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Archive for the ‘State Agencies’ Category

The powers that be in state and local government, i.e., agency and departmental heads, like to give the impression that personal activities on the job, particularly as they might involve office computers and personal email messages, are strictly verboten.

That’s not to say, of course, that while the lowly peons are held to this higher standard of professional excellence, supervisors don’t shop Amazon.com or book cruises or Disney vacations while at work.

But, hey! Everyone fudges on those restrictions. It’s the rare employee indeed who doesn’t sneak in a little self-time on state computers and telephones.

But the Hon. JIMBO STEPHENS, newly-elected judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeal, or at least Rayville attorney John Hoychick, Jr., acting on his behalf, has taken the practice to new heights with an email blast to a gaggle of attorneys seeking campaign contributions for Stephens.

Hoychick included in his email at least five attorneys working on the public dime, either for the City of Monroe, the University of Louisiana Monroe, or the gret stet of Looziana as well as no fewer than seven barristers in the employ of CenturyLink, the telecommunications company headquarter in Monroe.

Louisiana agencies some of the recipients work for are employed by include the Department of Social Services and the Department of Children and Family Services (where the rank and file workers are chronically short-staffed and overworked but not, apparently, the attorneys).

Stephens, who defeated 4th JDC Judge Sharon Marchman in last October’s ELECTION, apparently wishes to retire his campaign debts and Hoychick is not the least bit shy in calling on some 140 attorneys in his email blast to do just that.

And while it may be a breach of protocol to solicit contributions from them at their taxpayer-funded jobs, it nevertheless serves as a classic illustration of how judges tend to lean on attorneys who might at some time in the future appear before them to argue a case or two—and woe unto one who has not paid his dues (at least that seems to be the mindset).

A “Sponsor Couple” can buy in for a mere 500 bucks while those on a tighter budget can get by for $150 as a “Supporter Couple,” according to Hoychick’s email solicitation.

(I just hope Stephens’s fundraiser doesn’t cut into LouisianaVoice’s ongoing fundraiser.)

Curiously, the email (or at least the one forwarded to LouisianaVoice) doesn’t give a date, time, or location for the highly anticipated “kickoff event.” But not to worry: checks, “payable to Judge Jimbo Stephens Campaign Committee,” can be brought to the event (wherever) “or mailed to Judge Jimbo Stephens Campaign Committee.”

Surely, the State of Louisiana, ULM, the City of Monroe, or CenturyLink won’t mind if their staff attorneys take a little time to write a check to the good judge. After all, if there’s important legal work to be done, it can be pawned off on an overworked paralegal or legal secretary.

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State Rep. Dustin Miller (D-Opelousas) has filed HOUSE BILL 724 that would provide an exception to certain provisions of the state ethics code that would allow a Louisiana Department of Health physician to skirt a conflict of interests—in other words, to circumvent the very situation ethics rules were put into place to prevent.

Miller’s bill would allow the physician, Dr. Harold Brandt, to perform in a dual capacity that has already been rejected by the ethics board in a 2016 RULING.

The ruling of July 18, 2016 informed Dr. Sreyram Kuy that he could not accept employment with a healthcare provider that accepted Medicaid payments for medical services because of her position as Medicaid Medical Director, Chief Medical Officer of the Bureau of Health Services Financing (BHSF) within the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), now LDH.

The decision, written by Jennifer T. Land, read, “The Board concluded…that the Code of Governmental Ethics prohibits you from being employed as a surgeon for OLOL (Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center), other Louisiana licensed hospitals and other healthcare providers that accept Medicaid payments for medical services while you serve as Medicaid Medical Director/Chief Medical Officer of BHSF.”

Land cited the specific section which said the code “prohibits a public servant from receiving compensation for services rendered to the following persons: (1) those who have or are seeking to obtain a business, contractual or financial relationship with the public servant’s agency, (2) those who conduct operations or activities that are regulated by the public servant’s agency, and (3) those who have a substantial economic interest that could be affected by the performance or non-performance of the public servant’s official duty. OLOL, other Louisiana licensed hospitals and other healthcare providers that accept Medicaid payments for medical services are regulated by your agency, BHSF. Therefore, as the Medicaid Medical Director/Chief Medical Officer of BHSF, you are prohibited from being employed by or from providing compensated services to these entities.”

