With each passing day of his new administration, it appears more likely that Bobby Jindal has an evil twin. The Jindal we see today seems to lack the courage of his campaign convictions — those promises of open government and transparency that he made last year while touring the state and wooing voters. Yes, he’s pushing an unparalleled ethics agenda that convenes for a special session Feb. 10, but trying to get full and complete answers out of his own office is proving more difficult these days than springing Edwin Edwards from federal prison.
For instance, when he was campaigning on a “Fresh Start for Louisiana” last year, how do you think Jindal would have answered the following question?
Should the son of an executive who holds tens of millions of dollars in contracts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers be appointed to a position that oversees coastal affairs?
Based on all of his pre-election 2007 rhetoric, Jindal would have likely promised that his administration would do everything it could to avoid even the appearance of an impropriety or conflict of interest. But ask his administration that question today and you’ll hear the sound of crickets chirping.
The Independent Weekly contacted Jindal’s press secretary, Melissa Sellers, last week to inquire about a very real potential conflict, not a hypothetical one. The father of Garret Graves, Jindal’s senior coastal adviser, is the owner of an engineering firm that is among the top contract holders in Louisiana with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Because Graves also serves as chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, whose primary partner is the Corps, we asked Sellers if there was a potential conflict of interest and if Jindal was aware of the connection.
Graves was appointed Jan. 3, according to a press release, and interviewed with Team Jindal the previous month. Yet somehow Jindal knew nothing of the potential conflict until last week when The Independent made its inquiry, Sellers says. Furthermore, in a written response, she argues that Graves also knew nothing of his own father’s work and public contracts until recently. Somehow, everyone involved missed the fact that the firm made $47 million last year from Corps contracts alone — and the fact that the firm also does contract work for the state.
Garret Graves’ father, John Graves, president of Evans-Graves Engineers, says everyone should have been aware of the connection by last week. “I know it had been put to the staff more than a month ago,” he says. “... I said from the beginning there was a potential conflict of interest, and apparently that fell on deaf ears.”
Does that mean the information never reached Jindal until last week? Was it withheld from him? If so, who initially interviewed Graves? When asked directly who interviewed him, Graves declined to answer. So did Sellers. In fact, Sellers was repeatedly asked for the name or names of the individuals who interviewed Graves, but she staunchly refused and repeated the same answer each time: “A few folks on the transition team.”
The response is about as far from Jindal’s “transparency” as you can get. Why, exactly, can’t the names of the interviewers be released? Nothing illegal has happened, and safeguards have now been put in place; Evans-Graves Engineers, which was well established before Garret Graves was ever born, has agreed to stop pursuing projects that might cause a conflict of interest. And the younger Graves is well qualified to hold the position. The entire situation could be no more than a communications breakdown inside the governor’s office, but the fact that information is being withheld sure makes it look like something worse.
No matter where the chain of responsibility leads or ends, Jindal has some answering to do. The bullish tactics that insulate him from the press have quickly become a hallmark of his nascent administration. When The Advocate in Baton Rouge tried last week to take a closer look at the salaries various administration members are making, the newspaper noted that Jindal’s chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, did not return two requests for comment on the governor’s payroll.
As Jindal prepared to roll out his plan for a special session on ethics reform, The Independent also asked him about Rep. Gordon Dove, a Houma Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. Industry representatives have complained in writing that Dove is also facing a potential conflict of interest: Dove admits to owning roughly 1.4 percent of an oil well located north of Baton Rouge that provides him with roughly $900 per month in income.
Dove says he told House Speaker Jim Tucker, a fellow Republican from Algiers, about his financial interests before being appointed as committee chair. When we asked Sellers if the administration was made aware of this — and for a comment from Jindal on the potential conflict — only one sentence was offered in return. “The governor was not aware of that conversation,” Sellers says, referring to the exchange between Dove and Tucker, who also could not be reached for comment. If Jindal has a problem with a lawmaker on his team overseeing a department that regulates an industry in which he has a financial interest, he certainly didn’t feel like talking about it last week.
