Keeping It Zipped

National onlookers might be impressed with Gov. Bobby Jindal's claims of ethics reform, but here at home he is earning a reputation for being anything but transparent.



While the two men can usually talk circles around most of their opponents, Jimmy Faircloth and Johnny Koch were evenly matched in a recent standoff in the state Capitol's sub-basement hallway. The channel cuts through a series of House committee rooms, and more than one passerby stopped to eavesdrop as Faircloth raised his voice and his face took on a deep shade of red.
Faircloth, Gov. Bobby Jindal's chief attorney, felt insulted by the Louisiana Press Association's interpretation of an administration-backed public records bill. Koch, a broad-shouldered lobbyist for the gaggle of newspapers, magazines and independent journalists, approached Faircloth to discuss LPA's stance on the legislation: It flies grossly in the face of good government and would conceal more activities in the governor's office than ever before.

Standing in the hallway, Koch barely got a word in as Faircloth's face reddened and words shot from his mouth like daggers. There was no middle ground; Koch, in his gentle, squinty-eyed way, just nodded his head and waited for a break in Faircloth's torrent. Meanwhile, Faircloth held his black leather portfolio at chest level, pointing to it as if it were the legislation and underlining imaginary sections that were beyond Koch's control. "I'm willing to bet you a meal, under $50 of course," Faircloth said, now pointing at Koch, "that if you request a record from one of our secretaries today and we go to court, we will win."

The $50 caveat was a wry reference to the law Jindal passed in February's special session on ethics reform that limits what lobbyists can spend on lawmakers and other decision makers. But while Jindal and his staff have relentlessly touted such "reforms" during their first months in office, many lawmakers, government watchdog agencies and media outlets are finding that the new governor often operates with a "Do as I say, not as I do" philosophy.

A few days earlier, the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee deferred action on Senate Bill 629 when the LPA and the Jindal Administration couldn't agree on the parameters of the measure. Current Louisiana law allows books, writings, accounts, letters and other records kept under the custody of the governor to be excluded from public view.

The proposed legislation by Sen. Mike Walsworth, a West Monroe Republican, further excludes records kept by the office — including the documents and government correspondence of practically everyone on the payroll, from the chief of staff to the scheduling director. Additionally, the bill specifically would exempt any direct communications from the governor's office to lawmakers.

Faircloth and Koch resumed their hallway tete-a-tete a week later during a Senate committee hearing, where Faircloth proclaimed any effort to describe the measure as more constrictive as an outright error. He said it would open up some 60 different agencies under the governor's control to public view, and many on the committee supported that argument.

Veteran journalists, however, don't see it that way. "I just don't agree with counselor Faircloth's interpretation," says Carl Redman, an LPA spokesman and managing editor of The Advocate in Baton Rouge. "I don't think this is an improvement. The solution is to not make special exemptions for the governor's office, [but rather] to treat it and him like every other state agency or employee."

That's the path that other states have taken, but much to LPA's chagrin, the legislation made it past its initial committee hearing and now is pending action in the full Senate.

The debate over the Walsworth bill isn't the first time Team Jindal has gone to the mat to shield its activities from the public. During the governor's special session on ethics reform in February, Faircloth torpedoed legislation by Republican Shreveport Rep. Wayne Waddell that would have cracked open the governor's public records safe like never before, shining a light on communications and documents relating to roughly 73 executive branch agencies and departments, including Jindal's inner sanctum.

Waddell tried to do the same during the tenure of former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, with little success, arguing that more information was needed on the state's response to Hurricane Katrina. Blanco placed executive privilege over public good in her opposition and, true to form, Jindal sent his minions to do the same. After Faircloth sank Waddell's bill in the February session, however, he vowed repeatedly — in front of reporters and lawmakers — to work with the Shreveport legislator on a compromise.

A few meetings transpired during the interim, and both sides agreed that certain protections should exist for homeland security and economic development. So it was with understandable zeal that Waddell returned in the current session with House Bill 1100, the latest incarnation of his efforts to bring transparency to Jindal's office. But, since the regular session convened in late March, the administration's willingness to find a middle ground on the legislation seems to have evaporated. "I haven't heard from [Jindal's office] at all since the session started," Waddell says. "But I am moving forward with this bill."

