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Archive for the ‘Public Records’ Category

Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Legislature could probably learn a thing or two about building budgetary surpluses from the St. Landry Parish Fire Protection District No. 2—except at least one St. Landry Parish citizens thinks the surplus may be the result of smoke and mirrors and a little voodoo tax millage assessment.

On the other hand, the State Ethics Board appears to be taking its cue from the Attorney General’s office in stonewalling tactics.

The district had a bank balance of more than three times its annual budget at the end of 2016, according to a state AUDIT of the its books. The audit showed nearly $8.4 million in the bank as of Dec. 31, 2016, after expenses of $2.6 million.

And a formal complaint made to the Louisiana State Board of Ethics last May against the district and its secretary-treasurer has produced only a letter of acknowledgement but no results after nine months.

Despite annual revenues of nearly $3.7 million for both 2015 and 2016, the district’s board seemingly felt it could not afford to hire a qualified employee to apply generally accepted accounting principles in recording the districts financial transactions or preparing its financial statements, the audit indicated.

“A material weakness is a deficiency, or combination of deficiencies, in internal control such that there is a reasonable possibility that a material misstatement of the entity’s financial statements will not be prevented, or detected and corrected on a timely basis,” the audit said. “we identified certain deficiencies in internal control that we consider to be material weaknesses.”

Nor did the board seem to feel it was in a position to hire additional firefighters in order to cut back on more expensive overtime pay. Board members paid themselves nearly $16,600 in 2016 and paid out $1.2 million in salaries. An additional $329,677 was paid in overtime (listed as “extra shifts and call out time”).

Auditors recommended that the board examine the following options and implement policies and procedures in order to reduce excessive payroll expenditures:

  • Establish set annual/monthly salaries for management-level positions in order to eliminate overtime paid;
  • Hire additional firefighters in order to decrease overtime pay;
  • Better utilize volunteer firefighters in an effort to minimize costs.

While Edwards and the legislature might be scratching their heads if they knew of the district’s fiscal wizardry, a closer look at a curious tax millage might clear things up.

It seems that district voters may have once approved a 17.5 mill property tax but the district somehow managed to collect two identical millages of 17.5 mills each until January 2018, when one of the assessments expired.

St. Landry Parish resident and local taxpayer Charles Jagneaux, who filed the complaint with the state ethics board, which has been basically toothless since it was gutted by Bobby Jindal in one of his first acts as governor in 2008, has a theory about that dual tax millage.

“My understanding is that the second millage was passed by calling it a renewal when in fact, it was a second identical millage,” he said. “The board attempted to put the expiring millage on the ballot (for a renewal) this year but the parish council would not let them since there was a multi-million-dollar surplus.”

The ethics complaint was filed against Johnny Ardoin, secretary-treasurer of the district’s board. Ardoin, it turns out, is also a member of the Port Barre TOWN COUNCIL, which would appear to be a case of dual office-holding, illegal under Louisiana law.

As a point of clarification from a reader who is in a position to know, dual office holding falls under (drum roll, please…) the attorney general’s office, not the ethics board so the ethics board would not address that matter,

A second, more serious ethics violation, however, seems to arise from Ardoin’s membership on the fire district board.

The Port Barre Town Council appoints two members of the fire district’s board of commissioners.

That would seem to constitute a built-in conflict of interest for Ardoin. Given his position as a member of the town council, he is in the unique position to appoint himself to the fire district’s board of commissioners.

That ethics complaint, like most complaints to the state ethics board these days, is in all likelihood, a dead-end street, particularly as it regards dual office-holding. But even in cases when ethics fines are assessed, which is seldom, they often are ignored and never collected, thanks again to Bobby Jindal and his ethics reform agenda.

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You have to give credit to Lake Charles attorney Ron Richard: he certainly knows how to milk a case for all it’s worth in order to keep the meter running.

It apparently wasn’t enough that his four SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) against Welsh Alderman Jacob Colby Perry were tossed by the presiding judge.

And no matter that a recall petition was initiated against Perry and that POSTCARDS were mailed to Welsh residents that DEPICTED Perry and fellow board of aldermen member Andrea King as “terrorists.”

And never mind that Mayor Carolyn Louviere desires to shut down a bar that just happens to be adjacent to a business owned by her son.

Now Richard, his four LAWSUITS against Perry—filed by him on behalf of the mayor, her son, her daughter, and Police Chief Marcus Crochet—having failed the smell test of 31st Judicial District Court Judge Steve Gunnel, who not only dismissed the four lawsuits aimed at silencing Perry’s criticism of Louviere’s administration but also awarded ATTORNEY FEES of $16,000 to Perry, is now challenging another RECALL PETITION, this one against his client, her honor the mayor.

