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Archive for the ‘Public Records’ Category

There are certain procedures that must be followed in submitting public records requests to public agencies and with many agencies, if the procedure is not followed to the letter, you will find cooperation nonexistent.

Such is the case with Dr. Arnold Feldman, a pain management physician whose license was suspended by the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners which, just to be sure that he has been silenced, imposed a half-million dollar fine against him.

Dr. Feldman is unfamiliar with the proper method of making public records requests, as evidenced by a number of his requests that LouisianaVoice has obtained. For example, he has on occasion asked for general information instead of requesting specific documents.

In such cases the board, like many state agencies, is unforgiving, responding that his request is “overly broad” without explaining how—or by not responding at all.

It helps if you preface your request with: “Pursuant to the Public Records Act of Louisiana (R.S. 44:1 et seq.), I respectfully request the opportunity to review the following information:

Then you may wish to quote certain passages from the state’s public records statute, i.e. the penalties that non-compliance with the request carry. That puts officials on notice that you are knowledgeable about the public records statute.

And even though Dr. Feldman’s request did not follow these procedures, there are those occasions where the official response is so absurd that the official efforts to deny information becomes obvious.

For example, Dr. Feldman made one request that granted, did not follow protocol when he inquired as to whether or not Hammond attorney George M. Papale had ever been elected as a judge (he has not).

And while the request itself did not specifically ask for a public record, the board’s response in a JULY 9 LETTER by Dr. Vincent Culotta, executive director of the board, was laughable—and incorrect:

“…responses to public records requests are sometimes done with the assistance of counsel and we object to producing such information such information for your request on grounds of attorney-client and work product privileges.”

That is pure B.S. and Culotta knows it. And if he doesn’t, he should be fired because it’s part of his job to know.

Virtually every state agency, upon receiving any request for public records, runs that request by its legal counsel—meaning that practically all public records requests are done “with the assistance of counsel.”

By that line of reasoning, all public records requests could be refused.

A week earlier, in a JULY 2 LETTER, Dr. Culotta responded to Dr. Feldman:

“Specifically, you requested: ‘Has George Papale, who has been paid by this board, ever been an elected judge? Please provide me with a copy of his complete file.’

“I outline for you the objections of the Board to the scope of your request and specifically assert these objections to the production of any of the materials listed therein, if any exists, for the following, non-exhaustive reasons:”

One of the reasons given cited a state statute which provides that the “records and documents in the possession of any agency or any officer or employee thereof, including any written conclusions therefrom, which are deemed confidential and privileged shall not be subject to subpoena by any person or other state or federal agency.”

The key here is the phrase “which are deemed confidential and privileged.”

In the case of all public employees, from the governor on down, certain information is considered public information. This includes job titles, dates of hire and termination, salaries, official travel records, and expense vouchers (hotels, meals, mileage) and payments. In the cases of contract employees, copies of such contracts, terms of payment, job duties, invoices and payments are all considered public records.

How do I know this? I have made similar requests—and received documents—from many state agencies, one of the most frequent being the Louisiana State Police and the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

In cases of denial of a valid request, the requester may file a lawsuit against the agency and the person making the decision to deny the records. If the requester prevails, the agency or individual making the decision can be fined up to $100 per day, plus court costs and attorney fees, for denial of each request.

How do I know this? I have been successful in three of four lawsuits over public records or illegal executive sessions of a public body.

As with the State Board of Dentistry, the Board of Medical Examiners is flexing its enforcement muscle against those who do not have the expertise or the financial resources to fight back. A half-million-dollar fine is overkill in every possible consideration. Doctors and dentists have been broken and their careers left in tatters because of similar oppressive, dictatorial actions and it’s long past the time they should be reined in.

And for the record, attorney George Papale is still under contract to the Board of Medical Examiners even after his—and his daughter’s—employment was TERMINATED by another regulatory board, the Louisiana Physical Therapy Board.

The two attorneys had their contracts terminated following widespread complaints about the board’s handling of sexual misconduct cases.

The board was ripped by lawmakers after it was learned it had failed to revoke licenses after physical therapists settled claims of sexual misconduct with patients.

