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Archive for the ‘State Agencies’ Category

There are those like a certain former governor who see no good in any state employee. Perhaps that is why efforts were exerted to privatize every state government agency in sight and even to the extent of destroying one of the better teaching hospital systems in the country.

And gutting higher education’s budget only brought higher tuition costs, putting a college education out of reach of thousands of Louisiana students.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons Louisiana is the SEVENTH-FASTEST shrinking state in the nation, according to 24/7 Wall Street, a research organization that routinely publishes lists of the best and worst in a wide array of subjects.

Of course, another reason steeped in Louisiana tradition is the sordid history of CORRUPTION that has permeated the political culture of this state for longer than anyone reading this has lived.

And when you have a state legislature that ignores the well-being of the state’s citizens in favor of the corporate interests of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the oil and gas industry get first consideration, it’s no wonder that folks are a tad jaded.

Yet, thousands of state employees report to work each day to do jobs that go largely unnoticed—until something goes awry. Then, of course, all hell breaks loose. A civil servant gets fined for receiving an unsolicited Christmas ham from a vendor (that really happened), but another employee, an administrator, gets caught claiming time on the job while actually on vacation and nothing gets done.

Let a few rank and file state troopers drive across country for a conference at the direction of the State Police Superintendent and they are punished while the superintendent is allowed to retire—with full benefits.

Let another agency head trade sex with the manager of a restaurant in exchange for a permit to operate and nothing happens. But that same agency head dished out arbitrary punishment and fired employees for no cause and it took civil lawsuits to bring some measure of justice. And not even all of the lawsuits produced satisfactory results for the fired employees.

I write all that to say that while little seems to get done much of the time, there is one agency that has uncovered nearly $6.3 million in criminal violations, initiated investigations that have resulted in 51 criminal prosecutions that have resulted in produced 57 terminations or resignations.

A hard-charging, politically ambitious, headline-seeking prosecutor?

Nope. Just the work-a-day numbers-crunchers working for Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.

From Jan. 1, 2015, through Nov. 13, 2017, Purpera’s office has submitted 108  investigative audits of local and state government agencies, boards and commissions and quasi-public entities. From those 108 investigative audits came 72 actual reports with 200 findings reported and 555 recommendations made.

summary of projects

An investigative audit, by definition, is far more serious than routine audits that agencies undergo on a regular basis. Before embarking on an investigative audit, there must be a reason for the auditor’s office to suspect some kind of wrongdoing.

The dollar amount covered in those 118 investigative audits was $148.96 million dollars with almost $6.3 million in alleged criminal violations turned up.

Some of the more high-profile investigative audits performed during the 22-month period included:

  • Misappropriation of funds by an employee of the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office;
  • Misapplication of funds at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches;
  • Improper payments and tickets to athletic events at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette;
  • Improper expenditure of $268,000 by the Institute for Academic Excellence in New Orleans;
  • Improper expenditure of $360,000 by the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System;
  • Nearly $800,000 in seized cash assets was not deposited in the account of the 9th Judicial District Attorney in Rapides Parish;
  • Employees of the Ouachita Parish Clerk of Court Office improperly paid for 51 days that they did not work;
  • Numerous violations by management at Angola State Penitentiary which resulted in the resignation of Warden Burl Cain and others;
  • Nearly $200,000 in seized cash assets was not deposited in the account of the District Attorney’s Special Asset Forfeiture Fund as required by the Acadia Parish Sheriff’s Office;
  • Mismanagement and missing state equipment from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries;
  • Improper use of state vehicle, hotel rooms, personnel, meals and training facilities by management personnel of Louisiana State Police;
  • Improper use of $164,000 of state funds by two employees and a student worker, unauthorized use of student identification cards, unauthorized free meals totaling more than $12,600 and improper advances of financial aid to students at Grambling State University.
  • Failure of the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority in New Orleans to collect more than $600,000 in boat slip rental fees.

So, while it’s easy to criticize civil servants, it’s important to understand that while the public perception may be one of “deadheads,” they are people just like you—people with mortgages, student debt, family illnesses, and myriad other concerns (again, just like you). They are your neighbors, your friends and your relatives and they show up for work every day—just like you. And they struggle to make ends meet—just like you.

Given that, it’s a little difficult for me to understand how someone like autocrat Trump can pretend to say he relates with 800,000 federal workers who are facing the second pay period without a paycheck.