So, it seems to boil down to the apparent belief that a recall against an alderman who seeks answers to budgetary questions is fine and dandy but to suggest a recall against the mayor who draws up that city budget constitutes a technical foul.

It’s all a sordid little mess punctuated by what appear to be excessive expenses of the police department, ($818,000 for nine months, form June 2016 through February 2017—for a town of 3,200 living, breathing souls), 18 police cars (again, for a town of 3,200), removal of Perry from the town’s Facebook page, and a mayor’s son (one of the four plaintiffs in lawsuits against Perry) who has a less than stellar past of his own.

Basically, with all that is going on there, it doesn’t really appear to be a town where most people would care to call home these days. That’s no dig on all the decent, minding-their-own-business residents living there, but a sorry commentary on the town’s leadership—if one wishes to be overly generous in calling it that.

Meanwhile, Richard manages to keep the meter running as the legal fees continue to mount for Madam Mayor. Of course, it has to be the client’s decision to retain him to pursue these objectives. He’s just a lawyer who ostensibly takes direction from his client. But often times, a client’s decision on a course of action is predicated upon the attorney’s advice, so in trying to determine who is actually calling the shots, we may just have the age-old chicken or egg question.

Still, it’s enough to make one wonder who is paying those legal bills: the client or the city?

Perhaps that’s another question for Mr. Perry to ask.

If he can get an answer, that is.

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?

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Jimmy Buffett sang about clichés and we hear them every day:

  1. Life’s not fair. We learn that quickly in our lives.
  2. Those who make the gold make the rules: a subsection of Number 1.
  3. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Well, not necessarily.

Here’s another one: Get over it. That’s what those with the gold would tell us.

What’s the point of all this?

Well, for starters, the average salary for state classified (Civil Service) employees in Louisiana was $44,737 per year in 2017. After four years of virtually no growth, the 2017 average salary represented a 6.3 percent increase over the four years of 2010 through 2013 (2.1 percent per year), when the averages were, in order, $42,187, $42,208, $41,864, and $42,140.

If you followed those figures closely, you saw that the average salary for classified employees actually decreased by $47 from 2010 to 2013.

Contrast that with the average salary for unclassified (appointive) employees. Those average salaries increased by $1,565 (2.5 percent) from $61,861 in 2010 to $63,426 in 2013 and were $65,357 in 2017, a difference of $20,620 over their classified counterparts.

Okay, it’s somewhat understandable that unclassified employees would make 46 percent more than their counterparts. They are, for the most part, in managerial positions, after all.

For the most part. But it’s important to keep in mind that these appointees are there only as long as the governor. Generally, a new administration brings in its own personnel to replace those of the previous governor.

Unclassified employees are generally along for the ride and they’re basically temporary employees who come into an agency knowing little of its workings or its personnel. Others are just political hacks who were awarded jobs for supporting the right candidate. The classified, or civil service employees, the ones who do the actual work of keeping the state running, are career employees there for the long haul.

Article X, Paragraph 9 of the Louisiana State Constitution lays out some specific prohibitions for classified employees:

Prohibitions Against Political Activities:

(A)”No…employee in the classified service shall participate or engage in political activity; make or solicit contributions for any political party, faction, or candidate; or take active part in the management of the affairs of a political party, faction, candidate, or any political campaign…”

(C) “As used in this Part, ‘political activity’ means an effort to support or oppose the election of a candidate for political office or to support a particular political party in an election.”

These restrictions were put in place to protect classified employees from pressure from political bosses to ante up campaign contributions or to campaign for a particular candidate. But they also placed limits on other outside activity.

But, no matter how closely you study the Constitution, Civil Service, or Ethics Commission rules, you will not see any reference to activity restrictions on unclassified employees

So, why are the rules that govern ethics and conflicts of interest for classified employees different than for unclassified employees? Why is there an uneven playing field?

Take, for example, the case of Andrew Tuozzolo. He’s the Chief of Staff for Rebekah Gee, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH).

Tuozzolo, who was hired on Feb. 1, 2016, and who earns $105,000 per year, is the manager of WIN PARTNERS, LLC, of New Orleans, a political consulting firm.

By its very name and function, Win Partners necessarily involves its manager in political activity such as supporting candidates, soliciting contributions and taking part in the management of affairs for political candidates.

And it’s perfectly legal—because he’s unclassified.