Baton Rouge physical therapist Philippe Veeters was charged with sexual battery and accused of assaulting nine patients but instead of revoking his license, the board merely suspended his license for nine months, prompting State Sen. J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans) to call the action a “slap on the wrist.”

Dr. Feldman should re-phrase his requests and if unsuccessful, seek a legal solution.

That’s not legal advice; it’s advice from one who has been down the same road on many occasions.

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The news release by last September said that former Gov. Bobby Jindal had been appointed to the board of directors of by Wellcare Health Plans, Inc., of Tampa, Florida.

Yawn. Ho-hum. Has LouisianaVoice become so desperate for stories that it resurrects a nine-month-old news release?

Well, things have been a little slow of late. Even the recently-adjourned legislative session failed to generate any surprises other than the usual parties, dinners at Baton Rouge’s most expensive restaurants and hobnobbing with lobbyists to the general detriment of constituents, i.e. Louisiana citizens.

But it has long been my contention that when one peels back a few layers from the cover story, one will usually find the real story. After all, a July 2016 LouisianaVoice STORY turned up a link between Jindal and a lucrative state contract for another company that had appointed him to its board.

Accordingly, I went looking a little deeper and YOWSER! Sha-ZAM!

It seems that appointment of Jindal, described in the news release as one “who has dedicated his career to public service and advancing innovative healthcare polices,” appears to have been payback for services rendered while he was governor.

Documents obtained from the Louisiana Department of Health show that CENTENE, a major U.S. health insurer, is the parent company of Louisiana Healthcare Connections, Inc., which was awarded a contract for nearly $1 billion with the Louisiana Department of Hospitals in September 2011, just a month before Jindal’s reelection to a second term.

LHCC Contract 2012

The contract called for Louisiana Healthcare Connections to perform “a broad range of services necessary for the delivery of health care services to Medicaid enrollees…”

That contract was to run from February 1, 2012, through January 31, 2015.

On January 19, 2015, the contract was renewed for another three years, to run through January 31, 2018. The contract amount was increased from the original $926 million to $1.9 billion.

LHCC Contract 2015

But just before Jindal left office, on December 1, 2015, that contract was amended from $1.9 billion to $3.9 billion, perhaps in anticipation that incoming Gov. John Bel Edwards would keep his promise to expand Medicaid under Obamacare—which he did.

In March of this year, USA Today published a STORY that Centene (Louisiana Healthcare Connections parent company, remember) would purchase WellCare Health Plans, Inc. for $17.3 billion.

It would be most interesting to see if Jindal netted a windfall from that transaction, coming as it did only six months after he was named to WellCare Health Plans’ board.

It’s unknown just how long negotiations had been ongoing between Centene and WellCare Health Plans, but the timing does open the door for speculation that the doubling of the Louisiana Healthcare Connections contract, Jindal’s appointment to the WellCare Health Plan board and Centene’s purchase of WellCare are more than coincidental.

To add a little spice to the recipe of Louisiana political gumbo, they’re also a few interesting campaign contributions.

  • On March 11, 2011, just six months before Louisiana Healthcare was awarded that initial contract for $926 million, WellCare of Louisiana, a subsidiary of WellCare Health Plans, contributed $5,000 to Jindal’s reelection campaign.
  • On January 17, 2012, only two weeks before its initial contract took effect, Louisiana Healthcare Connections gave Jindal $5,000.
  • Louisiana Healthcare’s parent company, Centene, gave Jindal $5,000 on January 17, 2012 (the same date as Louisiana Healthcare’s contribution). Centene gave him another $5,000 on November 19, 2012 and still another $5,000 back on August 14, 2008, eight months after Jindal first moved into the governor’s office.
  • Oh, and the New Orleans law firm of McGlinchey Stafford, the registered agent for Louisiana Healthcare, gave Jindal $1,000 on September 23, 2003; $5,000 on October 30, 2003; $5,000 on April 6, 2007, and $5,000 on March 2, 2011.
  • On April 23, 2009, Centene’s then Chairman and CEO Michael Neidorff kicked in $3,000 to Jindal.

