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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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In Chapter 26 of my book, Louisiana’s Rogue Sheriffs: A Culture of Corruption,

Louisiana's Rogue Sheriffs: A Culture of Corruption

I described how St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain circumvented state ethics laws by setting the son and daughter of two of his deputies up as straw owners of a private entity formed to run the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Department’s prisoner work release program under a no-bid contract.

Unfortunately, when I wrote the Strain chapter, I didn’t have all the sordid details that went along with the agreement, which included kickbacks to Strain and hundreds of thousands of dollars that went to his two deputies, David Hanson and Clifford “Skip” Keen.

On Thursday (August 29) those details were made public in the form of a federal INDICTMENT of Strain—details that revealed how the scheme worked, how kickbacks were paid to Strain and how federal funds were used to pay American Express Gold Card charges for expensive family vacations to Hawaii, the Bahamas, Destin, Florida, a hunting trip to Illinois, a $2,000 down payment on a Dodge Durango truck, $2,770 for a jewelry purchase from Boudreaux’s Fine Jewelers, other personal purchases and a $2.500 contribution to Strain’s re-election campaign.

The single-count indictment, in 22 pages, laid out the method by which Strain, Hanson and Keen set up two separate prisoner work release programs and awarded a no-bid contract to St. Tammany Workforce Solutions, LLC, to operate the programs.

The indictment, filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans, said that Hanson supervised the sheriff’s department’s Canine Division and Keen was over the Maintenance Department.

Strain, the indictment said, wanted to transfer operations of the work release programs to a private entity run by Hanson and Keen but for them to do so would have necessitated their resignations from the sheriff’s office, thus forfeiting medical and retirement benefits.

As a solution, Hanson’s daughter, Brandy Hanson, and Keen’s son, Jarret Cole Keen were set up as operators of St. Tammany Workforce Solutions, with each holding 45 percent ownership. To sidestep state ethics laws, which were already virtually meaningless, Allen Tingle was given 10 percent ownership and was paid $30,000 per year to run the work release program.

Brandy Hanson and Jarret Keen received more than 100 payments each totaling nearly $1.2 million between them from 2013 and 2017. The kickbacks to Strain, David Hanson and Skip Keen, the charges claim, were accomplished by arranging for Brandy Hanson and Jarret Keen to serve as “straw owners” of St. Tammany Workforce Solutions.

David Hanson and Skip Keen entered guilty pleas last February to funneling kickbacks to Strains from profits they received through the work release program.

Tingle is never identified in the indictment and is referred to only as “Person 2.” But the indictment named Person 2 as the registered agent for St. Tammany Workforce Solutions and the Secretary of State’s corporate RECORDS show the registered agent as Allen Tingle.

Thursday’s indictment said that Tingle was required to make payments to Brandy Hanson and Jarrett Keen.

Among the expenditures paid on Hanson’s American Express Cold Card were payments of $4,041; $4,770; $2,205, and $4,660.

Payments were also made to American Express in the amounts of:

  • $4,000 for Hanson’s Hawaiian vacation;
  • $4,000 for Hanson’s trip to the Bahamas;
  • $2,770 to pay for jewelry from Boudreaux’s Fine Jewelers;
  • $2,000 for a down payment on a new Dodge Durango;
  • $4,360 for another vacation in the Bahamas;
  • A check for $16,000 made payable to Big River Outfitters for a hunting lease in Illinois to be used by Keen and Hanson;
  • A debit card charge of $2,241 to Destin West for a Keen family vacation, and
  • A check for $2,500 drawn on the Skip Keen account and made payable to the Jack Strain Campaign.

Last month, Strain, who was defeated for re-election in 2015, was indicted by a St. Tammany Parish grand jury on two counts each of aggravated rape and aggravated incest and single counts of sexual battery and indecent behavior with a juvenile.

Two of his alleged victims were under the age of 12 and the alleged incidents date back as far as 1975, to when Strain himself was as young as 12, according to 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery. One of his victims claimed he was only six when Strain anally raped him.

At least four persons came forward to claim they were molested by Strain, one of whom said he was raped as late as June 2004. Strain, 56, was first elected sheriff in 1995, serving until his defeat by current Sheriff Randy Smith.

Strain was arrested at his home by state police and booked into his former jail where he was held in lieu of posting $400,000 bail. He faced the possibility of life in prison if convicted.

Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. Just another ho-hum day in Louisiana politics.