Incorporation papers for Win Partners were filed with the Secretary of State on Aug. 18, 2010, and the firm began receiving fees almost immediately. Since Sept. 1, 2010, only two weeks after it was incorporated, Win Partners, and to a much lesser extent, Tuozzolo personally, have combined to receive $1.95 million in fees from candidates and political action committees.

Some of those candidates included State Reps. Walt Leger, Austin Badon; State Sens. Karen Carter Peterson, Butch Gautreaux, and Jean Paul Morrell; New Orleans City Council members Joseph Giarrusso and Helena Moreno, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and at least one statewide candidate (Buddy Caldwell).

Since his hire by Gee on Feb. 1, 2016, Win Partners has slowed somewhat in activity but that can be attributed mainly to the fact that the only major elections were for New Orleans municipal offices.

Since beginning his employment with LDH, Win Partners has collected $36,900 in fees for working in the campaigns of Moreno, Giarrusso, and Leger.

Without even taking into consideration the question of when he would have time to devote to a political consulting company, the work itself is enough of a conflict of interest to get a classified employee fired.

And then there’s the matter of Dr. Harold D. Brandt who, from April 7, 2016 to Sept. 2, 2017, served as the Medical Vendor Administrator for LDH. Brand’s salary was $156.25 per hour which, based on a 40-hour week, comes to $6,250 per week, or $312,500 for a 50-week year, allowing a couple of weeks for vacation.

Begin Date End Date Agency Job Title Biweekly Pay Rate
9/2/17 Present Resignation
4/7/16 9/1/17 LDH-Medical Vendor Admin Physician IV $156.25/hour (4/7/16 to 9/1/17)

 

The only problem with Brandt’s serving as the Medical Vendor Administrator for LDH is that he also is on the STAFF of Baton Rouge Clinic.

Since April 7, 2016, Dr. Brandt’s date of employment, Baton Rouge Clinic has received more than $83,000 in PAYMENTS from LDH.

If, as the LDH Medical Vendor Administrator, Dr. Brandt’s duties included approval of vendor payments to Baton Rouge Clinic, that would place him in a position of a potential ethics violation, unclassified or no, but only if he owned greater than a 25 percent share of Baton Rouge Clinic.

The wording of the ethics laws says if an employee owns greater than 25 percent of a business, that enterprise is prohibited from doing business with the employee’s agency. Dr. Brandt likely does not hold a 25 percent interest in Baton Rouge Clinic but he certainly has a financial stake in its serving as a vendor for the state.

That 25 percent interest certainly didn’t come into play with one classified employee a few years back. A state vendor sent her, unsolicited, a baked ham for Christmas. It was delivered to her office unbeknownst to her. She was fined $250 by the Ethics Commission.

That’s because classified employees are prohibited from accepting anything of value (other than a meal, to be eaten at the time it is given) from vendors.

But unclassified employees running a political consulting firm on the side or monitoring payments to a clinic where he is employed apparently are okay.

So, there’s no point in even discussing legislators who purchase season tickets for LSU and Saints football and Pelicans games, leasing luxury cars, or who even pay personal income taxes from campaign funds—all prohibited on paper but certainly not enforced.

Is a level playing field really too much to ask?

At the end of the day, ethics violators are as thick as thieves but it’s just the low hanging fruit that the Ethics Commission, the OIG and the Attorney General’s offices go after—like a kid in a candy store. The tough cases they avoid like the plague. If they would only think outside the box, there’re plenty of fish in the sea for them to go after if they’d just take the tiger by the tail.

(How many clichés did you count in that last paragraph?)

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Before the recent spate of sexual harassment claims in Hollywood, New York and Washington, D.C., there was a lawsuit filed by a female attorney for the Louisiana Department of Health against the agency’s general counsel.

That lawsuit, filed in June 2014 by Bethany Gauthreaux, a $42,500 per year attorney for LDH, against LDH and its $100,000-per-year Attorney Supervisor Weldon Hill, was quietly settled in May 2017.

The matter was settled for only $40,000—far less than it probably should have been, given the circumstances of the treatment undergone by Gauthreaux, according to a former associate who said Gauthreaux told her at the time that she just wanted the entire matter to be over and done.

SETTLEMENT

Even then, that might have been end of it all had not Hill and Executive Counsel Stephen Russo continued the intimidation and humiliation of Gauthreaux after she complained about Hill—to his supervisor and to LDH Human Resources—treatment that continued until her eventual resignation in May 2015.

Moved to Storage Room

The former associate who asked that she not be identified because she still works for the state—but in a different agency now—said Gauthreaux was moved from her eighth-floor office to a converted storage room on the fifth floor. She was not provided a telephone in her new location nor was she allowed to take her computer with her. Two other female employees were also moved from eighth to fifth floor but both took their computers with them to their new offices.