It’s puzzling also that daughter-in-law/adviser Lara Trump calls the government shutdown during which federal employees have to resort to food banks to eat, hold garage sales to pay the rent, or worse, be ordered to work without pay thus preventing them from taking part-time jobs that do pay, “a little bit of a pain.” This privileged, self-centered little rich girl has never known “a little bit of a pain.” so, how the hell can she relate?

And how can Trump economic adviser Kevin Hassett even dare to suggest that idled workers are better off because they’re benefiting from “a free vacation”? That’s unsurpassed arrogance.

But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross took the prize by suggesting that federal workers simply run out to the corner bank or credit union and float a loan.

Perhaps Ross was trying to encourage them to borrow from the Bank of Cyprus that he once headed as it washed the money of Russian oligarchs.

All of this just so Trump can try to score some kind of vague point in order to say he’s a winner.

But my question to all those I’ve talked to who suddenly think a wall is of the utmost importance to the continued existence of a free and pure America is simply this:

Did you ever—even ONCE—consider the crushing need for a wall before Trump tossed the idea out as a throw-away line during a campaign stop in 2016? Did you know he was instructed to do that by his handlers only as a means of keeping him on topic?

Neither Trump, you, your mama, my mama, nor anyone else had ever given a wall a fleeting thought until then. Suddenly, it became the holy grail for all his followers who were unable to come up with an original thought of their own. And so, they fell in lockstep and followed, like so many sheep.

But there was another part to his promise that he has quietly dropped.

Mexico ain’t paying for it.

So, that’s my tribute to public employees, both state and federal and I hope to hell every one of them remembers our two U.S. Senators and five of our six U.S. Representatives who blindly support Trump’s every asinine utterance, tweet, and stumbling, bumbling, fumbling action.

 

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He’s been gone from office for three years now but the legacy of Troy Hebert lives on at the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC).

Hebert recently prevailed in a federal lawsuit filed for fired ATC agent Brette Tingle and that decision is currently being appealed.

But another suit  by fired agent Randall Kling, tried in state court resulted in a jury award of nearly $400,000, plus legal interest from May 26, 2011, the date Kling filed his suit in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.

That decision, which somehow flew under the radar of all Baton Rouge news media, including LouisianaVoice, was rendered just over a year ago, on December 30, 2017 and like the Tingle decision, is currently under appeal.

Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur Smith represented both Tingle and Kling in their litigation.

In that action, Kling had claimed that when he made official complaints of what he deemed was offensive behavior on the part of Hebert on March 16, 22, and 25 in 2011, Hebert fired him on March 30.

The jury verdict form revealed that jurors determined by a 9-3 vote that Kling “was engaged in protected speech on a matter of public concern” under the Louisiana Constitution. It then said, by an 11-1 vote, that “His termination was substantially motivated by his protected speech.”

The breakdown of the award was $243,045 in lost wages, $75,000 for mental anguish and distress and another $75,000 for loss of enjoyment of life.

Nineteenth JDC Judge William Morvant, in writing the formal judgment, somehow managed to circumvent the usual 6 percent per annum interest the state pays on judgments and set total interest at $9,538.06.

At 6 percent, interest would normally accrue at a rate of about $24,000 for each year since the suit was filed in May 2011 until final resolution, which is still pending.

If applied as in other judgments against the state, that would mean Kling would be entitled to more than $168,000 to date.

In any case, it will be the taxpayers of the State of Louisiana, and not Hebert, who will be called on to pay the judgment should the verdict be upheld by the First Circuit Court of Appeal and, should it advance that far, the Louisiana Supreme Court.

And that $400,000 doesn’t even include the cost of the state’s having to pay a contract attorney to defend Hebert and the Department of Revenue, costs paid through the Louisiana Office of Risk Management.

It’s another example of state officials, in this case, Troy Hebert, not being held personally accountable for their actions and taxpayers having to pick up the tab for their bad behavior.

Morvant, by the way, is the same judge who only yesterday (January 10, 2019) declined to hold Attorney General Jeff Landry personally liable for refusing to allow an Indiana woman access to what were clearly public records.

Unless some real teeth are put into these judgments, Louisiana’s public officials will go on disregarding the law in the knowledge they will suffer no personal consequences.

This needs to change.

 

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That story about the north Louisiana contractor who was drummed out of business by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) and subsequently sued and won a $20 million judgment only to have it overturned on appeal just gets curiouser and curiouser with a couple of really bizarre developments.