What makes Miller’s bill particularly interesting, however, is that both Dr. Kuy’s predecessor, LDH Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee, and his successor, Dr. Harold Brandt, each worked in that same position without bothering to request an ethics ruling, apparently falling back on the Nike slogan “Just do it.”

In fact, in the case of Dr. Brandt, LouisianaVoice has been informed that he was reappointed to the position with the proviso that Miller’s bill would be introduced in order to change the existing law to accommodate him. This despite the fact that an ethics review was requested of LDH legal to determine if such an arrangement was acceptable, and the answer was no, according to sources.

On Jan. 25, LouisianaVoice published a story in which it was revealed that Dr. Brandt previously served as Medical Vendor Administrator (Medicaid Medical Director) for LDH from April 7, 2016 to Sept. 2, 2017 at a rate of $156.25 per hour while he simultaneously served on the staff of BATON ROUGE CLINIC, which received $83,000 in PAYMENTS from LDH during Dr. Brandt’s tenure at LDH.

the Medical Director serves as chairman of the Medical Quality Review Committee, so LDH legal was asked for a second opinion whether any ethics concerns existed in regards to that capacity.

The response was the following potential issues identified under the Code of Governmental Ethics. The Medicaid Quality Committee (Committee) of the Louisiana Department of Health, Bureau of Health Services Financing, fulfills the role of the Medical Care Advisory Committee required by 42 CFR 431.12.  According to its Bylaws, the Committee provides focus and direction for Medicaid program quality activities that assure access and utilization of quality, evidence-based healthcare that is designed to meet the health needs of all Louisiana Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) recipients through:

  • Establishing and maintaining sound business and clinical practices/benchmarks that ensure a system of internal controls and support optimal performance within established thresholds;
  • Driving meaningful and measurable collaboration between the LDH agencies BHSF, Office of Behavioral Health (OBH), Office of Public Health (OPH), Office of Aging and Adult Services (OAAS), and Office for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities (OCDD), with a focus on demonstrating improved care and service for Medicaid recipients by using evidence-based guidelines;
  • Creating and sustaining a vibrant evaluation process for Louisiana Medicaid benefits and services and health care delivery systems that is based on integrity, accountability, and transparency;
  • Offering expertise and experience of Committee members to recommend improvements to BHSF that will serve to better meet the healthcare needs of recipients in a cost efficient manner;
  • Sharing Committee recommendations with recipients, providers and policy leaders; and
  • Forming subcommittees to address specific areas of care, as needed.

The Committee’s functions are advisory and shall include:

  • Monitoring ongoing metrics and ensuring findings are reported on a regularly scheduled basis (quarterly or annually);
  • Ensuring key quality initiatives are identified to align with regulatory and business requirements;
  • Overseeing quality improvement projects and ensuring coordination and integration of the quality improvement activities;
  • Reviewing performance results and providing feedback and recommendations to the MCO action plans; and
  • Participating in the evaluation of the Medicaid Quality Program by evaluating the quality, continuity, accessibility, and availability of the medical care rendered within Louisiana.

The Secretary of LDH appoints all non-permanent Committee members, which must include board-certified physicians and other health professionals familiar with the medical needs of low-income population groups and with the resources available and required for their care, in accordance with 42 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) 431.12(d).  Additionally, the members of the standing subcommittees are appointed by the Louisiana Medicaid Medical Director, who serves as the permanent Chair of the Committee.

La. R.S. 42:1113B prohibits an appointed member of any board or commission, member of his immediate family, or legal entity in which he has a substantial economic interest from bidding on or entering into or being in any way interested in any contract, subcontract, or other transaction which is under the supervision or jurisdiction of the agency of such appointed member.