It would seem that Bobby Jindal is perfectly willing to skirt a few ethical standards in order to ensure that life after politics can continue to benefit from life while in politics.

So, you see, even the most mundane news release can carry a wealth of information if one is willing to follow a convoluted path to the ultimate source of the money.

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Remember THIS STORY as Bobby Jindal moved into the governor’s office in 2008?

That was in 2008. Fast forward to May 16, 2019 and we have a thoroughly-researched and informative story by Baton Rouge Advocate reporter ANDREA GALLO in partnership with ProPublica, a leading investigative journalism website that details just how impotent, inept, and dysfunctional the Louisiana State Board of Ethics has become, thanks to Jindal’s “Gold Standard of Ethics,” passed in 2009, immediately after he assumed the office of governor.

In the 10 years since Jindal literally gutted the State Ethics Board of any enforcement powers, the board has become the antithesis of bodies like the State Board of Dentistry and the State Board of Medical Examiners which have the unbridled power to impose draconian penalties against dentists and doctors in order to support their exorbitant budgets.

Both extremes are classic examples of how political considerations trump due process and fairness in state government.

One bankrupts professionals who must accept coercion and extortion or face financial ruin while the other currently has more than $1 million in uncollected campaign violation fines dating back to (ahem) 2008, the year Jindal was elected.

Campaign finance report enforcement is all but non-existent, if the Louisiana Ethics Administration’s list of delinquent fines is any indication.

The administration’s WEBSITE lists 62 pages totaling about 700 uncollected fines dating back 11 years and totaling nearly $1.1 million, a testament to inefficiency and waste.

Moreover, the dental and medical boards, as well as other regulatory boards, have broad power to initiate their own investigations, something the ethics commission lacks. It can only investigate alleged ethics violations if it receives an official complaint.

But wait. Only elected or appointed officials may file a complaint; your average Louisiana citizen “has no standing” to file a complaint.

In other words, those not subject to an ethics complaint unless said complaint is made by a state or local official include:

  • A legislator who contracts with the state for hurricane debris removal (a real, not hypothetical case) is not subject to an ethics complaint unless said complaint is made by a state or local official.
  • A legislator uses campaign funds to pay his federal income taxes (again, an actual case), there is no ethics violation without an official complaint.
  • Another legislator using campaign funds to lease luxury vehicles for himself and members of his family and to purchase season tickets to Saints, Pelicans and LSU games.
  • Or a former governor publishing a book and then using funds from his tax-exempt foundation to purchase thousands of copies of the book at a nice profit to himself.

Convenient, no?

Jindal’s good-government charade began as soon as he took office and as a result, ethics board members resigned en masse in protest.

But could Jindal have harbored ulterior motives in pushing for his “reforms”?

On January 25, 2008, right after he took office, he was hit with his own $2,500 FINE for failure to timely disclose more than $100,000 spent on his behalf by the state Republican Party. A month later, he opened his first SPECIAL SESSION of the legislature dedicated solely to ethics reform.

At the same time, the Jindal reform package, when passed, allowed pending ethics fines against political allies, including then-state representative but current Grambling State University President RICK GALLOT, disappear.

The same couldn’t be said for two CALCASIEU PARISH PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHERS who led unsuccessful recall efforts against Jindal and then-House Speaker Chuck Kleckley. The teachers found themselves facing fines of $1,000 each for failing to file timely campaign finance reports. You can bet that little transgression wasn’t overlooked by Jindal and his “Gold Standard” of ethics.

But it’s impossible to place all the blame on Jindal.

In July 2007, more than a year before Jindal’s election, the ethics board allowed its chief administrator, Gray Sexton, resign and then rehired him in a different capacity—all to AVOID A REQUIREMENT under a new ethics law that he disclose clients in his private law practice, a move that on its face, might appear unethical to many.

