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Scuttlebutt

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Slush-in-Disguise?
Despite campaign hoopla to the contrary, pet local projects and "slush" still make their way into the state budget — to the tune of more than $77 million as of last week. These days, they're called NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations, and lawmakers can direct state funds to them via the state's operating budget. The ostensible purposes range from economic development to drug treatment, and recipient groups vary from religious organizations to social services outfits. For instance, Sen. Yvonne Dorsey, a Baton Rouge Democrat, wants $65,000 for the Louisiana Ballooning Foundation. Rep. Noble Ellington, a fellow Democrat from Winnsboro, wants $25,000 for his local gun club. GOP Rep. Hunter Greene of Baton Rouge, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, seeks $3 million in public money for Hope Academy, a private school in his hometown with only 84 students. Rep. Patricia Smith, a Democrat, wants $200,000 for the Baton Rouge High School Alumni Association.

C.B. Forgotston, a Hammond attorney and former chief counsel for the budget-drafting House Appropriations Committee, picked up on the NGO issue long before the mainstream press, combing through House Bill 1 and posting the earmarks on his Web site (http://forgotston.com). He says the cost of NGOs will surely increase as the session nears its end in late June, even as other taxpayer needs mount. "This is just the start," Forgotston says. "The operating budget is still in the House Appropriations Committee. The organizations and amount will grow as the legislative session continues. Now you know why you aren't getting a tax reduction or rebate from the excess state revenues." Gov. Bobby Jindal, meanwhile, sent a letter to all money committee chairs instructing them that the "use of state tax dollars to fund NGOs raises serious questions in regards to whether or not the funding is consistent with the proper function and responsibility of state government and the use of taxpayer money." To that end, Jindal offered criteria for the projects. If the steps are not followed, the governor promised a swift veto. — Alford



Big Field for Appellate Seat
The field of potential candidates posturing to run for Leon Cannizzaro's just-vacated seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal is growing almost by the day. So far, those eyeing the race include several sitting judges — Ron Sholes and Paul Bonin of Traffic Court, and David Bell of Juvenile Court — and former Civil Court Clerk Dan Foley. Sholes, a partner at the Adams and Reese law firm, already has a billboard at the corner of Poydras and South Rampart streets asking voters to "promote" him to the appellate court. Bonin, meanwhile, will make a formal announcement at 6 p.m. next Monday (May 19) at the KC Hall in Lakeview. Foley, Sholes and Bonin are problematic for one another in that they are friends and share many political supporters. Sholes and Bonin sit on the same bench; Foley and Bonin both have political bases in Lakeview; and Sholes and Foley have many of the same friends in black political circles. Under state law, judges may run for other judicial posts without resigning their current judgeships. Cannizzaro had to resign from the appellate court when he decided to run for DA. Although the race to succeed Cannizzaro has not yet been called, it is expected to coincide with the local and national elections in the fall. — DuBos

Council Hires Own Lawyers
The New Orleans City Council, in a rebuff of the Nagin Administration and its city attorney's office, has hired the local law firm of Herman, Herman, Katz & Cotlar to be the council's legal advisor. The firm is well known in plaintiff law circles, having played a major role in class action suits, including the recent $4.85 billion settlement of Vioxx cases. Firm partner Russ Herman once served as national president of a trial lawyers group. Steven J. Lane, 53, managing partner at the firm, will lead the team assigned to the council. Among the topics he and his associates will be asked to dissect are housing and homelessness — and any potential squabbles with Mayor Ray Nagin, whose administration has been accused of stonewalling council inquiries into various contracts. Past councils have retained legal counsel for specific purposes, but this move marks the first time that council members hired attorneys on a full-time basis. It signals a more contentious round of dealings with the mayor in the months to come. The firm's annual fee has been estimated at $150,000. — DuBos

Unruly Katrina Kids
New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast apparently have a common problem — unruly "Katrina kids." A new study by the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg examined the records of 17,000 Mississippi students and found that hurricane-displaced youths were more apt to get in trouble than nondisplaced students, especially those who were already struggling academically and who came from underprivileged backgrounds. "The increased incidence of disciplinary problems suggests that psychological issues for some students have not diminished in the time following the storm, and in fact may have intensified," says USM researcher Dr. Mike Ward, a former North Carolina State Superintendent of Public Instruction. "We have always had a few that were daring enough at a very young age, but it seems to be more now than in the past," Police Chief Warren Riley said recently, after a rash of armed robberies by children as young as 12. Part of the problem is some youths have returned to the city without their parents, the chief says, adding, "There is something that has occurred over the last two years that has enticed youngsters to be more bold and more brazen than they have in the past." The USM project, titled "Hurricane Katrina: Behavior and Achievement of Displaced Students in the Wake of the Storm," was funded by the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute. — Johnson

