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There are so many ways a public agency can waste your taxpayer dollars. Some are out there for everyone to see like when contracts are awarded to a favored vendor even though that vendor didn’t have the low bid.

Or when a contractor is paid $175 per 100-square-foot tarps on rooftops in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina only to have the contractor (Shaw Group) subcontract the work to A-1 Construction for $75 a square and to have A-1 hire a second subcontractor, Westcon Construction at $30 per square, who finally pays workers $2 per square.

Other times, the waste is concealed from view and without someone doing a little digging, no one ever knows how thousands or dollars are frittered away by bureaucrats who nothing better to do than to quietly spread the spoils around among the politically-connected.

So it was in March of last year that Southern University’s Grievance Committee held hearings on the appeals of four professors who had been terminated. When the four professors indicated that they wanted the hearing to be in open meeting as opposed to executive session, their request was rejected out of hand.

The state’s open meetings law [R.S. 42:14 (A), (B), and (C)] allows for all personnel matters to be discussed [without any official vote being taken] in executive session unless the employee(s) being discussed requests that discussion be held in open session. Such request by the employee(s) would supersede any move for executive session.

But the Grievance Committee’s chairperson announced—without benefit of a public vote by the committee [also a violation of the open meetings statute] that a private vote had been conducted prior to the convening of the committee meeting at which it was decided to hold the executive session to discuss the professors’ grievance.

I was there to cover the hearing and the four professors and I promptly filed suit against Southern for violation of the open meetings law. The trial was held in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.

Southern presented the unique argument that the school’s grievance committee was not a public body—even though every member was an employee of Southern and the committee was acting on behalf of Southern’s administration. Unique indeed.

Even more bizarre, Southern attorney Winston DeCuir, Jr., in his cross-examination of yours truly, tried to question my right to be a party to the suit by asking how many other events I’d covered for LouisianaVoice at Southern. The answer was none—as if that had any legal bearing on the matter at hand. He then asked why I picked that hearing to cover and I replied truthfully that I had been alerted that the hearing might produce an interesting story for LouisianaVoice.

The presiding judge had little problem in ruling for the four professors and yours truly, awarding a total of $5,000 ($1,000 per plaintiff), plus attorney fees and court costs. So, counting the award, court costs and attorney fees, we’re already looking at something approaching $8,000-$10,000 all because DeCuir did not provide proper legal counsel to the committee when it decided to break the law. [He was there and should have advised the committee that it was treading on thin legal ice.]

But Southern wasn’t finished. Rather than cut its losses and pony up the money, DeCuir appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeal. Nothing like throwing good money after bad.

In January, the FIRST CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEAL handed down its decision. The lower court’s decision was upheld without a dissenting opinion. Unanimous, in other words.

Moreover, the First Circuit assessed additional attorney fees of $1,400 and additional court costs of $1,804. And that’s not counting what DeCuir will bill the university for his solid legal advice.

So, Southern learned its lesson, right?

Not quite.

At DeCuir’s advice, the university has now taken writs to the Louisiana State Supreme Court—all to argue that Southern University and its Grievance Committee are not public bodies.

Your tax dollars at work. Not a lot of money in the overall scheme of things, but an example how quixotic legal battles by state agencies make thousands upon thousands of dollars disappear into contract attorneys’ bank accounts.

Which also raises another question: Can defense attorneys always be counted on to give the best advice to clients when that advice might conflict with the attorney’s financial advantage of keeping the meter running?

 

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You gotta love it when someone gets burned for their hypocrisy, tries to jump out in front of the story, and that effort falls flat.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who rails against illegal immigration and sanctuary cities, has the proverbial egg all over his face and his brother Benjamin’s 10-minute VIDEO on Youtube in an effort to blunt the effects of a stellar investigative report by the Baton Rouge Advocate landed with a thud.

And of course, The Hayride internet blog also attempted to come to Landry’s rescue, accusing the Baton Rouge paper of doing a hatchet job on poor Jeff.

Both Ben Landry and The Hayride accused the paper of attacking brother Jeff Landry because he’s a conservative but in doing so, neglected to observe that The Advocate has long been the unofficial official organ for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), quite possibly the most conservative businessmen’s club in the state of Louisiana.

But the bottom line is it’s pretty hard to defend Landry for his latest escapade: being part of a $17 million scam to hire Mexican welders and pipe fitters under H-2B visa rules through three companies owned by Jeff and Ben Landry.

Under terms of the deal, the Mexicans would work for CB&I, the prime contractor on the $7 billion Cameron LNG project in Hackberry in Cameron Parish. The three Landry companies would be subcontracted to a company run by Houston labor broker Marco Pesquera.