Jeff Mercer, a Mangham contractor who had six contracts totaling nearly $9 million for which he was never paid, said his problems began when he complained that DOTD inspector Willis Jenkins attempted to shake him down to “put some green” in his hand or that Mercer place a new electric generator “under his carport” the following day.”

You can read the initial LouisianaVoice story by clicking HERE.

Mercer, armed with emails and other correspondence, filed suit against DOTD, claiming there was collusion among DOTD officials to “make the jobs as costly and difficult as possible” for him. A 12-person jury in 4th Judicial District Court in Monroe unanimously returned with an AWARD of $20 million in Mercer’s favor in 2015.

The jury, employing such terms as “collusion,” “bribery,” “extortion,” “conspiracy,” and “corruption,” not only held DOTD liable for damages, but also held four individual DOTD employees—Willis Jenkins, Michael Murphy, Barry Lacy and John Eason—personally liable.

But wait. Judge Henry N. Brown, as Chief Judge of the Second Circuit, had the responsibility of assigning cases and in Mercer’s case, he chose to assign it to himself—and wrote the decision that didn’t just reduce but obliterated the award in its entirety in OVERTURNING the lower court verdict.

Brown’s logic was that Mercer still had his contractor’s license and was still free to bid on state jobs. But when that same contractor is owed $9 million that the state refuses to pay him, he can’t meet payroll and he can’t purchase—or keep—equipment needed to perform the work. Nor can he afford worker’s comp and liability insurance.

Mercer says he was forced to sell off all his equipment—backhoes, trackhoes, dozers, trucks, etc. He estimates he lost another $2 million by being forced to sell his equipment for less than its real value. So, he is effectively out of business, Judge Brown’s opinion notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit in which Mercer still seeks payment of the $9 million that he’s never been paid makes its way slowly through the legal system.

The only problem with that was Judge Brown’s failure to recuse himself or even disclose his huge potential bias stemming from the fact that his father, Henry N. Brown, Sr., had been a civil engineer for DOTD for 44 years which “undermines the very fabric of our people’s faith in the judicial integrity of the Second Circuit Court of Appeal,” according to a MEMORANDUM in Support of Application for Rehearing and a Motion to Recuse and Vacate the Panel’s Opinion filed by Mercer’s attorney, David Doughty of Rayville.

At the trial, attorneys for both Mercer and for DOTD specifically asked each potential juror if they or any member of their family had ever worked for DOTD. “That was the first question asked every potential juror,” Mercer says. “If anyone answered yes, they were immediately excused.”

The case took 30 days to try, with thousands and thousands of pages of testimony. Yet, the Brown’s decision was rendered only 22 days after the appeal was filed, making it likely that he cherry-picked what he wanted to write since it was highly doubtful that the entire trial record could have been adequately reviewed in such a short time. The alternative would be that an attorney for DOTD drafted the decision for him and he signed off on it.

All of which can justifiably be labeled old news, already thoroughly rehashed on this site, right?

Right.

Except for a couple of recent news stories that loop right back into Mercer’s original claim of corruption, favoritism, bribery, extortion and otherwise unethical behavior by those in control of the dollars and the legal system.

Like this STORY from October 1 by KTBS-TV in Shreveport.

Judge Henry Brown was ordered by the Louisiana Supreme Court to vacate the Second Circuit Court of Appeal building in downtown Shreveport and to refrain from taking any further judicial actions after complaints that he had created a hostile environment toward colleagues who were hearing the appeal of a civil lawsuit against one of his friends from whom Brown had purchased a home.

Although Brown had recused himself from hearing the appeal because of the obvious conflict, members of the court found evidence that computer files where judges’ memos and drafts of opinions are kept had been hacked. A law clerk who worked for Brown was subsequently fired and banned from the courthouse.

And then there was this STORY by WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge that showed that one of the defendants in Mercer’s lawsuit may have had a too-cozy relationship with a DOTD contractor who manages to keep getting contracts through the agency despite repeated fines for failure to complete jobs on time.

The television station showed several photographs of DOTD engineer Barry Lacy on fishing trips, hunting trips, and at crawfish boils, and golf tournaments with officials of Coastal Bridge of Baton Rouge.

Lacy was one of four DOTD employees who were held personally liable in Mercer’s lawsuit.

DOTD Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson said that while Lacy has no authority to award contracts to firms, he does make recommendations on such decisions.