NOPD's 'Effective Strength'
Mayor Ray Nagin, Police Chief Warren Riley, and tourism industry officials last week kicked off a $1 million police recruiting drive to offset the phased withdrawal of 300 National Guard troops from New Orleans beginning next month. "We want to get to 1,600 officers as quickly as possible," Riley says, optimally by mid-2009. Nagin says NOPD is now at 1,468 cops "and counting." NOPD recorded a high of 1,741 officers in 2005, but that figure dropped to 1,668 right before Katrina. Raw totals do not tell the whole story, however. A key term when considering NOPD force levels is "current effective personnel strength," which Riley defined in congressional testimony last year as the NOPD's "total commissioned members minus those on long-term illness/injury and all recruits." On April 7, 2007, Riley told Congress that NOPD's "current effective personnel strength" was 1,227. Since then, aided by hefty pay raises, training bonuses, education incentives and equipment, both recruitment and retention of officers have improved. As of last week, NOPD's strength stood at 1,338 sworn officers — subtracting 55 recruits in the academy and 81 officers out sick or injured. That's an increase of 111 over a year ago. Despite those gains, Riley will be hard-pressed to make up for losing the National Guard. The last troops are scheduled to leave by September. — Johnson


Petition Drive Takes Off

The 100-member Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in the Lower Ninth Ward has picked up a major ally in its petition drive asking Gov. Bobby Jindal to extend deployment of 300 National Guard troops in New Orleans. Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, an influential post-Katrina grassroots organization, has joined the drive to get 100,000 signatures to Jindal before the Guard phase-out begins next month, says Ariane Wiltse, an organizer for the Holy Cross neighborhood group and an occasional contributor to Gambit Weekly. Citizens for 1 has posted the petition on its Web site (http://cgno.convio.net/site/PageServer?pagename=National_Guard). The Citizens' site allows visitors to edit individual letters to Jindal and to add their own comments. Further, when users hit "send," the petition goes directly to Jindal's email, Wiltse says. Formed in November 2005, Citizens boasts a ListServe of more than 20,000 subscribers and an executive committee of upscale women activists chaired by Ruthie Frierson. As of May 7, the petition had 500 signatures, but support for the campaign is building, Wiltse says. However, she added that as of press time no public official had responded to individual letters seeking help and signatures. — Johnson



'Soul Weariness'
Almost three years after Katrina, New Orleans may have a lot of traumatized cops trying to control a lot of traumatized juveniles, according to Tulane University historian Lance Hill, who has been surveying mental health literature on the long-term effects of the storm. Most NOPD officers were affected by "direct trauma," losing their homes and witnessing widespread death and destruction. The deleterious effects of "vicarious trauma stress" or "secondary stress" on police should not be ignored by their employers or the public, Hill says. "Those officers who were not here — if they are doing good community policing — are constantly exposed to the heartbreak and anguish that people experienced during the storm," Hill says. Consequently, overly "empathetic listeners" can become emotionally isolated, engaging in avoidance behaviors such as self-medication, alcohol abuse and excessive television viewing. The long-term psychological consequence, known as "soul weariness," is a cynical view of the world and the possibilities of progress. "That is potentially very dangerous for law enforcement because it can make officers more likely to engage in disrespectful or even violent behavior," Hill says. Treatment is available, he says. Police officials have acknowledged increased disciplinary problems within the ranks since the storm, including alcohol abuse. — Johnson

Protecting Good Samaritans
Senate President Joel Chaisson, a Destrehan Democrat, wants to make sure Louisiana's "Good Samaritan" law protects certain hurricane recovery workers. So far, lawmakers agree; Senate Bill 330 is moving swiftly toward final passage. Chaisson told the Senate last week that the state should protect medical personnel who, in good faith, stay behind after a storm to help out, whether they're getting paid or not. That means protections from civil damages and any other penalties if an unintended misstep occurs. "Even those who come in from outside the state to help and provide services should be protected under the 'Good Samaritan' law," Chaisson says. Such assistance, however, must be provided during a declared state of emergency, according to the legislation. Although special protections would be afforded, the bill does not cover "gross negligence or willful misconduct." The Senate approved the bill unanimously. — Alford

Funeral Scams Targeted
The actual dying part isn't the only way to get screwed in death. That's why Sen. Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat, is pushing legislation that would require an itemized list of all merchandise and services for which consumers pay funeral directors. Senate Bill 806 calls for funeral contracts to include detailed casket descriptions to prevent unscrupulous "bait and switch" tactics. But the real target is so-called "pre-need contracts," which are basically pre-paid funeral arrangements. Funds that have been set up nationwide to hold the money as it collects interest are being drained for nefarious purposes, leaving the families of the deceased in a lurch. The National Funeral Directors Association estimates that more than $30 million in pre-need funds have been stolen from consumers nationwide since January. Closer to home, the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors is currently investigating the theft of consumer pre-need funds in southwest Louisiana, with total losses perhaps exceeding $500,000. — Alford

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