Notwithstanding Jindal’s promises of “transparency” and a “gold standard” for ethics reform, the new boss looks a lot like the old boss. In the coming weeks, as his ethics agenda winds its way through the Legislature, perhaps voters will catch a glimpse of the Bobby Jindal they worshiped and adored during the 2007 campaign.
For now, though, simple questions like “Who interviewed Garret Graves?” remain unanswered — and serve as a stark reminder of just how far this administration needs to go to keep the governor’s promise of transparency.
MAY 21 Here's another post from blogger Tom Aswell about the "course choice" program. He's already reported on kids being signed up without their consent or knowledge, and has more here: For example, he tells of a six-year-old who was signed up for high school Latin. He also digs a little deeper into the sister companies of the main one operating in Louisiana; all of them seem to have complaints against them. Stinky.
MAY 21 Given the 80 percent cut in higher ed funding since he's been in office, it's clear Gov. Jindal would rather give tax cuts to out of state companies than have a functioning system, blogger Dayne Sherman argues in this post. The cuts have been such a disaster, Sherman says, that it will take 30 years to fix what's been broken. He says he believes the aim is to shut down most of the schools before Jindal leaves in 2016.
MAY 21 Blogger CB Forgotston says there are too many elections in Louisiana, and they're costing us too much money. The proof is in the pudding: turnout for most of these nonsensical pollings gets worse and worse, CB opines, even as millions of dollars that could be spent on health care or higher ed go down the tubes. The legislature must take action to stem the tide of pointless elections, he says.
MAY 21 Gambit columnist Clancy DuBos writes about the Mother's Day shooting, and how the stages of shock and blame and healing mirror those traveled by the same city following Hurricane Katrina. The city will recover, just as it did following the storm, by reaching out to help the people injured most seriously by the event, DuBos writes. It's how we heal, he says.
MAY 21 Here's an interesting investigative piece by WVUE on the retirement benefits of some Jefferson Parish public employees. According to the story, the taxpayers are paying 100 percent of the retirement contributions of employees who started work prior to a certain date in April 1986 -- and have done for more than 30 years. It costs the parish millions annually, and might not be legal, the story reports.
MAY 21 This post on Bayou Buzz provides insight from Louisiana's intrepid pollster, Bernie Pinsonat, on the winners and losers from this year's legislative session. But to hear Bernie tell it, there's almost nuttin but losers: Jindal, the Republican party, the Fiscal Hawks all get big goose eggs in his win column.
MAY 20 This post on The Lens takes a look at a huge (either $500K or $250K) bill that one NOLA charter now has for school lunches. The RSD says the charter group didn't fill out the proper paperwork for federal reimbursement, but the story details how the RSD didn't ensure the people running the charter had the proper training, despite requests from hapless charter employees trying to fill out forms. Either way, somebody's asleep at the wheel.
MAY 21 Here's a post on the Advocate (but buried on a subpage, not on the front) that reports something Louisiana Voice reported almost a year ago: a top DOE official lives in Los Angeles and "commutes" to Baton Rouge. The positioning of the story caused a stir on Facebook Monday, with several posters asking if the Advocate was covering someone's hiney. Sentell's stories on DOE are notoriously soft, and this one is no different: don't expect any hard questions in here.
David Calhoun and Elizabeth “EB” Brooks are the first two employees of Lafayette Central Park Inc., the nonprofit charged with turning Lafayette Consolidated Government’s 100-acre Johnston Street Horse Farm property into a passive public park. Calhoun was named executive director, and Brooks is director of planning and design.
There will soon be a whole lot of shakin’ going on at Benny’s Sportshack Supplement Depot, a new concept by Opelousas native Benny Nele. Located at 2002 Johnston St., the supplement shop, smoothie bar and café, featuring hot off the press paninis and wraps, plans to open in late May.