Pesquera made millions of dollars by defrauding the immigration system to bring more than a thousand Mexican laborers to the Gulf South but his luck finally ran out when he was convicted and began a three-year prison sentence in December for fraud.

Ben Landry, in his “Poor Me, Poor Jeff” video, blamed all his brothers’ woes on The Advocate and its reliance on a convicted felon for building its case against the attorney general.

Not said in that 10-minute diatribe was the fact that prosecutors like Jeff Landry often use jailhouse snitches, i.e. convicted felons, as the preferred ploy to convict defendants, frequently putting away innocent people, so playing the convicted felon card would seem rather disingenuous. I guess it’s okay when prosecutors do it.

It’s especially curious when you consider how Jeff Landry went to such great lengths to shield Pesquera and his company and his companies’ ties to Pesquera as well as how they embellished their claims for a need for foreign labor, documentation required by the feds.

H-2b visas are supposed to be issued only if there is a shortage of American workers to perform the needed work.

Southern Innovative Services was approved for 113 welders and pipefitters from Mexico and Evergreen got the nod for 195.

Records provided to The Advocate by the Louisiana Workforce Commission showed that 113 local welders and pipefitters applied for positions with Evergreen Contractors, one of three Landry companies involved in the scheme.

Pesquera told The Advocate that none of the Landry companies hired a single American for work—and never intended to.

Brent Littlefield, Jeff Landry’s campaign mouthpiece, refused to respond to repeated questions from The Advocate as to whether Evergreen hired any American welders or pipefitters.

While Evergreen obtained a contractor’s license in June 2018, his other two companies, Prime Response and Southern Innovative Services, have never obtained one as required by law and Jeff Landry, normally quick with the lip, has not responded to questions about the companies’ status regarding state contracting licenses.

And while Jeff Landry, who disrupted a State of the Union Address by President Obama while he was a member of Congress by holding up a sign opposing the drilling moratorium in the Gulf following the BP spill, was uncharacteristically mum in responding to The Advocate’s questions, his brother most certainly was not in his Youtube video.

The Advocate newspaper is on a crusade against my brother—my guess is, for no other reason than because he is a conservative,” Ben Landry said.

You have to wonder if Landry may have used his position as attorney general to lean on CB&I to hire those Mexican workers that he was importing at the same time he was publicly positioning himself as a dedicated opponent of illegal immigration.

Jeff Landry, it seems, couldn’t be satisfied with being a full-time attorney general; he just had to find a way to enrich himself while in office.

Funny, isn’t it, how politicians can conveniently bend their moral compasses so that north is south and east is west.

 

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You can call last September’s arrest of Jerry Rogers several things:

  • Jerry Larpenter, Chapter Deux;
  • SLAPP;
  • Stupid;
  • All of the Above.

Especially stupid.

To refresh your memory, Rogers, a former St. Tammany Parish sheriff’s deputy, fired off an email to the family of slain Nanette Krentel that was critical of the official investigation into Krentel’s murder. Specifically, he leveled his criticism at lead investigator Det. Daniel Buckner, whom he described as “clueless.”

For his trouble, Sheriff Randy Smith directed that Rogers be arrested for criminal defamation, despite being advised by the St. Tammany Parish District Attorney’s office that the state’s criminal defamation law had been declared unconstitutional as to public officials, according to a LAWSUIT filed by Rogers.

Named as defendants in the litigation are Smith and deputies Danny Culpepper and Keith Canizaro.

The arrest and ensuing lawsuit evoked memories of Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter who pulled a similar stunt when he spotted an online blog critical of him and other parish officials and promptly had an obliging judge sign a search warrant empowering Larpenter’s office to conduct a raid on the blogger’s home and to seize his computers. Larpenter, in the glow of his triumph, albeit temporary, crowed that when one criticizes him, “I’m coming after you.”

Except, of course, the warrant and the raid were unconstitutional and Larpenter’s office ended up ponying up about $250,000 to soothe the ruffled feelings of aggrieved blogger.

Just the kind of thing to make one wonder where the judges involved obtained their law degrees and why they would sign off on warrants that were so obviously unconstitutional.

But when considering political expedience, the rule of law often takes a back seat to the sweet (but again, temporary) taste of revenge.

In legal parlance, such legal maneuvers are known as Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP), a tactic honed to perfection during the civil rights era by Southern sheriffs and chiefs of police, particularly in Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama.

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, when questioned about his observations immediately after Larpenter’s raid but before litigation had been initiated, quipped, “I’d love to be that blogger’s lawyer.”

Prophetic words indeed. A federal judge held in that case that “no law enforcement officer in Sheriff Larpenter’s position would have an objectively reasonable belief, in light of clearly established law, that probable cause existed to support a warrant for the Andersons’ home” because it was based on criticism of a public official.