It was not immediately clear if Lacy received the hunting and fishing trips or invitations to the crawfish boils or golf tournaments as gratuities but numerous OPINIONS by the Louisiana Board of Governmental Ethics have repeatedly said that “no public servant shall solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, anything of economic value as a gift or gratuity from any person or from any officer, director agent, or employee of such person if such public servant knows or reasonably should know that such person:

  • Has or is seeking to obtain contractual or other business or financial relationships with the public servant’s agency, or
  • Is seeking, for compensation, to influence the passage or defeat of legislation by the public servant’s agency.”

Meanwhile, Mercer, who was only trying to make a living, has been put out of business by a system that seems to consistently disregard the tenets of human decency, fair treatment, and equal opportunity in favor of preferential treatment, prestige, and power—with little or no consideration of the human consequences.

 

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There is an interesting story in today’s Baton Rouge Advocate (click HERE to read the story) about former Secretary of State Tom Schedler.

It seems that in addition to being forced from office by his settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit, his successor, Kyle Ardoin, diverted $90,000 in state funds earmarked for computer upgrades to pay Schedler’s portion of the settlement.

That’s questionable use of public funds by practically any definition I know but beyond that little indiscretion lies a more fundamental question and that is just why was the state on the hook for the bulk of the payout for his behavior in the first place?

Schedler resigned in May of this year in the wake of accusations that he had sexually harassed a female employee for years.

The woman filed suit against Schedler and the state and the case was settled in August for $167,500, plus another $35,000 in attorney fees.

Of that $202,500 total, Schedler personally paid only $18,425 with state taxpayers picking the remaining $184,075–$90,450 covered by the secretary of state’s office and $93,625 by the Office of Risk Management, the state office that insures all state agencies in cases of legal liability.

But why would taxpayers be called upon to foot the bill for nearly $185,000 for personal actions committed by Schedler?

That was the question posed by a reader who said, “We need somebody to pass a law that anybody settling a sexual harassment case related to their employment with the state has to pay ALL of it from their own pockets. If Schedler wasn’t 100 percent responsible for this, who was, the state? And who, in this case, is the state?

Good questions all and an observation that cuts the heart of the legal issue.

To our reader’s advocacy that a law needs to be passed, he’s correct—except the law is already in place. It’s just not applied by judges who preside over these cases.

There is even a legal term (Latin, what else?) that addresses this very case.

RESPONDEAT SUPERIOR is the Latin phrase for “Let the master answer.” While it is an English Common Law doctrine (Louisiana’s laws are based on the Napoleonic Code), it would still apply in Schedler’s—and others’—cases if only the judges would apply the principle.

Established in the 17th century, the doctrine was adopted in this country and has been broadly applied in agency law. Literally, Respondeat Superior means the employer (in this case, the state) is liable for the injuries caused by an employee who is working within the scope of his employment relationship (emphasis mine). The person who does the work for the employer is the agent and the theory behind the law says the principal (employer, or agency) controls the agent’s behavior and must then assume some responsibility for the agent’s actions.

It means that if, as a state employee, your supervisor or legal counsel directed or advised you to do something later determined to be illegal, then the state would be liable for any fines, courts costs, etc. If, however, you did something illegal at work that was not work-related (harassment or assault of a subordinate, stealing from the coke machine, extortion, etc.), then you and you alone should be held liable for any damages imposed. If, the first case, the court had imposed a $50,000 fine, the Office of Risk Management would be responsible for paying the penalty. In the second case, if you were fined (whatever amount), the full responsibility for payment should fall upon you because what you did was not job-related, or within the scope and authority of your job responsibilities.

The question then becomes was the employee (Schedler) acting within the scope of employment during his off-the-rails behavior. The answer, of course, is certainly not.

That is the sticking point here and, in a case involving LouisianaVoice a few years back. We sued Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols over her failure to provide public records in the time prescribed by law. LouisianaVoice won the case and Nichols was personally assessed financial penalties. But she appealed, lost and eventually settled with LouisianaVoice. But the state paid for all her attorney fees at the state and appeal court levels as well as for the settlement itself.

The judge held her personally liable because she did not rely on the advice of the DOA legal counsel in dragging out her response to our records request. She was not, the court deemed, acting “within the scope of her employment” by delaying production of the records. Still, when push came to shove, it was the state, i.e. taxpayers, that paid in the end.

Same with Schedler. Sexual harassment certainly is never within the scope of anyone’s employment. Therefore, what Schedler did, he did as a freelancer, not as part of his duties as an employee (or in this case, the very head of the agency). Accordingly, he should have been held personally liable for all damages and legal costs.

