purchase materials for their classrooms. And believe me, that isn’t cheap. I knew a teacher in Lincoln Parish who bought shoes for a child who had none.

They are saddled with tons of paperwork other than test grading and they are burdened with bureaucratic requirements in preparation for standardized testing and if the kids don’t do well, it’s the teacher who bears the brunt of evaluations by politicians who decide who is and who isn’t a good teacher—without ever meeting the teacher or sitting in her classroom.

Teachers must step in to stop fights and God help her if she’s a little too physical with the kids. Might as well go ahead and retain legal counsel.

And sometimes a teacher spots potential in a kid no one else has seen. They take the student under their wing, nurture his/her talents, and develop a kid everyone thought had no future into a productive citizen. On that point, I speak from experience. Thank you, Mrs. Garrett, Miss Lewis, Miss Hinton, Mr. Peoples and Mr. Ryland. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Teachers deserve better, Gov. Edwards. As a friend suggested, “Go big or go home.”

You gave state police enormous pay raises. You gave your cabinet members substantial increases.

Teachers, cafeteria workers and other school employees deserve nothing less than the same consideration you’ve given state troopers and cabinet members.

You’re beginning to look a lot like Bobby Jindal.

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Sometimes it seems the mindset of infallibility of prosecutors is such that they not only cannot admit their own errors, but sometimes even those of their predecessors.

Leon Cannizzaro wasn’t even the Orleans Parish district attorney when 17-year-old Jerome Morgan was convicted in the 1993 shooting death of 16-year-old in a Gentilly motel ballroom.

The DA at the time would have been Harry Connick, Sr., whose office was so notorious at hiding exculpatory evidence from defendants that national publications like THE NEW YORK TIMES, CURRENT AFFAIRS, and THE WASHINGTON POST ripped his office’s practices.

Connick’s reputation was enhanced—if that is the right word—by a model ELECTRIC CHAIR that occupied the desk of one of Connick’s prosecutors. Photographs of five African American men that Connick’s office had sent to death row at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola were “seated” in the photo. The center photo was of one John Thompson who had been sent to death row for a murder he didn’t commit and in fact, was nowhere near the scene of the murder when it occurred.

Thompson sat on death row for 14 years before the Innocence Project of New Orleans discovered exculpatory evidence Connick’s office had withheld and freed him in 2003. An assistant DA, it turned out, had hidden 10 pieces of exculpatory evidence, including test results and a pair of pants in order to protect the DA’s case against Thompson. The pants contained blood worn by one of the victims in the crime, blood believed to be that of the perpetrator. The blood type was B. Thompson’s was O.

He sued Connick and won a $14 million judgment—a million dollars for every year he was held in solitary confinement—but with Clarence Thomas writing the majority opinion, a split U.S. Supreme Court took Thompson’s reward away and he ended up with nothing for his 14 years awaiting his execution.

Thompson, who spent 14 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit and was denied a $14 million judgment for his wrongful conviction, died of a heart attack in 2017 at age 55—14 years after his exoneration.

Fully a quarter of Connick’s convictions during his 30 years as Orleans Parish DA were overturned, each time because of exculpatory evidence that was withheld from defense attorneys.

But Connick’s screw-ups didn’t stop Cannizzaro from attempting to go forward with re-trying Morgan after New Orleans Judge Darryl Derbigny vacated his conviction in 2014 after two witnesses who later recanted their trial testimony, saying that police had steered them to identify Morgan as the shooter when Clarence Henry was killed at a birthday party at the hotel.

In fact, Cannizzaro promptly moved to re-try Morgan and to charge the two witnesses, Hakim Shabazz and Kevin Johnson, with perjury while quietly forgoing any attempt to go after the police officers who the two said coerced their original testimony.

Their attorney even said as much. “If the DA is eager to prosecute for perjury,” said attorney Robert Hjortsberg, “then justice would dictate that he begin with prosecuting the corrupt NOPD officers who coerced false statements out of scared teenagers so they could close this case quickly rather than accurately. There is no justice for a victim’s family when the police don’t arrest the actual perpetrator. And the police department will never correct these lazy, corrupt practices unless the DA begins to hold the department accountable and truly treats all the people of this city fairly.”