But it didn’t end there. Sexton has since retired but now represents defendants before his former employer. Among his clients::

  • Lafayette developer Greg Gachassin;
  • Tammany Assistant District Attorney Harry Pastuszek, Jr.;
  • John the Baptist Parish Engineer C.J. Savoie and his company, C. J. Savoie Engineers;
  • Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph;
  • State Rep. Nancy Landry;
  • John the Baptist Parish President William Hubbard;
  • Former state senate candidate Shawn Barney;
  • Shreveport businessman Bobby Jelks;

And as far back as 1986, a full 17 years before Jindal’s first campaign for governor, it was common for the ethics board to be used selectively to punish politicians or public servants who had fallen from favor.

That was the year that former LSU athletic director Bob Brodhead and Baton Rouge Advocate publisher Doug Manship were FOUND GUILTY by the ethics board in connection with a flight by Brodhead and his wife to Manship’s private club in LaPaz, Mexico, on Manship’s private plane.

Then-LSU President James Wharton used the ethics charges as leverage to oust Brodhead even though Wharton was aware of the trip and even encouraged the Brodheads to take the trip, according to Brodhead’s account in his book Sacked!

Strangely enough, no ethics violations investigations were ever initiated against Wharton and LSU Alumni Association President Charlie Roberts for accepting dove hunting trips from LSU Board of Supervisors member Sam Friedman, nor were ethics violation charges ever pursued against Friedman who owned a Holiday Inn hotel outside Gainesville, Florida, the hotel at which the LSU football team was quartered when it played in Gainesville.

Nor did the ethics board pursue charges against legislators who routinely accepted dove-hunting trips from lobbyists, choosing instead to “take no action.” In fact, a story in The Advocate said, “The Board’s staff attorney refused to say who the lawmakers were, when or why they took the trip.”

The time has long since past when the legislature reinstated the enforcement powers of the ethics board.

The alternative would be to admit the futility of any pretense at enforcement, or even the existence of, governmental ethics and simply shut down the agency as excess baggage.

We would probably never notice the difference.

 

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It turns out that Southern University is indeed a public body.

And so are any of its committees assigned to carry out or to recommend university policy, according to a ruling by 19th Judicial District Judge Richard Moore, III, denying Southern’s Exception of No Cause of Action.

A no-brainer, right?

Well, not if you accept the argument of attorneys representing the university in a pending lawsuit over the decision by the university’s system-wide Grievance Committee to enter into an executive session without benefit of an official motion or vote by the committee members and despite the request of the four Southern employees that the meeting be open to the public.

Southern’s motion was filed as a result of a lawsuit by Dr. Christy Moland, Dr. Elaine Lewnau, Dr. Terrilynn Gillis and Dr. Marilyn Seibert, four university professors either fired, demoted or reduced in pay, and LouisianaVoice publisher Tom Aswell after the plaintiffs claimed that a CLOSED-DOOR MEETING by the grievance committee on March 18 was illegal.

In Monday’s hearing on the motion, Southern’s attorneys put up a rosy argument, saying that according to what Arthur Smith, III, attorney for the four professors, was saying, anytime an individual is assigned by the administration to carry out any function, their actions would constitute a public body.

Had Southern prevailed, then any public body, from the governor’s office down to the smallest town council, could hide behind that maneuver in order to keep the public uninformed of its actions.

But the grievance committee is not an individual. In fact, it is comprised of more than a dozen “individuals” who sit as a committee to hear grievances and to make recommendations to the university administration.

As such, the committee’s recommendations constitute official actions designed to set policy or official actions for the university to carry out.

At the March 18 hearing, all four professors requested that the hearing be conducted in an open forum but then, without a motion or vote to do so, Dickerson called an executive session, saying the hearing was not a public meeting and the committee was not a public body even though any decision it may make is clearly defined as an official action by a public body under state law. Dickerson’s saying otherwise does not change that.

Louisiana Revised Statute 42;4.1 THROUGH 42.13, the state’s Open Meetings Law, clearly defines a “Public Body,” and then goes on to say “A committee formed by the public body is considered a public body, e.g., an executive committee.”

