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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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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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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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