Now it’s Jerry Rogers’s turn at bat against another ill-conceived move by a sheriff and district court judge, in this case, one Hon. Raymond Childress.

That’s because as early as 2014, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office was reminded of the status of Louisiana’s criminal defamation law, the lawsuit says.

The president of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association in 2014 “described arresting anyone for an alleged violation of an unconstitutional law as a waste of time and resources,” the lawsuit quotes a newspaper article as reporting.

“Sheriff Smith’s actions were intended to deter and chill Jerry Rogers’ exercise of his First Amendment right to express his opinion about STPSO,” Rogers’s petition asserts.

That, by the way, is a classic definition of a SLAPP lawsuit.

Not only did Judge Childress sign off on the AFFIDAVIT FOR ARREST WARRANT, but the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office even had the presence of mind to issue a self-serving PRESS RELEASE to announce its diligence in protecting its citizens from being exposed to such defamatory criticism and in the process, declaring its utter disregard of the law.

Except for the decision of the Louisiana Attorney General’s office to DECLINE TO PURSUE the case after noting that the Louisiana Supreme Court had “held [that] criminal defamation is unconstitutional insofar as it applies to statements made in reference to public figures engaged in public affairs.

“…[T]he statements made by Jerry Rogers were aimed directly towards a public function of a member of state government. Because the alleged conduct under these specific facts involve statements aimed at a public official performing public duties, this office is precluded by law from moving forward with any criminal action, Assistant Attorney General Joseph LeBeau wrote on January 8.”

So chastened, there was little wiggle room for the sheriff other than to WALK AWAY from his aborted attempt at retribution.

All of which served to invoke the third option in our multiple-choice observation at the beginning of this post:

Stupid.

 

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A lot of people, the media included, expressed surprised that a company owned by Bernhard Capital Partners was awarded a multi-million-dollar consulting contract by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) to plan the construction of a new bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge.

They shouldn’t have been—surprised, that is.

ATLAS TECHNICAL CONSULTANTS of Austin, Texas, was awarded the two-phase contract despite finishing well behind two other firms in evaluations by the state’s technical selection committee. The selection committee’s evaluation notwithstanding, the final selection was made by DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, an appointee of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Atlas received 61.98 points from the committee while Baker International had 72.59 and AECOM had 74.01 points, more than 12 points higher than Atlas.

AECOM appealed Wilson’s decision but in Louisiana, such appeals to fairness and even playing fields generally fall on deaf ears and this was no exception as Wilson UPHELD his decision.

The entire process got Louisiana Congressman GARRET GRAVES in a tizzy, saying DOTD “better have good reasons” for doing a deal with Bernhard.

But as we said, no one should be surprised at Bernhard’s clout. He was, after all, once the state Democratic Chairman and was even rumored once as a potential candidate for governor.

As an illustration of his influence, in May 2017, LouisianaVoice did a story about how first Jindal and then Edwards pushed for a state water PRIVATIZATION CONTRACT with Bernhard Energy of Baton Rouge after a second company’s proposal was rejected in favor of seeking an oral presentation from Bernhard. Even then, another evaluation committee rejected Bernhard’s proposal, saying it was not in the state’s best interest to enter into the partnership with Bernhard because of the exceptionally high costs.

That was in 2015, in the last year of Jindal’s administration and despite the committee’s recommendations, he entered into a $25,000 contract with a Baton Rouge consulting firm to another “Evaluation and Feasibility Study” of Bernhard’s proposal. Even then, Bill Wilson of the Office of State Buildings rejected the proposal, saying it “would not be advantageous for the State of Louisiana in its current form.”

But in April 2017, well into the Edwards administration, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, in an email to Mark Moses, assistant commissioner for Facility Planning & Control, and Paula Tregre, director of the Office of State Procurement in which he said Edwards said the state “will have the RFP (Request for Proposals) on the street no later than May 31,” adding that the proposal “needs to be a top priority.”

So, of course it happened.

Again, no one should be surprised.

On Aug. 12, 2019, the Baton Rouge Advocate had a story announcing the deal whereby Bernhard will lease chiller systems at the state-owned Shaw Center for the Arts from the state for $3 million over 20 years and the state will buy back the chilled water—used to cool the building—for $6 million. Bernhard will also modernize energy systems at 31 state buildings, including the State Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion and state Supreme Court building in New Orleans, at a cost of $54 million to the state.

Another Bernhard company, Louisiana Energy Partners, will also sell extra chilled water to other companies in downtown Baton Rouge and the deal leaves open the possibility that Louisiana Energy Partners may enter into agreements with Louisiana colleges and universities to privatize their energy systems.