Meanwhile, Hill and the two attorneys over him who protected him, continued to receive pay increases.

“I would go into the restroom and find Bethany crying,” the former associate said. “I asked her what was wrong and she said, ‘Weldon Hill won’t stop.’”

Hill, Gauthreaux’s lawsuit said, would ask her highly personal questions following the birth of her child, questions about how it felt to pump breast milk. He also would position himself behind her chair and press his body against hers as he monitored her computer screen, sometimes, placing his hand on hers on the computer mouse, the petition said.

DEPOSITION OF GAUTHREAUX

DEPOSITION OF HILL

DEPOSITION OF RUSSO

The former associate said that in addition to Gauthreaux, there were at least four other women who were intimidated, harassed, and mistreated by Hill and Russo, who, as Hill’s direct supervisor and the department’s hiring authority, appeared to be protecting Hill. “They totally ostracized Bethany after she complained to Russo,” she said. “She finally said she couldn’t take it anymore and quit.”

‘Women have nothing to say’

“Weldon does not listen to women,” she said. “He said women ‘have nothing to say.’ He listens to every third word women say. Those who stood up to him paid a price,” she said. “I stood up to him once and he filed a complaint against me to Russo.”

She said another female employee who complained about Hill was given a “Needs Improvement” letter for something that had occurred two years before.

She said that Hill also performed outside legal work on state time. “That’s payroll fraud,” she said. Asked by LouisianaVoice if that could be proven, she said, “Only by checking his state computer.”

And while Gauthreaux preceded the “Me Too” movement, the work environment at LDH apparently remains hostile for female employees.

Gauthreaux, for example, never received a promotion to Attorney 2 in her two years at LDH and received one pay increase of $1,638 per year, Hill saw his pay increase by $5,720 per year, one of those raises coming only a couple of months after Gauthreaux’s lawsuit was filed and another beginning on Jan. 1 this year, which brought his annual salary to $99,800.

During that same period, Russo saw his salary increase by $7,930, to $138,500 per year.

Triumvirate Cronies

Kathleen Callaghan, a former supervisory attorney for LDH who is now retired, is also familiar with the triumvirate of Hill, Russo and $140,300-per-year LDH General Counsel 3 Kimberly Humbles.

“They’re all cronies who pal around together,” Callaghan said. “They retaliated against Bethany, they retaliated against me and they retaliated against other female employees. Weldon Hill is a typical predator who ingratiates himself with Russo and Humbles and they in turn protect him.”

She said she was told by higher ups that Gauthreaux wasn’t strong enough. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me? She took on the whole bunch and she prevailed.’ Nobody else in a supervisory position would stand up for her. She had to stand up for herself. Hill should have been put on administrative leave immediately when that suit was filed,” she said. “He should be gone.”

Callaghan said she once was accused of being AWOL by the same supervisor who had approved her two-week vacation. “My vacation started just a couple of days before Bethany’s lawsuit was filed, so they thought I’d ducked out. In reality, my vacation had been approved in advance but for whatever reason, they never checked that until I pointed it out to them,” she said. “And they’re supposed to be lawyers.”

Timing Bathroom Breaks

She said Hill keeps tabs on when subordinates leave their desks and how long they’re gone. “If he has time to do that, he isn’t busy enough,” Callaghan said. “He needs something to keep him busy besides keeping track of how long people spend in the bathroom. He is a Third-Party Administrator, which is just filing liens. He generates letters, something a clerical could do. He needs to be transferred to federal court where he can keep busy doing what he should be doing.”

Asked by LouisianaVoice why LDH Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee hasn’t taken action to keep LDH from further liability exposure, Callaghan said, “I don’t think Dr. Gee is even aware of the lawsuit. I think they kept a lid on it and she doesn’t even know about it.”

She said former LDH Secretary Kathy Kliebert once was informed of similar problems. “Her response was we should all go on retreat together. I’m sorry, but that’s not a solution,” she said, indicating that someone with authority needs to step in and clean up LDH’s legal department.

At some time, the message must sink in that just because you’re in a supervisory capacity, you cannot, must not, attack, subvert, or destroy a person’s dignity and self-respect.

 

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Jeff Landry is a man who knows the value of positive public relations.

Negative PR? Not so much.

LouisianaVoice has for months now been attempting to extract some type of information regarding the AG’s progress in investigating that April 2016 RAPE of a 17-year-old female inmate by a convicted rapist—in the Union Parish Jail in Farmerville.

