A few miles north of Baton Rouge, on the outskirts of nothing remotely urban, sits what used to be the farming hamlet of Alsen. Cows and crops once filled the quiet, mostly black community, built from the ground up by emancipated slaves in wake of the Civil War. But that was before chemical plants rolled in and claimed the river-rich soil as their own. Many residents couldn't vote when the expansion began. Although voting rights soon followed, so did increased health risks and pollution in nearby Devil's Swamp.
You have to travel up a road called Scenic Highway to find this unincorporated area, but the road is misnamed. The region's smokestacks and tanker trucks mark the front end of what's commonly known as "Cancer Alley."
Until last October, when he was still a GOP congressman from Kenner, Bobby Jindal had no connection to Alsen. That changed with $50,000 in campaign contributions from Colorado-based Louisiana Land Systems (LLS). The money went to Jindal as the company was trying to open a landfill near Alsen. The state Department of Environmental Quality had previously rejected the company's application in 2000, but a new push was clearly afoot. Jindal's press secretary said at the time that that there was no talk of the landfill when candidate Jindal met with LLS officials.
New friends are easy to make when you're the front-runner in a governor's race. During last year's campaign, Jindal also befriended All Children Matter (ACM), a Virginia-based 527 group with a chapter in Louisiana. A 527 group is an unregulated political advocacy group not subject to state or federal campaign finance laws. As a 527 group, ACM typically promotes politicians, like Jindal, who support school vouchers. The group bankrolled part of Jindal's radio efforts in 2007 and got involved in several other races. ACM's contributors are a who's who of corporate big shots its Louisiana arm got $100,000 from Wal-Mart tycoon Jim Walton and another $100,000 from neoconservative icon Bruce Kovnier, founder of Caxton Associates.
Although last year's campaign is over, both relationships continue to matter on the state level as all roads at least on paper lead to Jindal. For example, the debate over LLS's pending permit (and DEQ's anticipated decision on it) could soon rekindle interest in Jindal's connection to the company. And just last week, ACM became Jindal's attack dog when it lashed out at a New Orleans lawmaker, Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, who claims Team Jindal pulled the trigger on radio spots attacking her opposition to vouchers.
The landfill issue could be a sleeping giant. A recent public records request reveals that LLS is finishing up a new application that could soon come up for community review. According to DEQ spokesperson Jean Lockwood Kelly, there's "no set schedule," but information is currently being collected and assessed. On the surface, it's the same application that DEQ denied in 2000, citing the company's failure to show a "genuine demand" for putting back into use an underground catacomb designed to house waste from Superfund sites.
Community activists and Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden, a Democrat, opposed the initial application because there were at least four waste facilities or landfills already in the area, two of which are Superfund sites. "There are a sufficient number of facilities like the one planned," the DEQ denial stated.
Now, LLS is back at the plate. A number of factors could have changed since 2000, not just a relationship with the new governor. The denial raised questions about the lining of the underground vault, which LLS was amenable to replacing, and an insufficient site analysis. Kelly says there's nothing out of the ordinary about the company taking another shot. "The regulations do not prohibit a facility from reapplying," she says. "Circumstances could have changed."
But that doesn't mean Jindal is off the hook, as appearances mean everything in politics. The Advocate in Baton Rouge dedicated nearly 600 words in October to exploring what, if any, connection exists between Jindal and the landfill. The report was picked up by wire services, radio stations and television stations. Once the permit is approved for public review, barring some unforeseen circumstances, scrutiny of the Jindal connection will resume.
For now, reporters and others are busy looking into All Children Matter, the 527 group that attacked Peterson in a series of radio ads that aired last week on four stations in New Orleans. The spots claim Peterson is "trying to block a plan to give our kids a better opportunity for a quality education." It's referring to House Bill 1347 by Rep. Austin Badon, also of New Orleans. Badon's bill would institute private tuition grants to public school students in New Orleans. Peterson alleges that Jindal Chief of Staff Timmy Teepell ordered the ads; Teepell denies the charge.
Polly Broussard, an ACM spokeswoman who once sat on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, told The Times-Picayune last week that the administration knew nothing about the radio attacks but that the two parties are working together to pass Badon's bill. Still, it's hard to overlook obvious connections. Besides the group's support of Jindal in 2007, Phillip Stutts, a consultant to ACM's Louisiana chapter, managed Jindal's gubernatorial campaign in 2003. Richard DeVos, the retired president of Amway who created ACM, donated nearly $20,000 to Jindal's campaign last year with the help of family members.
Rep. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, says ACM isn't alone in backing up Jindal's efforts. He says a "faceless" third-party group has been making robo-calls to voters, promoting vouchers as a winner and offering to connect voters to their respective lawmaker's office. Believe In Louisiana, another 527 group organized by Rolfe McCollister, Jindal's transition chairman, is likewise airing radio ads, Morrell says, adding to the local tension over Badon's bill. "This isn't politics as usual. It's worse," Morrell says. "Transparency doesn't exist in these shadow campaigns. The governor and his inner circle are crawling in the muck."
Clearly, Jindal takes the voucher bill seriously. Rep. Cedric Richmond, another New Orleans Democrat, says a flyer was passed around to certain lawmakers last week inviting them to a luncheon at the Governor's Mansion to discuss the bill. He says the meetings basically have served as a forum for Jindal to horse-trade projects for support. For any lawmaker looking to fund a pet project, "that's the perfect time to go and ask," Richmond says.
Peterson, meanwhile, still feels slighted by the "personal attacks." While she may have been reserving judgment on Jindal's young administration before, she now refers to them as "holier than thou." The tactic clearly strains Jindal's legislative relations, and if the attacks continue against lawmakers who do nothing more than take a policy stance, Peterson won't be alone in her angst.
"There is an independent arm of government called the Louisiana Legislature, made up of the House and Senate," she says. "And we don't rubber stamp."