When Louisiana voters overwhelmingly supported a 2006 constitutional amendment intended to depoliticize area levee boards, they had in mind something very different than what’s been going on lately with the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) nominating process.
Under the old regime, area state senators nominated their political pals for levee board seats, and board members did not have to meet any professional standards. The 2006 amendment regionalized levee boards in southeast Louisiana and required most board members to have specific professional qualifications.
Prospective board members also must be vetted now by a “blue ribbon” nominating committee of business, civic, academic and professional leaders. Nominating committee members are presumed to be above politics.
Apparently they were only kidding about that part.
Ever since SLFPA-E members voted unanimously in July 2013 to sue 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies for destroying coastal wetlands and increasing the risk of flooding, the so-called “independent” nominating committee has been steeped in politics, conflicts of interest and official arrogance. Plus ça change.
The politicization started right after the suit was filed. Gov. Bobby Jindal vowed to kill the suit by any means necessary. He supported a half-baked state law designed to retroactively kill the lawsuit, but that law was so hastily written that it may not accomplish its stated purpose. The federal judge who is hearing the SLFPA-E lawsuit has been asked to rule on the law’s constitutionality and applicability.
Jindal also has pressured the nominating committee, which was created to remove politics from the nominating process, into sending him nominees who promise to withdraw the lawsuit as soon as possible. Until the committee's latest meeting on Sept. 18, the committee obliged Jindal at every turn.
The conflicts of interest are equally glaring. For example, the chairman of the nominating committee, businessman Jay Lapeyre (who led the charge to “reform” the levee boards after Hurricane Katrina) is a major stockholder and board chair of ION Geophysical Corp., a Houston-based oil and gas service company that does business with some of the defendants named in the flood authority lawsuit.
Despite that obvious conflict, Lapeyre hasn’t even come close to recusing himself from the nominating process. In fact, he has done all he could to help Jindal replace SLFPA-E board members who supported the lawsuit with toadies who promise to kill the litigation. Noted flood historian John Barry (the lawsuit’s most vocal supporter on SLFPA-E) was thus replaced with Lakefront attorney Joe Hassinger, who had no prior experience with flood control issues. Hassinger does know a thing or two about oil and gas litigation, however; the law firm where he works proudly bills itself as a top-tier legal representative of energy companies.
Give Jindal and Lapeyre credit for this much: they’re not subtle. They also have won virtually every round in this fight — until this week.
After considerable public pressure by the media and citizens, the nominating committee on Sept. 18 narrowly voted to re-nominate SLFPA-E member Paul Kemp, a respected expert on coastal issues, whose term recently expired. Kemp fills one of the “technical” seats on the board, but because he supports the lawsuit he was targeted by Jindal and Lapeyre.
It took three ballots, but the committee finally voted (by a one-vote margin) to re-nominate Kemp for his current seat. Lapeyre voted against him every time. Because Kemp is being re-nominated for one of the board’s “technical” seats, the board submitted only his name to Jindal. Under current state law, Jindal has no choice but to reappoint Kemp. He could appoint Kemp and then ask the state Senate to reject him in the next legislative session, but Kemp would serve until then.
Unless Jindal conjures up another subterfuge to skirt the law, Kemp’s reappointment will preserve the board’s 5-4 majority in favor of the lawsuit — for now.
The board’s decision was good news for supporters of the lawsuit, but the messy nominating process was hardly what voters had in mind when they approved levee board reforms in 2006. The lesson here is clear: Beware of “blue ribbon committees” that merely substitute one form of politics for another — especially when self-proclaimed “reformers” who are not accountable to voters get to impose their will (and their biases) on the public.