Having established that point, the next issue would be the state’s OPEN MEETINGS LAW, which says, “In order for a public body to enter into an executive session, a vote of 2/3 of members present at an open meeting, for which proper notice was given pursuant to R.S. 42:19, is necessary — along with an accompanying statement of the reason for entering into the executive session. The vote of each member on the motion to enter into executive session along with the reason for entering the executive session must be recorded and entered into the minutes. (emphasis added)

So, the “Grievance Committee” violated the state’s open meetings statutes which require public hearings of grievances should those filing grievances request a public hearing, which all four in fact, did request.

The same section says:

Further, the public body may not enter into executive session for the purposes of this discussion, if the individual requests that the matter be discussed in an open meeting. (emphasis added).

Committee chairperson Marla Dickerson, in calling the closed session, ejected not only LouisianaVoice, but also the four professors and their legal counsel (Smith) as well as the legal counsel for the university itself (Winston Decuir), thus preventing legal counsel for each side from hearing any testimony by witnesses.

In his ruling, Judge Moore said, “…the Grievance Committee…is making recommendations to the President-Chancellor as to whether employment should be maintained and, if so, the amount of compensation. The…type of committee action is too important to be made in a dark room, where no one other than committee members know what factors are being considered. The actions taken by the Grievance Committee served to slam the door on…(the) Louisiana Constitution and our democratic process. For all these reasons and considerations, the exception of no cause of action filed by Southern University is overruled.”

 

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As reports of financial improprieties in the LSU BASKETBALL program, the SCHOOL of VETERINARY MEDICINE and a children’s foundation at a Baton Rouge HOSPITAL compete for headlines, another scandal has been quietly brewing across town that thus far has managed to fly under the radar of news reporters and investigators.

It’s nothing on the magnitude of the pay to play story that has rocked higher education at the nation’s elite universities, but it is indicative of a growing problem of a deterioration of trust, integrity and morality behind the walls of academia.

Once considered paragons of virtue, propriety, and incorruptibility, our colleges and universities have become politicized by draconian budgetary cuts to the point that schools find themselves searching for their collective moral compasses even as they strive for funds to remain afloat.

But budgetary cuts alone can’t account for the some of the shenanigans we see taking place on our college campuses. Sometimes it’s just outright contempt for the rules of common decency.

Take Southern University, the state’s largest predominantly black university, for example.

The school has, with nobody taking notice, become embroiled in a dispute involving the firing of four faculty members in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology/Audiology.

The firings occurred when the faculty members refused to go along with:

  • The creation of a so-called shadow, or non-existent curriculum to benefit a single student;
  • The falsifying of another student’s grade from F to B so that she could graduate even though she failed to attend the class;
  • Allowing a student to enroll despite her being under suspension from the university;
  • Permitting a major course to be offered as an independent study when the department does not have independent study, again to benefit a single student;
  • Nepotism;
  • Bullying and threatening behavior by administration officials when faculty members questioned the legality or propriety of their actions;

The four, Dr. Elaine Lewnau, Dr. Christy Moland, Dr. Terrilynn Gillis, and Dr. Marilyn Seibert, are represented by Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur Smith, III.

During Monday’s hearing by the Southern University System-wide Grievance Committee, committee chairperson academic counselor Marla Dickerson consistently interrupted Smith with a barrage of questions despite Smith’s repeated requests that he be allowed to complete his statements to the committee.

The entirety of Monday’s hearing was the very definition of a kangaroo court as the four faculty members were also interrupted time and time again as they attempted to give their opening statements.

Then, without a motion or vote to do so, Dickerson called an executive session, saying the hearing was not a public meeting and the committee was not a public body even though any decision it may make is clearly defined as an official action by a public body under state law. Dickerson’s saying otherwise does not change that.

The state’s OPEN MEETING STATUTE, R.S. 42:16 (A)(25) reads:

In order for a public body to enter into an executive session, a vote of 2/3 of members present at an open meeting, for which proper notice was given pursuant to R.S. 42:19, is necessary — along with an accompanying statement of the reason for entering into the executive session. The vote of each member on the motion to enter into executive session along with the reason for entering the executive session must be recorded and entered into the minutes. (emphasis added)

So, the “Grievance Committee” violated the state’s open meetings statutes which require public hearings of grievances should those filing grievances request a public hearing, which all four in fact, did request.

