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.
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 www.bayoubuzz.com 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.