Cannizzaro, while refusing to proclaim Morgan innocent of the killing, nevertheless in 2014 dropped the murder charge after a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling said prosecutors could not use transcripts from Morgan’s 1994 trial during a new trial.

That meant that for the first time in 20 years, Morgan was a free man and that should have ended his problems, but like the plot from a Stephen King novel, more horrors lay ahead for him as he encountered something called the BAIL BOND INDUSTRY.

“I am the victim not only of prosecutors who violated the law, but also of our money bail system and the predatory bail bond industry,” Morgan wrote in a letter to the letter of the New Orleans Advocate last year.

When Cannizzaro, in his dogged pursuit of Morgan, decided to re-try him, his bond was set at $25,000—this for a man whose conviction had just been set aside by a judge—and he spent an additional 18 days in jail while his family raised the bail money.

When, after 14 months, Cannizzaro finally relented and dropped all charges, Morgan assumed—wrongly, it turned out—that the bail bond company would return his bail money.

He said he learned that the Louisiana Commissioner of Insurance had investigated the bail bond company that he had paid and found that it had overcharged him for his bail bond. But it was not just him, he said. “The commissioner found that dozens of bail bond companies have overcharged as many as 50,000 New Orleans families by an estimated $6 million,” he said. “That is a lot of people and a lot of money!”

He said he was angry at learning that he’d been overcharged but was confident that he and others would receive compensation.

“I figured the bail bond industry would not be happy about having to return the money. But I did not expect that the Legislature would introduce a bill — SB 108 — that would prohibit the insurance commissioner from ordering this money to be returned and another bill — HB 171 — whose purpose is to protect the bail bond industry’s profits.”

Morgan was referencing SB 108, which passed the Senate by a vote of 36-1 (Sen. Dan Claitor casting the lone nay vote) with two absences (with one of the bills authors, Jean-Paul Morrell, being among the two absentees), and sailing through the House by a vote of 85-0 with 20 absences (sponsor Raymond Garofalo was among the absentees).

So, what, exactly was SB 108, which was signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards as Act 54 of 2019?

Well, basically it says that the rates for underwriters writing criminal bail bonds throughout the state “shall not be subject to the rates set by the insurance commissioner, but shall be set and adjusted by the legislature.”

But then there’s this in Section B of the bill:

“In any parish having a population of more than three hundred thousand and fewer than four hundred thousand persons …no repayment of overcollections as determined by the commissioner shall be required nor shall such actions be considered a violation…”

Well, guess how many parishes just happen to have a population of between 300,000 and 400,000?

And just how did the bail bond industry manage to slide that bill through the legislature so easily?

The same way all controversial legislation seems to get passed: Political contributions or, for a lack of a better term: payoffs. A check of campaign finance records shows pages and pages and pages of political contributions by bail bondsmen. And you just know those contributions were made in the interest of good government.

Contributions were made not only to legislators but to sheriffs as well—25 that we found since 2011. Others were to judges. What political groups have the most clout in the legislature? Sheriff and judges. So when the New Orleans bail bondsmen need favorable legislation to protect their practice of gouging low-income defendants who lacked the expertise or the financial resources to fight back, who do you call on? Your friendly legislators, sheriffs and judges.

“It took 20 years for me to be exonerated,” Morgan said. “But it took only about a month for a bill to exonerate the bail bond industry that cheated my family and my community out of millions of hard-earned dollars.”

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Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur Smith, III, has been named president of a new political action committee (PAC) founded in an attempt to stem the growing trend of economic, religious, gender, racial and healthcare discrimination against American employees.

Stand Up for Workers (SU4W) “was established by people who care about the basic rights of the American worker. We seek to protect the right to a fair and livable wage and benefits; to receive fair and humane treatment in the workplace, including work with dignity; and to have full access to justice, including the right to trial by jury,” according to its web page.

A little background is in order here.