In a stark he-said/he-said contrast, Faircloth told senators last week during a committee hearing on the Walsworth bill: "I have talked to [Waddell] and was prepared to go to the table" to work out a compromise. Sen. Lydia P. Jackson, a Shreveport Democrat, was glad to hear it and retorted that the language used in the Waddell bill "gives me greater comfort." But there was no concession on Faircloth's part as to what sort of compromise he had in mind.

The irony of Jindal's stances against transparency (at least, where he and his office are concerned) is not lost on some of his stakeholders. It's a bitter pill for them to swallow, as Jindal was the mastermind behind forcing lawmakers to disclose more of their income and the head cheerleader for everything else ethics-related in Louisiana. Many legislators likewise see a measure of hypocrisy. Those sentiments are underscored by the Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida, which ranks Louisiana dead last when it comes to access to the governor's office. Even Mississippi and Arkansas trump Louisiana in this area.

"It's unfair to citizens who want access," says Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, one of the many advocacy groups that helped craft Jindal's broad-based ethics agenda. Even though Faircloth counters that the CAP rankings are skewed because Louisiana's governor controls so many agencies and boards through his constitutionally granted appointive powers, Brandt says it's high time for Jindal to loosen his ham-fisted grip on public records under his control. "At PAR, we are strongly supportive of more sunshine in government, and this is an area of transparency in which the state has been ranked very low," Brandt says.

Transparency isn't the only quality the administration lacks. That became evident during PAR's annual meeting two weeks ago, when a panel of journalists and bureaucrats held forth on the state of Louisiana politics — and on the modus operandi of Melissa Sellers, Jindal's press secretary. One insightful anecdote came from reporter Robert Travis Scott, the Capitol bureau chief for The Times-Picayune.
Scott recently unearthed a report that Team Jindal had commissioned — then suppressed — from a group of retired military generals who detailed low morale, leadership problems and nepotism in the Louisiana National Guard. When Scott first asked about the report and why the governor reappointed Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau as the state's adjutant general despite a contradictory recommendation from the generals, press secretary Sellers denied the report even existed. "That was a disappointing moment," Scott says. "Just telling us a lie isn't right. I hope that never happens again."
At its annual meeting recently, the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters invited Jindal to speak to a roomful of reporters. After wrapping up a speech filled with praise for the media for its post-hurricane coverage, the governor headed straight for the exit. Baton Rouge's WAFB-Channel 9 caught the incident on tape, including Sellers shutting the door on cameras and reporters as she repeated, "No interviews, no interviews."

Sellers has become Public Enemy No. 1 to many reporters at media outlets big and small. The student-run LSU Daily Reveille newspaper and Louisiana political Web site went as far as calling for her resignation after she repeatedly ignored their requests for information, while larger prestigious broadcast outlets have privately griped about being removed from the administration's press release lists after they ran less-than-flattering Jindal stories. That comes as no surprise to Mark Ballard, Capitol bureau chief for The Advocate. "[Jindal] has surrounded himself with people who play hardball and can be punitive," Ballard says. That has created a good cop/bad cop situation that allows Jindal to essentially ignore critics in the Louisiana press corps.

Lawmakers and reporters also have had difficulty dealing with Timmy Teepell, Jindal's home-schooled brain trust and chief of staff. During the February special session on ethics reform, Teepell was busted for handing out free tickets to elected officials for a Hannah Montana concert. By ducking into doorways and avoiding phone calls, Teepell ignored media requests about why he gave out the freebies when the administration was simultaneously pushing a bill that would ban lawmakers from accepting such perks.

And after the retired Louisiana generals prepared their report alleging morale problems in the Louisiana National Guard, the generals claimed Teepell refused several requests for meetings. "Timmy hates to compromise," says the Picayune's Scott.