And, of course, who could ever forget the Blue Tarp Debacle following Hurricane Katrina in 2005—the first real indication of the stroke Bernhard has in this state.

The Shaw Group (since sold to Chicago Brick & Iron and Bernhard then started a series of new companies cited earlier in this post) was contracted to place tarpaulins over damaged roofs at a rate of $175 per square (one hundred square feet per square). That’s $175 for draping a ten-foot-by-ten-foot square blue tarpaulin over a damaged roof. Shaw in turn sub-contracted the work to a company called A-1 Construction at a cost of $75 a square. A-1 in turn subbed the work to Westcon Construction at $30 a square. Westcon eventually lined up the actual workers who placed the tarps at a cost of $2 a square.

Thus, the Shaw Group realized a net profit of $100 a square, A-1 made $45 dollars per square, and Westcon netted $28 dollars a square – all without ever placing the first sheet of tarpaulin. Between them, the three companies reaped profits of $173 per square after paying a paltry $2 per square. The real irony in the entire scenario was that the first three contractors – Shaw, A-1, and Westcon – didn’t even own the equipment necessary to perform tarping or debris hauling. By the time public outrage, spurred by media revelations of the fiasco, forced public bidding on tarping, forcing tarping prices down from the $3,000-plus range to $1,000, Shaw and friends had already pocketed some $300 million dollars.

The state threatened prosecution of those who it felt overcharged for a gallon of gasoline in Katrina’s aftermath but apparently looked the other way for more influential profiteers.

And no one was surprised.

 

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A legal battle that began for a Baton Rouge television station more than two years ago is finally over.

The Louisiana Supreme Court has denied writs by a Louisiana state trooper placed on 64-hour (eight working days) suspension following an Internal Affairs investigation after he filed a defamation lawsuit against WBRZ-TV for its story about his suspension.

The gist of the WBRZ story was that Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans, felt that State Police Lt. Robert Burns II should have been prosecuted for violating federal law for running 52 searches in law enforcement databases for personal reasons.

Burns was disciplined after it was revealed that he had run his ex-wife’s name 46 times; her current fiancé twice, and the name of the woman’s former boyfriend four times through Kologic and Mobile Cop, data bases used by law enforcement.

The entirety of the WBRZ story was based on its acquisition of public records, which normally would have negated any claim of defamation but for a growing trend toward so-called SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) lawsuits. The disciplinary letter to Burns said, “Since November of 2013, continuing until October 2016, you have conducted law enforcement search inquiries…for non-law enforcement purposes, in violation of department policy and federal law.” The letter further said that Burns admitted that 51 of the searches “were for strictly personal reasons and not related to any investigation.”

Goyeneche noted that 52 times over a two-year period of time tracking his former wife and some of her acquaintances was “tantamount to stalking.”

Burns’ former wife filed the complaints which initiated the IA investigation.

Burns claimed that on 46 occasions, he was conducting a search of his own license plate and that the “spin-off” searches of his wife were a result of “unintended inquiries generated by an automated system.” Investigators didn’t buy that explanation

SLAPP lawsuits have only one purpose: to stymie criticism of public officials. In recent cases, they have been used by judges from the 4th Judicial District (Ouachita and Morehouse parishes) against the West Monroe newspaper, The Ouachita Citizen, to discourage that paper’s seeking public records from the court.

Another case involved the mayor, police chief and members of the Welsh Board of Aldermen filing suit against fellow Alderman JACOB COLBY PERRY when he questioned the police department’s budget.

SLAPP lawsuits had their origin during the early days of the Civil Rights struggle when officials in several southern cities, particularly Birmingham and Montgomery, filed costly lawsuits against newspapers, magazines and civil rights leaders in order to discourage attempts at obtaining equal rights and news coverage of those efforts.

Lake Providence native and LSU journalism graduate Aimee Edmondson wrote a definitive book titled IN SULLIVAN’S SHADOW, which explored the spate of SLAPP lawsuits at the dawn of the Civil Rights struggle. The title was drawn from the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Sullivan v. New York Times in which Montgomery police commissioner Lester Sullivan sued The New York Times over its coverage of bus station beatings of blacks in that city.

The Supreme Court’s ruling raised the bar for public officials to prove libel so long as a publication believed what it published was true and published “without malice.”

So frivolous did WBRZ consider the Burns lawsuit initially that it failed to even answer the suit, a early tactical error that resulted in a default judgment of $2.5 million—which may have just as well been in some of Odell Beckham Jr.’s phony money he was handing out to LSU players following Monday night’s national championship game.

The station filed an appeal which was upheld by the First Circuit Court of Appeal, effectively tossing out Burn’s lawsuit.

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