The LSU Board of Supervisors’ decision to replace the newly appointed chairman of the New Orleans University Medical Center Management Corporation Board only days after she was named to the key post by LSU System President Dr. John Lombardi stinks to high heaven. And it's got the Jindal administration's finger prints all over it. Still, we can’t quite figure out the series of events or motivation that replaced Lafayette attorney Elaine Abell with Robert Yarborough, a Baton Rouge businessman who is the most recent Jindal appointee on the board.
On Thursday the LSU System announced Abell’s appointment to chairman of the LSU-affiliated medical center board, which will oversee the ambitious $1.2 billion 424-bed facility that is replacing Charity Hospital and the temporary LSU Public Hospital that opened after Hurricane Katrina. But by Monday, the LSU System put out a tersely worded release, one that deviated in format and style from its earlier releases, saying the “board leadership heard from a majority of the LSU Board of Supervisors, who expressed a preference for having a Board of Supervisors member serve in the position of chair of the Academic Medical Center board.” Abell, an LSU Law Center graduate and current member of IberiaBank’s board of directors, served on the LSU Board of Supervisors from 1988 to 1994, including one year as chairman.
Monday’s release also cited “input from the Governor’s office,” in announcing that Yarborough, who also is Jindal's campaign treasurer, had been appointed chairman. The UMC Management Corp. is a private, not-for-profit entity affiliated with LSU under state law. The new medical facility, which will be paid for in part by approximately $800 million in money previously appropriated by the state and a judgment against FEMA, is intended to be operated with “best practices” management to provide a world-class academic medical center for Louisiana. To complete the project, the state must secure another $400 million to $500 million in financing by year’s end.
In accepting the appointment as chair, Abell was ready to hit the ground running, saying the first meeting of the new board would be held in August. “One of the first actions of the board will be to determine the feasibility of obtaining $400 million to complete the project,” she said. If all goes as planned, the facility could be open by late 2014.
Monday’s release does not identify the “majority” of board members, whether they were polled (which would constitute a "walking quorum" and be a violation of the state’s open meetings law), or who in the governor’s office intervened. The LSU Board of Supervisors is, in essence, Lombardi's boss. The release also made no mention of the fact that the governance agreement or bylaws for the medical center board, which consists of four LSU seats, gives Lombardi the authority to name the chairman from his four appointees. All four appointees were approved by the Board of Supervisors July 16. The agreement also gives Tulane and Xavier one representative each on the board, with the seventh seat rotating among Dillard University, Southern University at New Orleans and Delgado Community College. Jindal also named four board members not affiliated with the universities who must be confirmed by those seven members.
LSU System Vice President for Communication Charles Zewe said he did not know the names of the board members compromising the majority, nor does he know how they made their positions known. “You are going to have to get that from our board chairman, Mr. [Blake] Chatelain,” Zewe says. Chatelain, who is president of Red River Bank in Alexandria, is out of town and not available for comment, his office said.
Asked about the appropriateness of the governor’s involvement in these types of matters, Zewe, who has headed communications for the LSU System for five years, responded: “You’re asking me a loaded question. I’m not going to comment on that.”
Kyle Plotkin, Jindal’s press secretary, issued the following statement in response to The Independent
’s request for more information: “We think Bobby will do a great job as Chairman. The important thing now is that all board members start working together to quickly establish a world class academic medical center that provides first-rate care, trains the medical workforce of the future and attracts more research funding to our state.” Plotkin, however, did not address a question about why Jindal’s office would exert this kind of influence when specific legal authority had been granted to Lombardi.
At least two other members of the LSU Board of Supervisors, Rod West of New Orleans and Alvin Kimble of Baton Rouge, told the Times-Picayune
they were not part of any discussions about Yarborough’s appointment (West and Baptist Community Ministries President Byron Harrell of New Orleans are the other two Lombardi appointees to the medical center board). Kimble said he was unaware of the move till he was told by the T-P
. Kimble said Lombardi had made board members aware of Abell’s appointment before last Thursday. “I’m sure Mr. Yarborough will do a fine job, but this is highly unusual,” Kimble told the New Orleans paper.
Abell would not comment on the matter, beyond saying she hopes the board can continue its vital work without these types of unnecessary distractions. “I don’t have any comment at this time. I just hope the board can come together and help develop a world-class academic center for the people of New Orleans and this state. I would hope that there is not too much political interference in all this but that may not be possible.”
The T-P also noted precedence for Jindal’s pressure in the LSU Board of Supervisors’ affairs.
In 2008, Kimble was in line to be elected chairman of the LSU board until Jindal’s chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, maneuvered an 8-8 deadlock between Kimble and Shreveport physician John George. As a compromise, Jindal shifted his support to Chatelain, then one of the board’s newest members, as Yarborough is now.
Teepell, who has a heavy hand in the governor’s affairs, is taking a three-month leave from the governor’s office to help with gubernatorial races in other states. His leave, however, didn’t start till Aug. 1. That was Sunday, which means he had plenty of time to stir up this current mess.