Teepell's management style fell under heavy fire again when Col. Jim Champagne was fired as state highway commissioner after more than a decade at his post. Champagne disagreed with the Jindal Administration's plan to repeal Louisiana's law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. He was shown the door one week after a meeting with Teepell. "I want it understood publicly, please," Champagne says. "Don't think I was removed because I did not do the job I was supposed to do as highway safety commissioner."

Champagne's firing smacks of political retribution. Former Gov. Mike Foster, an avid motorcyclist — and Jindal's early mentor — was less than pleased when Gov. Kathleen Blanco reinstated a law requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Foster worked hard to repeal the helmet law while he was governor, over Champagne's objections. National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration statistics show that helmets reduce the likelihood of a motorcycle crash-related fatality by 37 percent. In supporting a Foster-inspired "no helmet" law, Team Jindal members appear more concerned with getting some political payback for the former governor, who bristled at — but nonetheless tolerated, at least officially — Champagne's vocal opposition to the motorcycle helmet law repeal. Now, in firing Champagne, Jindal has done what even the notoriously heavy-handed Foster dared not do.

For now, Jindal is enjoying his status as "America's Ethics Governor," evidenced by his recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. But back home, there are serious questions about whether Jindal's far-reaching ethics package can be enforced. In particular, The Advocate's Ballard broke a story showing that the governor's heightened standard of proof (requiring "clear and convincing evidence") for assessing ethics violations could neuter any serious attempt at true reform. It all boils down to the definition of "clear and convincing." (See, Commentary, "An Affirmative Duty," 4/29/08.)

That wording was a last-minute change made by Sen. Bob Kostelka, a Monroe Republican, to what is now Act 23 of the First Extraordinary Session of 2008. Ballard brought the change to light months after the bill passed, adding to earlier fears that Jindal's restructuring of the Ethics Board amounts to nothing more than a form of political protection for administration supporters. At a brief news conference, Jindal dismissed the "clear and convincing" controversy as a disagreement between lawyers, but the governor and Teepell have ignored Ballard's inquiries. "They have all avoided talking to me about it," Ballard says.

Team Jindal's tack of nonresponse has become standard operating procedure for media inquiries regarding the administration's stances and initiatives. Rarely a week goes by when the press secretary, chief of staff or governor himself doesn't punt on a request or issue that was routinely fielded by previous administrations. A cursory review of media reports since Jindal took office found more than a dozen stories — on vital issues such as education, ethics enforcement and budget funding — in which the administration offered no official comment. Some noted three or four calls made to the governor, press secretary or chief of staff that went unreturned.

Publicly, Jindal maintains a schedule that favors tightly scripted speeches and appearances to community groups and gatherings of supporters, spreading an unwavering message of positive change that's garnered him approval ratings above 70 percent, his Leno sit-down and a speech last week to Washington, D.C.'s National Press Club. Behind the scenes, however, media and good-government groups scratch their collective head as they watch the transformation of Louisiana's Ivy League-educated Rhodes Scholar governor from an engaging, serious policy wonk to a stonewalling, carefully scripted, inaccessible politician.

During his campaign for governor last year, Jindal was criticized for not facing his opponents in forums on the campaign trail. His "Rose Garden" campaign strategy worked. He won in the primary, and he shows no interest in changing that strategy now, as governor.

Both Jindal and Sellers refused a request for comment for this story.

This story first appeared in The Independent Weekly in Lafayette.

Jindal's Media Playbook

Any reporter at the Capitol will gladly tell you that landing an interview with Gov. Bobby Jindal, in contrast to former chief executives, is akin to finding the Holy Grail. If you can manage to get through the governor's tightly managed press office, or garner an audience at a public event, both of which are highly unlikely, answers from the GOP darling are dished out in a rapid-fire stream that conveys more words than substance.

Unless you represent a national media outlet, forget about talking to the governor these days. It's all part of the playbook of limited access. At last month's annual meeting of the Public Affairs Research Council, Robert Travis Scott, Capitol bureau chief for The Times-Picayune, put it best: "He really doesn't talk to us that much."

Here's a small sampling of recent stories that illustrate the Jindal media strategy:

— Jan. 31, The Advocate: "Jindal's key aides' salaries similar to Blanco's" — "Jindal's chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, did not return two requests for comment on the governor's payroll."