 

 

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In 2016, her first year as a member of the Louisiana Legislature, Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell) successfully sponsored Senate Bill 466 which provided a procedure for the LSU Board of Supervisors and the Commissioner of Administration to seek approval from the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget and the legislature to proceed with the sale of a state hospital.

The bill, which may have stymied Bobby Jindal’s privatization blitz had it been in effect at the time he jettisoned state hospitals to private contractors, passed the House, 97-0 but met resistance in the Senate before passing by a 25-11 vote.

That same year, Hewitt sponsored Senate Concurrent Resolution 84 which, in a classic example of bureaucratic redundancy, requested the Division of Administration “to provide a report of all the reports required of the executive branch by statute and resolution.”

Inexplicably, in 2018, she voted against SB 117 by Sen. J.P. Morrell that would have required any state contractor to comply with the Louisiana Equal Pay for Women Act.

Typical of the backwater mentality of the Louisiana Republican Party and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) that has kept this state from entering the 21st Century, the bill failed by an 18-20 vote.

The resistance to legislating equal pay for women parallels the Louisiana Legislature’s stubborn insistence on beating back repeated efforts to raise the minimum wage in Louisiana. Even Arkansas has recognized that a person simply cannot subsist on $7.50 an hour.

But now Louisiana. I wonder if it has ever occurred to our political leaders that the determination to keep wages low might just have a little to do with the state’s perpetual bottom ranking in everything but poverty, obesity, crime and football?

That vote probably contributed in large part to her selection as “National Legislator of the Year” by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization noted for its rigidly conservative political positions that favor the privileged over those who actually get the work done.

ALEC has long been in lockstep with the Republican Party that promotes tax breaks for the wealthy and valuable incentives and exemptions for corporations while placing the tax burden on the working class.

ALEC likes to describe itself as non-partisan but that description is about as far from the truth as possible. The organization has a long and sordid history of supporting big oil, big pharma, banking and insurance companies over the rights of injured workers, minorities, the environment, affordable prescription drugs and public education.

And it opposes equal pay for women.

Was I being overly harsh in describing LABI and the Republican Party of obstructing progress in Louisiana? Perhaps, but consider this: In Louisiana, the earnings gap between men and women just happens to be the largest in the nation.

Progressive? Hardly.

Women in this state make 69 cents for every dollar earned by men in the same job, according to the Association of American University Women (AAUW).

But Hewitt apparently navigates on a level that puts her out of touch with reality. She holds a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from LSU and put that degree to good use managing major deepwater assets in the Gulf of Mexico for Shell Oil.

Chances are she received comparable pay as male engineers at Shell and I can only say good for her. She earned it.

But she seems to forget that not everyone can be so fortunate. Perhaps it never occurred to her as her career advanced that other women deserve equal pay for equal work as well.

There can be no rationalization for not recognizing that fact.

It reminds me of an old television commercial by Eddie Chiles who said, “If you don’t have an oil well, get one.” Which is just a cute way of saying, “I got mine; it’s too bad if you didn’t get yours.”

Just a touch of arrogance there. Personally, I’d rather own the Boston Red Sox or the New York Times. But you see, lofty aspirations like that are simply out of reach for the unwashed masses.

Equal pay should not be.

ALEC, which bestowed its “National Legislator of the Year” honors upon Hewitt, has among its membership corporations hit hardest with penalties for employment discrimination. ALEC member CSX Transportation was recently fined $3.2 million for employing unfair and unnecessary tests designed to steer women into lower-paying occupation. In 2005, ALEC member Federal Express was fined $3.4 million fir discrimination against a woman.

But be proud, Louisiana. A woman legislator just got a national award from ALEC.

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On Monday (Nov. 13), Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell issued a glowing PRESS RELEASE in which he announced what he described as a project to provide high-speed internet service to more than 54,000 homes and businesses in the 24-parish PSC District 5.

Yet, only two months earlier, Campbell had appeared before the Claiborne Parish Police Jury to publicly trash a proposal by Claiborne Electric Cooperative to provide even faster and more comprehensive internet service to an estimated 65,000 homes and businesses in its five-parish service area—at a comparable customer cost.

Campbell, an Elm Grove populist Democrat who lost to John Kennedy in the 2016 U.S. Senate race, who lost to Bobby Jindal in the 2007 governor’s election and who three times ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House from Louisiana’s 4th congressional district, seems to be running for something again but there don’t seem to be any other offices for him to seek.

