From the local levee authority's lawsuit against Big Oil to the fight over Jefferson Parish's public hospitals, from Gov. Bobby Jindal's popularity slide to the St. Tammany Parish coroner scandal, politicians across Louisiana worked overtime this past year to make our annual list of the Top 10 political stories.
Enjoy the ride. I sure did.
1. The case against Big Oil — The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) threw down a huge gauntlet in July when it filed a groundbreaking environmental lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies. The suit seeks to hold Big Oil accountable for decades of coastal land loss and for higher flood-control costs in metro New Orleans. The pushback was immediate and intense. Gov. Bobby Jindal and his "coastal czar," Garret Graves, rushed to the defense of the energy industry, ousting several SLFPA-E members who supported the suit (particularly vice chairman John Barry, one of the nation's leading flood protection experts). Jindal and Graves were aided by a so-called "independent" nominating committee chaired by local business and civic dynast Jay Lapeyre, who also is chairman of the board of directors of ION Geophysical Inc., a Houston-based oil service company. Just when all seemed lost, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes sued more than two dozen oil companies. Jindal wants state lawmakers to put the kibosh on the SLFPA-E suit in 2014. Meanwhile, other parishes may file suits of their own. Regardless of how this story ends, it will shape state politics for decades. If Big Oil wins, nothing much changes; we'll keep sinking into the Gulf and taxpayers will get stuck with the tab for the still-unfunded Master Plan to restore Louisiana's coast. If the levee authority and the parishes prevail, it will mark the first time in nearly a century that Big Oil has not dictated Louisiana's environmental policy — and the energy industry will pay for much of the Master Plan. Pay close attention to this one, folks.
2. Federal freefall — The feds' prolonged investigation into local landfill magnate Fred Heebe and his company, River Birch, ended abruptly in March, sending shock waves through the political community. Some cheered Heebe's victory against overzealous prosecutors, while others lamented the downfall of former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who resigned the previous December amid an online commenting scandal. The drama at Poydras and Camp streets did not end there. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt tossed the guilty verdicts in the Danziger Bridge case (largely because of the online commenting scandal), setting off a chain reaction that's still playing out. Meanwhile, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned NOPD officer David Warren's conviction in the Henry Glover case, and Warren was acquitted in a do-over trial. In the midst of it all, new U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite took the reins of a troubled office — one that the Justice Department ostensibly is still investigating for the online commenting scandal.
3. Jindal's slide — Gov. Bobby Jindal did not have a good year. His proposal to eliminate the state income tax and replace it with the nation's highest combined state and local sales tax drew fire from the left and the right, at least within Louisiana. It was so unpopular that Jindal pulled the plug on his proposal on the opening day of the legislative session. The failure of Jindal's tax-swap plan underscored his low voter approval ratings, which plummeted to the mid-30s in the spring before "rebounding" to the low-40s in October. Jindal became a pariah among state lawmakers, too. The so-called legislative fiscal hawks (a mostly GOP group in the House) completely rewrote his budget, and the most conservative congressional district in the state (the 5th, based in northeast Louisiana) rejected his anointed successor to former Congressman Rodney Alexander, opting to send first-time candidate Vance McAllister to Washington instead. With two years left in his term, the emperor clearly has no coattails.
4. Orleans Parish Prison blues — Sheriff Marlin Gusman has managed to make the Keystone Cops look like Scotland Yard, only this is no laughing matter. Gusman's jail is arguably the worst-run prison in America: inhumane conditions; prisoner-on-prisoner violence; inmate deaths; escapes; a viral video of prisoners partying with guns and drugs in the jail; and a federal consent decree that somehow leaves Gusman still in charge. Even more astounding, Gusman is now favored to win re-election, which can only mean more headlines next year, and the next.
5. Ray Nagin indicted — The feds formally (and finally) accused City Hall's former narcissist-in-chief of bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy, money-laundering and filing false tax returns. The 21-count indictment of the former mayor accuses him of taking more than $200,000 in bribes from four city vendors to whom he steered millions in post-Hurricane Katrina recovery contracts. Nagin's trial was postponed several times; it's now scheduled for Jan. 27. If he doesn't plead, his two sons face possible indictment.
6. Jefferson Parish hospitals fight — Parish leaders recognized several years ago that Jefferson cannot remain in the health care business much longer, but the council's Byzantine process for selecting a private operator for the parish's two publicly owned hospitals makes the Obamacare rollout look like a well-oiled machine. The selection was supposed to happen months ago; now it's set for late January, but there's no guarantee it will happen then.
7. Entergy loses power — The New Orleans City Council launched a "prudency" investigation of Entergy New Orleans (ENO) over two corporate decisions that, according to the council's utility advisers, favored ENO's parent company over ratepayers. Entergy soon thereafter abandoned its bid to sell off its transmission grid to an unregulated "third-party" interstate owner after Mississippi regulators rejected the idea. The prudency investigation is a complex story, but it will be big news in 2014.
8. The bridge toll fight — Voters in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes voted overwhelmingly (well, in the do-over election, at least) to discontinue tolls on the Crescent City Connection. That came after a Baton Rouge judge tossed the results of a May 1 referendum in which the toll renewal proposition passed by less than 40 votes. The judge ordered a new referendum after concluding that many voters were improperly denied the opportunity to cast ballots in May.
9. The St. Tammany coroner scandal — Dr. Peter Galvan resigned as St. Tammany Parish coroner in October and pleaded guilty to one federal count of conspiracy to steal public money. Galvan helped himself to hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars by cashing out vacation and sick pay that he wasn't owed and using public employees to work in his private enterprises. Galvan's antics also led to state legislation to change how the office operates.
10. Mike Bagneris enters mayor's race — Just when it appeared Mayor Mitch Landrieu would get a coronation for his second term, Civil Court Judge Michael Bagneris retired from the bench and qualified to run against him. Bagneris was the leading spokesman for judges seeking a stand-alone new courthouse, which Landrieu opposed. The mayor wants to turn the former Big Charity hospital into a "civic center" housing the courthouse and a new city hall. Bagneris denies that he's running out of spite, but nobody expects this race to be a "civil" contest as the national GOP is set to pour money into a third-party advertising campaign designed to tarnish the Landrieu brand. The real target, of course, is the mayor's sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who's up for re-election in November 2014. It should be quite a spectacle: The folks whose stock in trade has been suppressing the black vote are suddenly supporting a black candidate and doing all they can to suppress white voter turnout. Politics truly makes strange bedfellows.
No doubt there will be more twists and turns in the coming year, which will give us lots to talk about 12 months from now. Happy New Year!