Only Experienced Candidates Need Apply
The Committee on Senate and Governmental Affairs is the legislative panel that oversees all ethics and campaign-finance bills. So who better to chair it than someone with first-hand knowledge of ethics violations? Could that have been Senate President Don Hines' reasoning when he appointed Sen. Charles 'C.D.' Jones to head the committee? Jones, D-Monroe, had a record of nine campaign-finance violations plus a conflict-of-interest violation. He also had been suspended from law practice twice by the state Supreme Court: once after several complaints of professional misconduct and again for failing to properly represent clients and failing to cooperate with a misconduct complaint against him.
Hines showed similar questionable judgment when he selected Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth and a nursing home operator, to chair the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. That panel plays a major role in directing the state's health-care policy and in writing rules for adult care facilities, including how much federal Medicaid money should be directed to, you guessed it, nursing homes.
When It Absolutely, Positively Has to Get There ...
Sen. Sherri Cheek, R-Shreveport, was only a senator-elect when she discovered a little-known perk of office. When Cheek's husband and his buddies arrived in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl and realized they'd left their tickets in Shreveport, Cheek did what any of us would naturally do -- she asked state troopers to relay the tickets the 350-odd miles, which they did in just over five hours. By the time Cheek was officially sworn into office a few days later, she had apologized and written a check to cover the taxpayer expense.
Hit The Ground Stumbling
Attorney General Charles Foti got off to a less-than-auspicious statewide start with a couple of highly publicized missteps. First, Foti's appointee to his general investigations division, Les Bonano, was found to have been denied licenses to work in the gambling industry; the state Gaming Control Board had said Bonano's alleged connections with organized crime made him unfit for licensure. Bonano said he was unaware of the connections -- an unfortunate claim for someone entrusted with criminal investigations. In the spring, Foti revamped Justice Department job applications to include questions about race, height, weight and physical characteristics, among other personal disclosures. The agency's existing employees had to fully complete the form in order to re-apply for their jobs. Foti later removed the legally troubling questions from the applications.
Give the Money and Run
In January, departing Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell left public office. But she didn't say goodbye without giving her top aides a massive going-away present that also translated into a massive hole in someone else's budget. In the final days of her term, Terrell authorized more than 2,200 hours of overtime to staff members, at a cost of nearly $85,000. That bounty came on top of nearly $280,000 in pay raises Terrell had granted the previous month. Secretary of State Fox McKeithen, whose office oversees elections and whose budget had to absorb the largesse, called Terrell's last-minute spree 'outlandish,' commenting that 'it just looks like they were trying to get everything they could get.'
Oh, What a Tangled Web
District Attorney Eddie Jordan may not be entirely Web-proficient, but one would hope he would be somewhat more savvy regarding what would appear to be glaring conflicts of interest. Shortly after he entered office, some of Jordan's pals set up an 'unofficial' Web site for him -- www.nolada.com -- and let attorneys buy ad space on it, saying they would 'benefit from affiliation with the New Orleans District Attorney' by doing so. Part of the proceeds were to go toward supporting Jordan's office. Site owners said criminal defense lawyers were prohibited from buying ads, though at least one law firm hawking its services on the site did offer criminal defense. The Web site has since yanked all forms of advertising.
Return to Sender
Even less technically savvy is Mike Baer, who earned his title as 'former' Senate secretary this year after sending a wildly inappropriate mass email to several hundred people affiliated with state government. The email -- a list of dirty jokes and a song parody celebrating the female genitalia -- had originally been forwarded to Baer; apparently, the Senate's top administrator had meant to pass it along to folks in his private address book, not the entire state Capitol recipient list. The Senate didn't buy Baer's excuse that he had simply hit the wrong button while trying to delete the file; Baer got the heave-ho in March.
It took a long national search to land him as executive director of the City Planning Commission -- and just one commission meeting to jettison Verl Emrick from the position. His gaffe: using the racially insensitive term 'tar baby' during his first get-together with staff members.
