Faircloth, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief attorney, was livid and insulted by the Louisiana Press Association’s interpretation of an administration-backed public records bill. Koch, a broad-shouldered lobbyist for the gaggle of newspapers, magazines and independent journalists, approached Faircloth to discuss LPA’s simple stance on the legislation: it flies grossly in the face of good government and would conceal more activities in the governor’s office than ever before.
Standing in the hallway, Koch barely got a word in edgewise as Faircloth’s face increased in color and words shot from his mouth like daggers. There was no middle ground in sight; Koch, in his gentle, squinty-eyed way, just nodded his head and waited for a break in Faircloth’s torrent. Meanwhile, Faircloth held his black leather portfolio at chest level, pointing to it as if it were the legislation and underlining imaginary sections that were beyond Koch’s control. “I’m willing to bet you a meal, under $50, of course,” Faircloth said, now pointing at Koch, “that if you request a record from one of our secretaries today and we go to court, we will win.”
The $50 caveat is a sly reference to the law Jindal passed in February’s special session on ethics reform that limits what lobbyists can spend on lawmakers and other decision-makers. But while Jindal and his staff have relentlessly touted such accomplishments from their first few months in office, many lawmakers, government watchdog agencies and Louisiana media outlets are discovering that the new governor often operates with a “Do as I Say, Not as I Do” philosophy.
A few days earlier, the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee had deferred action on Senate Bill 629 when the LPA and the Jindal administration couldn’t agree on the parameters of the measure. Current Louisiana law allows books, writings, accounts, letters and other records kept under the custody of the governor to be excluded from public view.
The proposed legislation authored by Sen. Mike Walsworth, a West Monroe Republican, further excludes records kept by the office — including the documents and government correspondence of practically everyone on the payroll, from the chief of staff to the scheduling director. Additionally, the bill would specifically exempt any direct communications from the governor’s office to lawmakers.
Faircloth and Jindal resumed their hallway tete-a-tete a week later during a Senate committee hearing, where Faircloth proclaimed any effort to describe the measure as more constrictive as an outright error. He said it would open up some 60 different agencies under the governor’s control to public view, with many on the committee supporting that argument. Veteran journalists, however, don’t see it that way. “I just don’t agree with counselor Faircloth’s interpretation,” says Carl Redman, an LPA spokesman and managing editor of The Advocate in Baton Rouge. “I don’t think this is an improvement. The solution is to not make special exemptions for the governor’s office, [but rather] to treat it and him like every other state agency or employee.”
That’s the path that other states have taken, but much to LPA’s chagrin, the legislation made it past its initial committee hearing and is now pending action in the full Senate.
The debate over the Walsworth bill isn’t the first time Team Jindal has gone to the mat to shield its activities from the public. During the governor’s special session on ethics reform in February, Faircloth torpedoed legislation by Republican Shreveport Rep. Wayne Waddell that would have cracked open the governor’s public records safe like never before, shining a light on communications and documents related to roughly 73 executive branch agencies and departments, including Jindal’s own inner sanctum.
Waddell tried to do the same during the tenure of former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco with little success, arguing that more information was needed on the state’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Blanco placed executive privilege over public good in her opposition and, true to form, Jindal sent his minions to do the same. But after Faircloth sank Waddell’s bill earlier this year, he vowed repeatedly, in front of reporters and lawmakers, to work with the Shreveport legislator on a compromise.
A few meetings transpired during the interim, and both sides agreed that certain protections should exist for homeland security and economic development. So it was with understandable zeal that Waddell returned to the ongoing regular session with House Bill 1100, the latest incarnation of his efforts to bring transparency to Jindal’s office. Yet since the regular session convened in late March, the administration’s willingness to find a middle ground on the legislation has seemingly evaporated. “I haven’t heard from [Jindal’s office] at all since the session started,” Waddell says. “But I am moving forward with this bill.”
In a stark he-said/he-said contrast, Faircloth told senators last week during the hearing on the Walsworth bill: “I have talked to [Waddell] and was prepared to go to the table” to work out a compromise. Sen. Lydia P. Jackson, a Shreveport Democrat, was glad to hear it and retorted that the language used in the Waddell bill “gives me greater comfort.” But there was no concession on Faircloth’s part as to what sort of compromise he has in mind.
The unmistakable irony of Jindal’s stances is not lost on some of his stakeholders. It’s a bitter pill for them to swallow, as Jindal was the mastermind behind forcing lawmakers to disclose more of their income and the chief cheerleader for everything else ethics-related in Louisiana. Many legislators see a hypocrisy underscored by the Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida, which ranks Louisiana as dead last when it comes to access to the governor’s office. Even Mississippi and Arkansas trump Louisiana in this area.
“It’s unfair to citizens who want access,” says Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, one of the many advocacy groups that helped craft Jindal’s broad-based ethics agenda. Even though Faircloth counters that the CAP rankings are skewed because Louisiana’s governor controls so many agencies and boards through his office, Brandt says it’s still high time for Jindal to loosen his nearly-unilateral grip over public records. “At PAR, we are strongly supportive of more sunshine in government, and this is an area of transparency in which the state has been ranked very low,” Brandt says.
|Gov. Bobby Jindal’s press secretary, Melissa Sellers (left), has become Public Enemy No. 1 to many reporters at Louisiana news outlets big and small.|
|Photo by Karron Clark
|Timmy Teepell, Jindal’s chief of staff|
Jindal's Media Playbook
Any reporter at the Capitol will gladly tell you that landing an interview with Gov. Bobby Jindal, as compared to former chief executives, is akin to finding the Holy Grail. If you can manage to get through the tightly-managed press office, or garner an audience at a public event, both of which are highly unlikely, answers from the GOP darling are dished out in a rapid-fire stream of more words than substance.
Unless you represent a national media outlet, forget talking to the governor these days. It’s all part of the playbook — limited access. At last month’s annual meeting of the Public Affairs Research Council, Robert Travis Scott, Capitol bureau chief for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, put it best: “He really doesn’t talk to us that much.”
Here’s a small sampling of recent stories that illustrate the Jindal media strategy.
Local and state agents Thursday night raided The Keg, the popular college bar located in the area known as The Strip, leading to the (at least) temporary closure of the venue — the second in the last four months.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Friday, April 18, 2014:
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