The formation of the new PAC is realistically challenged with overcoming nearly a 50-year head start by big business and business-backed Republican elected officials who, indebted to corporate PACs, have given their tacit approval to the more subtle means of employee discrimination. At the same time, open endorsement has been given the so-called Powell Memorandum of 1971 by then-corporate attorney Lewis Powell, Jr., who shortly after writing his memo, was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Nixon.

The MEMORANDUM, written specifically for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was entitled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System” and served as a master plan for conservative business interests to retake America from the so-called New Deal era. It was supposed to have been confidential, but was discovered an published by columnist Jack Anderson following Powell’s appointment to the Supreme Court.

Powell, who had served as corporate attorney and director on the board of Phillip Morris until his appointment to the Supreme Court, was an unabashed champion of the tobacco industry during his term on the court as well as an opponent of reforms to the automobile industry prompted by Ralph Nader’s expose’ Unsafe at Any Speed, which revealed the auto industry’s higher priority on profits than on safety. Powell called Nader the chief antagonist of American business.

The memo, which foreshadowed several of the Powell court’s opinions served as the blueprint for the rise of the American conservative movement and the formation of a spate of right-wing think tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and lobbying organizations and also inspired the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to become more active in the political arena.

Conversely, as the chamber’s and other conservative organization’s influence gained strength in Washington, the political clout of organized labor weakened, further silencing the voice of American workers.

Following is the full press release announcing the formation of SU4W, as well as a link to the organization’s web page:

 

A group of worker advocates from across the nation has announced founding of a specialized political action committee, “Stand Up for Workers” (SU4W), dedicated specifically to the needs and concerns of American workers.  https://standupforworkers.org/    SU4W is a hybrid PAC, comprising both a traditional PAC and a super PAC.

“Despite recent promises of improvements in work life conditions for working Americans, the plight of middle and lower income workers has, if anything, become more dire,” said Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur “Art” Smith, III, President of SU4W.

Mr. Smith is a 47 year veteran employee-side litigator in Louisiana. He has litigated numerous trials and appeals in labor and employment on behalf of both employees and unions. He is a fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, and has served in numerous positions with the Louisiana Association for Justice, including membership on the Board of Governors, and chair of both its employment and civil rights committees.

SU4W Vice President James Kaster, a Minneapolis, MN attorney, is an experienced trial lawyer who concentrates on representing plaintiffs in employment cases. He is one of only a few plaintiffs’ lawyers who is a member of both the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers and the American College of Trial Lawyers, a group limited to one percent of America’s trial attorneys.  Mr. Kaster has also been a frequent lecturer at continuing legal education seminars and has been active in bar activities, including serving as President of the National Employment Lawyers Association.

“Until now there has been no group specifically dedicated to supporting political candidates committed to sponsoring and voting for legislation aimed at concrete measures that will produce better conditions for the American workers whose labor has formed the backbone of our country’s prosperity,” Mr. Smith said. SU4W will support candidates for all federal offices and will engage in other activities in support of working Americans, such as providing accurate information about candidates, proposed legislation and policies.

Most lower- and middle-income American workers have seen stagnant wages for decades, while executive and professional income has risen astronomically, Smith noted. Efforts to better the lives of workers through measures such as affordable health insurance have been consistently attacked and undermined by the current administration in Washington.

SU4W focuses on three goals:

  • more equitable pay for workers;
  • fair and humane treatment in the workplace, and
  • full access to justice, including trial by jury. Trial rights have been substantially eroded by the advent of arbitration agreements extracted from workers through the threat of not being hired.

SU4W will solicit applications for support from candidates, and will engage in a careful vetting process to ensure that the candidates selected satisfy a clear set of criteria showing they will include support for workers among their top priorities.  SU4W will study recent election returns to identify districts where pro-worker candidates will have the best chance of success.

The need for advocacy on behalf of workers extends beyond the issues of income and access to affordable health care, Smith noted. Incidents of degrading treatment at work, including racial, religious and sexual discrimination, are on the rise, and many employers have failed to prevent  abuse or act against it.

Founding members of SU4W are from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.  Among its leadership are some of the country’s most prominent attorneys whose legal practices are committed to enforcing employee rights.

For more information about SU4W, to make a donation, or find out how to apply for support, visit the website at https://standupforworkers.org/

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