As such, La. R.S. 42:1113B would prohibit Medicaid providers from serving, despite 42 CFR 431.12(d) effectively requiring they be appointed to the Committee or subcommittees. LDH should consider proposing an amendment to the Code of Governmental Ethics to provide an exception for Medicaid providers appointed to serve on the Medicaid Quality Committee or any of its subcommittees.

Unconfirmed reports said that Brandt prevailed upon Gov. John Bel Edwards to write Dr. Gee to request that he be allowed to continue serving as Medical Director for LDH.

An attempt was made to reach Dr. Brandt at LDH but his phone line was forwarded to a non-working number. The Department of Civil Service has no record of his employment after last Sept. 2.

LouisianaVoice has made a public records request of LDH for all correspondence between Dr. Brandt and Edwards, between Dr. Brandt and Dr. Gee and between Edwards and Dr. Gee relative to Brandt’s employment.

LDH received an email today (April 3) from LDH to the effect that it would take 30 days to provide such records. It takes only a simple keystroke to retrieve such messages from email files, however. They can be produced in a matter of seconds.

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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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One of the most frustrating jobs in state government has to be that of the Legislative Auditor.

The office is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that audits and sworn financial statements of all public entities are carried out in a timely—and legally-prescribed—manner and that the books of those entities are in order.

Yet, whenever discrepancies are found and reported, little comes of the auditors’ reports. Oh, in cases where the findings are significant, such as the recent audit of the management of former Louisiana State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, a report will make a big splash in the media.

But then, it quickly becomes old news and is forgotten. All too often, in the end, nothing is done to actually rein in those who might be guilty of lax fiscal responsibility over their organization or worse—possible malfeasance.

Seldom is there any follow-up on the part of those who have the authority to make changes. An office or agency head continues to lead the organization with little or no disciplinary action handed down from above, be it from a department head, cabinet member, or, in some cases, the governor himself.

In short, there is little real accountability in state government. A critical audit, conducted at no small expense, points out shortcomings, a management letter is generated promising reforms, and life—and abuses of the public trust—go on unabated.

As Exhibit A, we have the Auditor’s NON-COMPLIANCE LIST, a dishonor roll that dates back as far as 2004 and which contains well over 100 agencies, offices, organizations and individuals who have failed to comply with state statutes.

The list is liberally peppered with justices of the peace, community development districts, constables, social organizations, and even municipalities, sheriffs’ offices, and clerks of court—all reflecting the widespread disregard for fiscal responsibility or, to be charitable, just plain ignorance of the law.

Any organization that has any financial relationship with the state or a parish must, depending on the size of the organization’s budget, provide a review/attestation of its financial condition, a sworn financial statement, or a full-blown audit on a yearly basis.

From Acadia to Winn, virtually every parish has at least one organization on the non-compliance list. Here are a few examples:

  • The Beauregard Parish Hospital Service District No. 1, Merryville—five times between the years 2004 and 2009: failure to produce an audit;
  • The Ward 7 Caddo Parish Constable—seven years between 2009 and 2016: no sworn financial statements;
  • The Resource Center in Caddo—10 straight years, from 2008 to 2017: no financial statements;
  • Louisiana Auto Insurance Plan, East Baton Rouge Parish—10 straight years, from 2007 to 2016: no audit;
  • Ville Platte City Marshal, Evangeline Parish—six consecutive years, from 2012 to 2017: no sworn financial statement;
  • St. Landry Parish Constable, District 8—nine years between 2005 and 2016: no sworn financial statement.

State Auditor Daryl Purpera, contacted by LouisianaVoice, acknowledged the frustration of constantly having to chase down the various offices. “It keeps us pretty busy and it costs the state money to track this in terms of both money and man-hours.”

He said state law says when any organization found to be in non-compliance for three consecutive years, that is considered malfeasance. “That law is on the books,” he said.

STATE REP. NEIL ABRAMSON

A few years back, State Rep. Neil Abramson (D-New Orleans) attempted to push through a bill in the legislature which would required any non-governmental organization (NGO) or public body to be on the Legislative Auditor’s approved list (not on the non-compliance list) in order to be eligible to receive any state funding or to conduct business with the state.