In September, he presented his timeline of events concerning the approval process for Claiborne’s proposed high-speed broad internet service. One cooperative member who was present for that performance described Campbell’s remarks as “hyperbole,” adding that many of Foster’s claims “were outright wrong.”

“Then when he had his say, for which he caught a lot of flak from citizens in attendance, he promptly left as (Claiborne CEO) Mark Brown was given the opportunity to present his side of the situation,” the member said, pointing out that he is neither an employee nor a board member of Claiborne Electric. He asked that his name not be used.

“There was a marked difference in the points of view with Mr. Brown’s position being a lot more straightforward and fact-based,” he said. “That Campbell made his accusations and factually incorrect statements and then left without hearing Mr. Brown’s EXPLANATION was one of the rudest displays I’ve seen in a public forum.”

In his press release, Campbell said the “Connect America” program of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “is helping fiber, wireless and satellite internet providers meet the need for broadband service in unserved or underserved areas of North Louisiana.”

He said that FCC records indicate that 54,580 homes and businesses in his PSC district are eligible for high-speed internet service funded by Connect America.

That represents just a fraction of almost a million people—325,000 households—in the 24 parishes.

What Campbell describes as “high speed” internet is a download speed of 10 megabytes per second and an upload speed of one megabyte per second at an estimated cost of $60 per month per customer.

Claiborne’s proposal calls for the same $60 monthly rate for 50 megabytes to one gigabyte of service for 10,000 more customers in the five-parishes of Bienville, Claiborne, Lincoln, Union and Webster than for Campbell’s entire 24 parish district.

Campbell claims that if the Claiborne project fails, customers would be on the hook for the costs, ignoring the fact that the proposal calls for a construction phase-in that would allow the project to be scrapped if it did not meet projections.

“Foster Campbell ignores the fact the 69 co-ops around the country have already done projects like that proposed by Claiborne and none of those have failed,” the Homer member said. “He also ignores that about 75 other co-ops around the country are in the process of starting fiber optic systems.”

(CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE)

Foster’s behavior is a strange reversal of traditional Democratic support for electric cooperatives begun under the administration of Franklin Roosevelt and championed by such notables as Lyndon Johnson. In fact, Foster’s rhetoric is reminiscent of Bobby Jindal’s REJECTION of that $80 million Commerce Department grant to install high-speed broadband internet for Louisiana’s rural parishes back in 2011.

In that case, Jindal was in lockstep with the AMERICAN LEGISLATIVE EXCHANGE COUNCIL (ALEC) which in 2010 had staked out its opposition to federal encroachment onto the turf of private business despite the fact that private business had been painfully slow in responding to the needs of rural America dating back to the early days of electric power and telephone service.

And therefore, since AT&T was a member of ALEC and since AT&T was opposed to the grant, therefore, so was Jindal. In Jindal’s case, AT&T had also made a six-figure contribution to his wife’s charitable foundation, giving Jindal another reason to take up the ALEC banner.

AT&T, in fact, even took the City of Lafayette to court to fight the city’s efforts to construct its own fiber optic high speed broadband internet system. It was a costly fight for both sides but Lafayette eventually emerged victorious despite AT&T’s best efforts.

Foster Campbell, in his press release noted that AT&T would be responsible for $17.2 million, or 79 percent of the FCC-funded broadband expansion into PSC District 5 while CenturyLink of Monroe would have responsibility for $3.9 million (18 percent) of the cost and satellite provider ViaSat would spend $1.5 million (3 percent).

So, why is Campbell now sounding so downright Jindalesque in his opposition to Claiborne Electric?

For that answer, one would have to take the advice FBI agent Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, gave to reporter Bob Woodward during the Washington Post’s investigation of Nixon and Watergate:

Follow the money.

  • CenturyLink made two $1,000 contributions to Campbell’s various state campaign fund in 2011 and 2012, according to Louisiana Ethics Commission records.
  • Glen F. Post, III, of Farmerville in Union Parish, is President of CenturyLink. He personally contributed $11,500 to Campbell between 2003 and 2014.
  • Stacy Goff is Executive Vice-President of CenturyLink. He chipped in another $500 for Campbell in 2005.
  • AT&T gave $10,000 to Campbell in campaign contributions between 2003 and 2010.
  • William G. “Bud” Courson and James W. Nickel of Baton Rouge are registered lobbyists for AT&T. Their firm, Courson Nickel, LLC of Baton Rouge, contributed $2,000 to Campbell from 2002 to 2014.