The same section says:

Further, the public body may not enter into executive session for the purposes of this discussion, if the individual requests that the matter be discussed in an open meeting. (emphasis added)

Dickerson, in calling the closed session, ejected not only LouisianaVoice, but also the four professors and their legal counsel (Smith) as well as the legal counsel for the university itself (Winston Decuir), thus preventing legal counsel for each side from hearing any testimony by witnesses.

The grievance was filed against Dr. James Ammons, executive vice president and executive vice chancellor of Southern University.

For the 2018 Spring Semester, a shadow curriculum consisting of three courses, was approved for a single student, even though there is no record of a syllabus for such courses and no record of student performance in the courses for which she received a grade of A. “This is grade fraud,” Smith said, because “The department chair did not know that these courses were being given to the student” and “there is no record of ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) certification standards achieved in any of the courses.

“Because these courses were put into (the student’s) schedule without any knowledge of the department chair (or) graduate program director, in other words, illegal courses, and taught by…illegally appointed department chair and graduate program director, respectively,” Smith said. The previous department chair and graduate program director were removed by Ammons without reason, in violation of school policy, Smith said.

Smith said a major course was offered to a single student as an independent study in the 2018 Fall semester even though the Speech Pathology Department does not offer independent study, which Smith said violates the accuracy of the ASHA accreditation report where no independent study has ever been reported. Again, Smith said this constituted grade fraud.

Further, Smith said Dr. Stephen Enwefa removed Dr. Lewnau from her duties of teaching the course without reason and appointed his wife, Dr. Regina Enwefa, to teach the course. “This is nepotism despite the insistence by Dr. Ammons and President (Ray) Belton’s general counsel that the university is not in violation of the state’s nepotism laws.”

The student was to have completed an unauthorized clinic in the 2018 Spring semester, Smith said, but neither the site nor the clinical hours were approved by the Clinical Education director. The student was given an F because she attended only two weeks of the eight-week clinic, but Ammons changed her grade to a B. “The grade of B that was authorized by Dr. Ammons is fraudulent,” Smith said.

“Because Dr. Moland refused to give credit for something of which she had no record; because she would not falsify records for this student and lie, Dr. Ammons fired her,” Smith said.

Likewise, Dr. Gillis said she was fired for refusing to violate the ASHA professional ethics and because she “refused to submit to the illegal orders of Dr. Ammons.”

Dr. Seibert said she entered into an agreement with Southern whereby she would be paid $20,000 for teaching in the Speech-Language Pathology Department during the 2018 Fall semester but was subsequently paid only $7,500.

Dr. Lewnau added, “As chair of the admissions committee for the master’s degree program in speech-language pathology, Dr. Gillis had been contacted several times about the admission of 6 students who had applied and been denied because they did not meet the minimum admissions requirements.

“These contacts came from various offices on campus, including the President’s office, the Board of Supervisors’ office and the office of the Executive Vice President/Executive Vice Chancellor and someone who claimed to be a member of the Southern University Alumni Association, for the purpose of trying to get these students into the master’s degree program.

“Dr. Gillis had to repeatedly stated that the students just did not qualify for admissions. After Dr. (Donna) Dejean and Dr. Lewnau were removed from their administrative offices and replaced by the husband and wife team of Drs. Stephen and Regina Enwefa, and Dr. Gillis was given a letter of termination from the University, effective May 2019, these students were admitted to the master’s degree program by the Enwefas.

“Bear in mind, these students were admitted by the Enwefas who together and without any input from the rest of the faculty admitted them and without re-opening the admissions process to other students who might interested.

“The invitation was extended to these students who had been supported by individuals from the offices cited above. We believe that this was a contributing factor to Dr. Gillis’ being terminated. She refused to bow to the pressure placed upon her in the matter of these admissions. Since then all admissions, undergraduate and graduate, are administered by Stephen and Regina Enwefa; there is no longer an admissions committee as there had been in the past. Once again, nepotism!”

 

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