— Feb. 16, The Advocate: "Jindal gives away tickets to concert" — "Jindal's chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, did not respond to four requests for comment."

— March 4, The Advocate: "LSU Lab School access defended" — "Jindal did not respond to five requests for comment Tuesday."

— March 4, The Advocate: 'Nagin urges Jindal to fund N.O. projects, change ports" — "Jindal did not return a call seeking comment after meeting with Nagin."

— March 4, The Times-Picaune: "Jindal may back tuition tax breaks" — "Jindal press secretary Melissa Sellers did not respond to questions about tax breaks for private school tuition or to a more specific question about (the) effort."

— March 19, The Independent Weekly: "To H2B or Not to H2B: State leaders are working different avenues and coalitions to solve this year's critical shortage of seasonal immigrant workers." — "Jindal Press Secretary Melissa Sellers did not respond to an inquiry about the governor's involvement."

— April 7, LSU Reveille: "Jindal preaches transparency, doesn't follow through" — "Jindal's Press Secretary Melissa Sellers did not return calls requesting a comment for this column."

— April 9, Associated Press: "Former highway safety chief believes he was fired over helmet disagreement" — "(Col. Jim Champagne) said he was fired March 25, after a meeting with chief of staff Timmy Teepell, and left six days later. Teepell did not respond to requests for comment."

— April 20, The Advocate: "Evolution talk cut from bill: Proposed law now calls only for 'objective discussions'" — "Asked for a comment from Gov. Bobby Jindal or for Jindal's position on the bill, the governor did not respond."

— April 30, The Advocate: "House panel to hold hearings in Angola 3 case" — "Jindal did not respond Tuesday to two requests for comment."

— May 8, The Advocate: "Lawmakers: Ethics laws too strict for volunteers" — "Jindal did not respond to three requests for an interview made through his press secretary, Mellissa Sellers. Neither did his office answer six specific questions."

Amateur Hour in Dixie

How tightly does Gov. Bobby Jindal's press secretary, Melissa Sellers, try to manage her boss? Gambit Weekly got a sneak preview during Jindal's campaign for governor last fall.

When Jindal arrived at this newspaper's office on Oct. 4 for an interview with our editorial board, Sellers, who was his campaign press aide, attempted to sit in on the interview. When informed politely by Gambit Weekly publisher Margo DuBos that she would have to leave the room — that it was Gambit's policy to interview all candidates without handlers present — Sellers went into a near panic, insisting that she had to be present for the interview.

At that point, Jindal calmly waived her out of the room, saying it was not a problem. As a candidate for governor in 2003 and for Congress in 2004, Jindal had been down this road before.

But Sellers persisted, telling Jindal that she needed to be present.

"It's okay. Really," Jindal said, repeating himself several times as she protested.

On her way out of the conference room, an obviously shaken Sellers announced tersely that Jindal had only 45 minutes to spend with us. "That's okay," I replied, smiling. "He tends to talk fast, so I'm sure we can get all our questions in."

Ninety minutes later, Jindal emerged from the interview.

As soon as Jindal and Sellers left, several Gambit staff members told us that Sellers, instead of taking a seat in the foyer of our offices (as other campaign workers do), hovered in the hallway outside the conference room and pressed her ear to a window, trying to eavesdrop on the interview. When our office administrator asked her to take a seat, she moved to an adjacent conference room — where she again was spotted with her ear to the wall, trying to hear what was being said in the interview.

When I learned what Sellers had done, I was tempted to write a short story about the incident, but instead I gave her a pass, chalking it up to amateurish zeal. I did, however, send a back-channel message to Jindal about it, just in case this wasn't an isolated instance.

Less than a month later, Jindal appointed Sellers as his press secretary. Now it all makes me wonder: did he even get my message — or does he like Sellers' brand of zealotry? — Clancy DuBos

Press Secretary Melissa Sellers (center) has become Public Enemy No. 1 to many reporters at Louisiana news outlets.
  • Press Secretary Melissa Sellers (center) has become Public Enemy No. 1 to many reporters at Louisiana news outlets.

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