Knock the Vote
New Orleanian Raymond Busche hardly expected a response to an angry email he fired off to Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock chastising the 91st District House member for voting to adopt an amendment that would exclude gay couples from having legally recognized marriages in Louisiana. 'Shame on you,' Busche wrote, complaining that the amendment was a form of discrimination. Bullock, to his surprise, wrote back and said she agreed. 'Unfortunately, I face enormous pressure from my pastor, Bishop [Paul] Morton, who has launched a national campaign in favor of an amendment to the federal Constitution,' she wrote. 'I'm sorry that I no longer have your vote and I'm sorry that I had to vote that way. I just hope that you can understand that I do not support discrimination and I hope that the bill is ultimately found unconstitutional.' Bullock later said her vote had reflected the desires of her constituency and not her personal opinion, but Busche wasn't swayed. 'I have no respect for her as a legislator,' he said. 'Knowing she would vote that way, based on the fact she thinks it's unconstitutional.'
End of the Line
In August, a federal judge put the kibosh on William Graham's phony 'abortion referral service' that he had operated for years. The 'service' was, in reality, a phone number listed as 'Causeway Center for Women,' a name intended to dupe those seeking legitimate abortion provider Causeway Medical Clinic. When would-be patients called, Graham would pose as an abortion counselor and pretend to set up doctor's appointments, only to 'reschedule' until it was too late for them to legally terminate. Abortion rights advocates and opponents alike decried Graham's actions, agreeing that vulnerable women in crisis should not be tricked into carrying their pregnancies to term.
As Hurricane Ivan swirled menacingly in the Gulf last September, thousands of New Orleanians readied their homes and fled the area. Some had an easier time of it than others: New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Tony Amato, for instance, could leave town in a jiffy thanks to a crew of school-system maintenance workers called upon to board up his house. The contractors battened down Amato's home and dismantled their handiwork after the threat had passed -- all on the school system's dime. When word leaked about the incident, Amato claimed he didn't know who had performed the work on his house or under what circumstances. He said he had asked schools Facilities Chief Steve Freeman to help him find contractors to board up his home and that he somehow wasn't aware that the majority of workers at Freeman's disposal would be public-school employees. The workers were later asked to alter their time sheets and were paid personally by Amato instead of by taxpayers.
Alexander the Bait (and Switch)
At a time when 'dirty' and 'politics' seem interchangeable, antics by U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander managed to astound even the most cynical political critics. The incumbent in the 5th District, Alexander qualified for re-election as a Democrat, as he had done in the past -- but literally minutes before qualifying ended, pulled a surprise switch to the Republican Party. The action put Alexander as the definitive GOP candidate for office and left no viable Democrat in the race. Alexander's excuse -- that the Democratic party no longer reflected his political views -- rang false in light of his action's surreptitious timing and its surprise nature; even his closest staff members were caught off guard and quit en masse. Alexander's integrity became a national news topic when it was noted he had professed loyalty to the Democratic Party a few months earlier, saying he could not become a Republican because, among other things, the party 'ignores the people that make this country great.'
The Butler Did It
Just about the only things in greater abundance than absent voting machines during New Orleans' Sept. 18 election were excuses from Kimberly Williamson Butler. The election -- which fell under Butler's purview as Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal Court -- quickly hit fiasco status when voting machines were delivered late to nearly 90 precincts. Everyone, it seemed, was to blame except Butler, who pointed the finger at such miscreants as lax school custodians who weren't around to accept the machines and corrupt or incompetent voting-machine delivery drivers. Butler downplayed reports that her office had failed to maintain timely or effective communications with such major players as poll commissioners and delivery drivers. Major, preventable problems again made an appearance in the Nov. 2 election, in which several precincts received broken voting machines. Both election-day debacles compromised many residents' ability to cast their ballot, as a great deal of voters were asked to either come back later or were required to stand in line for long periods of time.
No one can ever accuse Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick's office of being soft on criminals -- or non-criminals, for that matter. When DNA evidence proved Connick's office had nabbed the wrong men in the shooting death of a Bridge City grocer -- sending one to death row and another to prison for life -- prosecutors dragged their feet in righting the wrong. Their stonewalling left the men behind bars for several months after the new evidence came to light. It took more than a year for Connick's office to drop the case against Ryan Matthews after another man was identified as the triggerman in Tommy Vanhoose's 1997 murder. The mentally retarded Matthews was released from seven wrongful years on death row and subsequently house arrest (but only after he had to pay $100 to remove his electronic monitoring ankle cuff). Even after Ryan's exoneration, prosecutors contended that his alleged accomplice Travis Hayes -- who like Ryan is mentally disabled and was a juvenile when arrested -- has no legal grounds to argue his innocence.