When it comes to politicians handling taxpayers' money and conducting the people's business, there is no substitute for transparency — and no excuse for the lack of it. Some Jefferson Parish politicians are about to learn that lesson the hard way.
The issue arises in the wake of
The Times-Picayune's excellent expose on a secret fee-splitting arrangement in favor of Jefferson Parish Chief Administrative Officer Tim Whitmer and several politically connected figures for an insurance contract at the parish-owned West Jefferson Hospital. The feds are now investigating the deal. Whether any laws were broken remains to be seen, but the secret fee-splitting arrangement clearly does not pass the sniff test — and it violates the terms of the hospital's contract.
Nominally, the contract (for employees' optional policies) was awarded to B&A Insurance and Wally Pontiff Sr. It turns out Pontiff and B&A split the commissions with Whitmer and others. Sources say dozens of federal subpoenas have been served, and the T-P's follow-up reports have uncovered other deals involving Whitmer and area politicos.
Which is why Jefferson Parish Councilman John Young wants Whitmer to disclose all his business relationships with local public agencies and government contractors. The scope of Young's request is significant because, as the T-P has reported, Whitmer's Lagniappe Insurance agency (which he co-owns with his wife) got an insurance contract with St. John the Baptist Parish — while Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard's administration was recommending parish work for a company owned by St. John President Bill Hubbard, who recently resigned and pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
Maybe, but only complete transparency will answer that question. By the way, Lagniappe also has done insurance business with the city of Kenner.
Things got muddier when Broussard, who is Whitmer's boss, at first called for an investigation and then recused himself because — surprise! — he recently did some legal work for Lagniappe. Similarly, Jefferson Parish Attorney Tom Wilkinson also recused himself after disclosing that Whitmer's wife was the insurance agent for two pieces of property he owns and that he had done some legal work for Whitmer's parents.
Anybody see a pattern here?
In fairness to Whitmer, he is universally praised for his exemplary work as a parish employee. In fairness to the taxpayers, that's what public officials are supposed to do. Doing a good job — or even a superb job — does not entitle a public servant to engage in self-dealing.
The response to Young's request has been to stonewall, which is not surprising. The official reason is that disclosure is barred under state law because of the federal investigation. Baloney. No state or federal law bars disclosure in this instance, but a deputy parish attorney has gone to court to "clarify" (read: buy time) this issue.
Stonewalling is often the official default response to requests for transparency. In Whitmer's case, there's apparently another motive: The day the federal subpoenas arrived, he announced that he will retire effective Feb. 1.
Timing is crucial here. If Whitmer, who is 49, can hang onto his job until then, he will get to draw at least $171,000 a year as a pension — immediately. If he departs before then, he has to wait until he reaches retirement age before drawing his pension.
Again with the self-dealing.
Young is supported in his transparency demand by the Metropolitan Crime Commission and several media outlets. For some reason, other parish council members have been silent on this. Why?
Jefferson Parish citizens should demand immediate disclosure by Whitmer. If he doesn't comply, he should be fired immediately. Otherwise the pattern of self-dealing and secrecy will only continue — and possibly get worse.
Accept no substitutes, people — nor any excuses.