Abramson’s bill failed.

Now, who would have ever thought that?

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I was in attendance at one of my grandchildren’s school Veterans’ Day programs on Thursday and unable to attend the first meeting of the Louisiana State Police Commission (LSPC) in several months but suffice it to say something major is brewing with this newly-made over body.

And whatever it is doesn’t to appear to bode well for the Louisiana State Troopers’ Association (LSTA).

It was the first meeting of the commission since August which, coincidentally, was also the last meeting for former Chairman State Trooper T.J. Doss and former Vice Chair Monica Manzella. Both have since resigned and Doss, LouisianaVoice is told, has been on extended sick leave.

Doss was succeeded to the chairman’s position by Baton Rouge attorney Eulis Simien, Jr. and Dr. Michael W. Neustrom of Lafayette replaced Manzella as vice chairman.

But most puzzling was the executive session entered into by the commission.

When the motion was made to go into closed session the belated reason given was to discuss pending litigation—even though there is no pending litigation at the present time against the commission.

Upon exiting, however, commission legal counsel Lenore Feeney amended that reason, saying the executive session was for the discussion of “allegations of misconduct,” according to some in attendance.

And upon returned from behind closed doors, commission members were said to be in a much fouler mood than when they went in, an indication there may have been something a little more intense taking place out of sight of attendees.

Simien, normally an amiable sort, immediately launched into a lecture to those there about how business would be conducted differently in the future and that decorum would strictly adhered to.

If there is to be any investigation of “alleged misconduct,” it could be on one or both of two issues: that San Diego trip taken by State Police in October of 2016 and which resulted in disciplinary action against three troopers who have appealed their discipline to the commission.

The commission voted to consolidate the three appeals into one case and also decided to discard the non-report of Natchitoches attorney Taylor Townsend who was paid $75,000 to investigate and report on possible illegal campaign contributions by the LSTA to various politicians.

The campaign contributions were actually made through the LSTA’s executive director David Young’s personal checking account. Young subsequently billed the association for reimbursement in an apparent effort to circumvent state law prohibiting political activity by state classified employees.

Taylor’s contract, for which he was paid $75,000, called for him to investigate the matter and submit a report of his findings to the LSPC. Instead, he simply told the commission that he recommended “no action” be taken on the matter and the board, which had a completely different makeup at that time, accepted his report.

Since then, the entire board membership, as well as its executive director, has changed dramatically, with almost all the members resigning for various reasons.

Townsend has yet to submit a report the board even though he has been asked to do so on several occasions.

Now, apparently, with a new board in place—with the exception of two positions which remain vacant—a change of heart has taken place and the commission is at least acting like it is serious about investigating the contributions.

One thing is for certain, however:

If the commission was unsure of the real reason for Thursday’s executive session, that can only mean its purpose was illegitimate to begin with. There are specific reasons for executive sessions and the law is narrowly written so as to prevent abuse of the state’s open meeting laws.

To give one reason going into executive session only to change the reason upon exiting is subterfuge in its most blatant form and an action that thumbs its nose at the law itself—from an agency whose very purpose is to ensure compliance with the law.

If there is to be an executive session, public bodies in Louisiana are required to give notice in advance, as an agenda item—in other words, in writing—and to give the reason. Anything else is a lie. They can’t make up the rules on the fly. And they certainly can’t go into closed session and decide the reason for the secrecy after the fact.

Any legal counsel who advises a public agency, body, board, or commission should know the state’s open meetings law (R.S. 42:11) and the Executive Session provision (R.S. 42:16) forward and backward. That requirement comes with the job. http://parlouisiana.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Open_Meetings_Law.pdf

We thought they had learned that in one memorable meeting several months ago when Townsend suggested an executive session and when asked the reason, said—with a perfectly straight face—“We don’t have to give one.”

Uh…yes you do. And it’s more than a little disturbing that it took a layman to inform him of the law at that meeting.

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