That he was not speaks to the inexcusable laxity exercised by the court system in this case. This was the ideal chance for the judiciary to send a clear message to public servants—and employees in the private sector—that acting outside the boundaries of their job descriptions has consequences.

Sadly, that opportunity was missed.

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In case you haven’t been paying attention, the victory by Donald Trump has resulted in more women making the decision to seek public office.

And if more women are participating in the political arena, it’s not necessarily because of any positive influence from the Trumpster. In some cases, it’s the indignity of seeing a misogynist in the nation’s highest office that has triggered women’s decision to run for office.

For ANDIE SAIZAN Andie Saizan, the idea of watching U.S. Rep. Garrett Graves as he obediently went along with virtually everything put forward by Trump was just too much.

The Holden Democrat was repulsed by Graves’s blind loyalty to Trump, including unconditional support of the NRA, proposals to scale back Medicaid/Medicare benefits, repeal of internet neutrality. And the treatment of children of illegal immigrants was just too much.

The 37-year-old mother of four is officially a candidate for the 6th District congressional seat now held by Graves.

She is part of the wave of women seeking public office, much of that being a reaction to Trump and his policies, said Jean Sinzdak of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Andrea Dew Steele, president and founder of Emerge America agrees. She says there was an “immediate uptick in interest in our work” following Trump’s election. “And it has persisted through today. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

Since the 1971, the year before Watergate, there has been a steady increase in the percentage of female office holders. Statewide elected offices have seen an increase in women from about 7 percent in 1971 to a high of 28 percent in 2000. Today, females make up about 24 percent of statewide elective offices. That percentage is about the same for state legislatures.

During that same time period, the number of women in Congress has gone from about 3 percent in 1971 to 20 percent today.

Saizan acknowledges that hers is an uphill fight because of what she describes as the “good old boy system” that she says “needs to be taken out.”

And she knows a thing or two about overcoming stiff odds. “At the age of 24, I had two children and was pregnant with a third when my husband walked out on me. Working for the Continental Kennel Club, I didn’t have a high-paying job. But they stood with me and supported me.

“I was on food stamps and everyone was telling me I couldn’t go back to college, but I did.

“Republicans love to talk about welfare queens but because I fought the system and got an education, today I pay more in taxes every year than I ever took in food stamps.”

Saizan, who works in the computer industry, believes that everything elected officials do should be geared toward empowering people. “When we turn our backs on people in need, we cannot call ourselves Christians,” she says.

Her quest may not be as quixotic as it might appear at first glance. “Edwin Edwards, a convicted felon, received 40 percent of the vote against Graves,” she said. “He can be beaten and he can be beaten on his own record.”

Saizan doesn’t give all the credit for her decision to run to Trump. It was Graves himself, she says, who pushed her to run, albeit inadvertently.

“Garrett convinced me to run when he trashed Medicaid/Medicare,” she says. “If I can’t bring my child to the doctor when she’s sick, something’s wrong with the system. Healthcare is too important to treat as some sort of political football. We use public dollars for insurance companies to bet against the health of Americans, and that’s wrong. If there’s something wrong with the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care), then fix it, don’t abandon it for some political philosophy.”

She said she and Graves differ in their stands on guns. “We are gun-owners at our house. I’m pro-Second Amendment. But we need laws that sponsor responsible gun ownership. Garrett doesn’t want that.”

As for Graves’s stance on net neutrality, she says he “either misled voters or he doesn’t understand net neutrality. It’s far worse than simply slowing down internet service. Say, for example, you’re on a cruise ship. The cruise line can make internet service a-la cart so you have to buy a specific service provider—and they charge more for it.”

She fired a broadside at both Graves and former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin when she said, “We must be able to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs.” Tauzin, a Democrat-turned-Republican from Lafourche Parish, as one of his last official acts as a member of Congress, pushed through a bill that prohibited the federal government from negotiating the prices of prescription drugs under Medicaid/Medicare.

Following that little coup, he promptly resigned and went to work as the chief lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry.

Saizan is particularly incensed at the manner in which the Trump administration has gone about separating children from their parents on the nation’s southern border. And she isn’t shy about expressing her contempt for the president. “Any man who would try and justify separating children from their mothers like this is simply a coward. This is immoral! It was wrong when Hitler did it and it’s wrong now!

“I am not for open borders but I do know that we can treat this situation in a more humane manner. The fact that this is what we have come to only reiterates that America needs comprehensive immigration reform without racial bias or classism.”

She said the Democratic Party is the “party of the people but we don’t get our message across.”

She’s working on that.

 

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