CENTURYTEL

COURSON NICKEL

Post contributed another $3,000 to Campbell’s unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2016 and Nickel and Courson also contributed $500 and $1,000, respectively, to that campaign, federal campaign finance records show.

Altogether, Foster Campbell had at least 30,500 reasons to oppose Claiborne Electric’s proposal to provide high speed broadband internet service to its members.

Because he indisputably had skin in the game, he should have recused himself from the discussion in order to avoid any conflict of interests.

Therein lies the problem of regulators accepting contributions from those they regulate.

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As a state representative, John Bel Edwards was once a harsh critic of Bobby Jindal.

That was then. Now appears to be quite different.

Edwards the legislator was often a lonely voice in the legislature, speaking out in opposition to Jindal’s destruction of the Office of Group Benefits and the raiding of OGB’s $500 million surplus from which it paid medical claims for state employees. Then.

Edwards opposed Jindal’s attempts to privatize governmental services, including prisons. Then.

Edwards the legislator was the leading critic—sometimes the only critic—of Jindal’s destruction of the state hospital system. Then.

Edwards the legislator openly challenged Jindal’s constant budgetary cuts, often asking pointed questions of Jindal or his lackeys during committee hearings. Then.

Edwards the legislator said that he was fooled into voting in favor of an amendment at the end of the 2014 legislative session that would have given a hefty—but illegal—boost in retirement income for then-State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson. Edwards, in fact, led the call for an investigation into the maneuver by State Sen. Neil Riser of Columbia. Then

But when John Bel Edwards was elected governor he suddenly began to morph into Bobby Jindal 2.0.

The first indication that the more things change the more they remain the same was when he reappointed Mike Edmonson as State Police Superintendent and Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc at the behest of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.

The sheriffs’ association is a powerful lobby and anyone who desires to be governor must pass in review before the association and receive its blessing. The local sheriff, after all, is the single most powerful political figure at the parish level. And when you multiply that local power by 64, the number of parishes, you have a formidable political force to overcome if you don’t have their collective endorsement.

Edwards’s brother is a sheriff. So was his father and his grandfather before that. So, it was no surprise when Edwards received the association’s seal of approval.

JINDAL was joined at the hip by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and he showed it by his penchant for tax relief for big business at the expense of public and higher education and health care.

Remember when people could actually afford to send their kids to college?

Remember when there were facilities available to those in need of mental health care?

Remember when the state budget reflected some degree of sanity?

Remember when teachers could count on a pay raise every decade or so?

I can remember when there were real Democrats in Louisiana politics and not pretenders who bend with whichever direction the wind blows (see John Alario, John Kennedy, et al).

Well, thanks to the abetting of compliant legislators beholden to corporate campaign contributors, those are now just fond memories.

But when John Bel was elected, there was hope.

Instead, he has cozied up to business and industry and rather than confronting legislators, he tried to get along with them without offending them. Apparently, he didn’t learn from Dave Treen, a Republican governor who tried unsuccessfully to get along with a Democratic legislature.

And now, today, he is in New Orleans to address, of all people, delegates to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). On a lesser scale, that’s the moral equivalent to Trump colluding with…well, never mind.

ALEC is, or should be, everything a real Democrat (as opposed to a DINO) should shun like the plague. A real Democrat truly interested in promoting what is best for Louisiana’s citizens would never set foot inside an ALEC Annual Meeting, much less appear as a speaker at one.

Retired State Budget Director Stephen Winham said as much when was quoted by a Baton Rouge Advocate EDITORIAL yesterday.

ALEC is a conglomerate of BUSINESS INTERESTS that promotes a Republican agenda exclusively. Members converge on a city (like New Orleans) for their Annual Conference, sit down in highly secretive meetings (no press allowed, thank you very much), and draft “model legislation” for member lawmakers in attendance to take back home and introduce as new bills, quite often without bothering to change so much as a comma.

That’s it. Legislative members of ALEC attend these meetings so lobbyists for corporations from other states can tell them what’s best for Louisiana citizens.

In 2011, when then-State Rep. Noble Ellington of Winnsboro was its national president, Jindal was the featured speaker and received the organization’s Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award.

Now, ALEC is back and so is Jindal 2.0 John Bel Edwards.

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