And after months of not-so-artful dodging with the oft-repeated, “This matter in under investigation, therefore I cannot comment on the specifics or answer questions at this time” response of Press Secretary Ruth Wisher, there apparently has been no progress in the investigation.

Recently, though, the AG’s office has altered its method of responding to public records requests—and the method for submitting same.

Once it was sufficient to initiate an official public records request (PRR) to the AG’s Public Information Office with a simple email that began: Pursuant to the Public Records Act of Louisiana (R.S. 44:1 et seq.), I respectfully request the opportunity to review the following document(s):

Now, though, the AG has abruptly switched gears to require that inquiries be routed through a different office—which would seem to make the name of the Public Information Office something of a misnomer.

Previously, following that referencing of the state’s public records act, one would simply list the documents desired (It’s crucial that you request actual documents and not just general information: public agencies as a rule—there are exceptions—won’t respond to general requests). Here is a recent (Dec. 13, 2017) request submitted by LouisianaVoice for which no response has yet been received:

  • Please provide me a current list (and status) of all criminal investigations undertaken by the Louisiana Attorney General’s office since Jeff Landry’s inauguration.
  • Said status should include all dispositions of cases, including convictions and/or dropped charges, where applicable.

But now, Landry’s office appears to be circling the wagons. No more are we to submit request to the Public Information Officer, which makes public information something of an oxymoron. Here is our latest inquiry about the status of the investigation of that rape case which is now entering its 21st month despite the fact that authorities know the following:

  • Where the rapes (she was raped twice) occurred (in the confines of a small cell);
  • When they occurred;
  • The identity of the victim;
  • The identity of the alleged rapist (who was awaiting sentencing for a prior conviction of aggravated rape)

Here is LouisianaVoice’s request:

“Please provide me an update on the current status of the Union Parish jail cell rape case that occurred in April of 2016.

Should you respond with the usual “ongoing investigation” response, then please try to give me some indication as when this unusually lengthy investigation of a relative uncomplicated matter will be completed.”

Here is the AG’s response:

As you have anticipated, Louisiana’s Public Records Act, specifically La. R.S. 44:3(A)(1), exempts records held by the office of the attorney general that pertain to “pending criminal litigation or any criminal litigation which can be reasonably anticipated, until such litigation has been finally adjudicated or otherwise settled. . . .” Therefore, records related to open investigations are not subject to disclosure until the case is finally adjudicated or otherwise settled. 

Additionally, your request does not identify any currently existing record. The creation of periodic “status updates” is not an obligation imposed upon public bodies by Louisiana Public Records Law, La. R.S. 44:1, et seq. Please direct future requests for press releases to our Communications Division at AGLandryNews@ag.louisiana.gov. If you have any further requests to make pursuant to La. R.S. 44:1, et seq., please let me know. 

With Best Regards,

Luke Donovan
Assistant Attorney General

Well, I can certainly understand that records of pending matters are exempted but how long is Landry going to let this languish? The victim has filed suit against the state and Union Parish but that is a civil matter. The rape is a criminal investigation. And while the AG is charged with defending the civil suit, the two are separate matters handled by separate divisions.

And what, exactly, does Donovan mean by “pending criminal litigation”? We have pending civil litigation and we have pending criminal prosecution. Again, they are separate, handled by separate divisions.

But then, Landry is nothing if not a publicity hound. He loves to see his name in print. He just doesn’t have the same enthusiasm for actual work. Take the theft from the DeSOTO PARISH Sheriff’s Office that was turned over first to Landry’s predecessor Buddy Caldwell and then to him to investigate because the victim of that theft was the local district attorney, creating for him a conflict of interests.

Landry never did complete that investigation which pre-dated the Union Parish rape case by two years. It was a federal grand jury that ended up indicting the employee involved.

And finally, there is the ALTON STERLING case which, following the U.S. Justice Department’s punting on the matter, was taken up by Landry last May. Nearly 10 months later, Landry has yet to give any indication as to when he will issue a report on that shooting by Baton Rouge police.

So, Ruth Wisher is stuck with the unenviable task of trying to make her boss look good. It’s not quite as daunting a task as that of Sarah Huckabee Sanders in trying to make a silk purse of the sow’s ear that is Donald Trump, but daunting nevertheless.

The glowing press releases will continue in Landry’s unabashed quest for the governor’s office while the real work of completing the investigation of the rape of a 17-year-old will continue to get short shrift because, realistically speaking, there are no votes to be gained in protecting the rights of a meth addict.

And that, readers, is the very definition of hypocrisy.

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