Monthly Archives: April 2012

Rep. Kirk Talbot’s HB-969 — Redefining Fiscal Recklessness

Louisiana celebrates it’s bicentennial this year and — though our state has a long and colorful history of shenanigans — one would be hard pressed to find a more reckless piece of legislation than HB-969 (PDF) by Rep. Kirk Talbot of Jefferson Parish.

The bill is part of the great Jindal public education funding raid that includes grabbing public tax dollars and diverting them into the coffers of private schools in the form of vouchers.

HB-969 is more brazen by an order of magnitude. According to the Legislature’s digest of the bill (PDF), Talbot’s bill clears the way for something called Tuition Scholarship Organizations (TSOs) to emerge in Louisiana. These are, according to the digest, “501(c)(3) tax exempt organization which donates no less than 95% of the monies from donations for scholarships to students for attendance at a qualified nonpublic school of their parent’s choice.”

It’s a pretty attractive set up on it’s face. Anyone interested in promoting private education in Louisiana will be able to make a fully tax deductible contribution to the TSO of its choice. It’s a two-fer — a feel-good, federally tax-exempt activity.

Doubling Their Money!

But, Talbot’s bill goes WAY beyond that. It makes the State of Louisiana a full partner in the enterprise. Yes, the federal tax deduction stands, but HB-969 requires the state to provide those donors a rebate in the full amount of their donation! Not a tax credit or anything like that. A rebate.

The bill requires the Department of Revenue to cut checks to those donors in the amount equal to that which they donated to the TSO or TSOs. There appears to be no limit on the number of TSOs to which an individual or company can contribute; nor is there any cap on the amount of money the State of Louisiana will have to match.

The bill allows contributors to TSOs to double their money in one fell swoop, courtesy of Louisiana taxpayers. First, since they are contributing to a 501(c)(3), TSO donors get to deduct the full amount of their donation from their federal tax return. Then, the Louisiana Department of Revenue will cut them a check for the full amount they donated to the TSO as a token of the state’s appreciation.

If there’s a sweeter deal than that to be found anywhere, it’s in some genetically modified sugar product.

The bill roared through the House in the early days of the current session in the wake of the Jindal voucher blitzkrieg.

Take Off Your Cap!

By the time it reached the Senate, a recognition of the potential impact of the bill raised eyebrows in that chamber. Senator Barrow Peacock of Bossier City introduced an amendment there that would have imposed a $300 million capped to total state obligation on the rebates in any fiscal year. That amendment passed the Senate by a single vote.

Peacock’s amendment forced the bill to go back to the House for approval. The Senate cap was rejected and the bill headed to a conference committee. The bill that emerged from the conference committee no longer had a cap.

On Tuesday, April 24, the Senate voted 32-7 to approve HB-969 without the cap on rebates. The House voted 65-36 (with four absent) to approve the bill on the same day. It now awaits Governor Jindal’s signature to become law.

Madness!

The lunacy of opening what amounts to an unlimited draw on state finances to support private education (and feather the nests of the wealthy) was driven home by another event on the same day the bill won approval in both houses.

The Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) is charged with monitoring state revenue and expenditures to ensure that the constitutional mandate that state budgets finish each fiscal year in balance is observed. On the 24th, the REC concluded that state revenues are not meeting projections in the current fiscal year and it appears that there will be a new hole in the state budget in excess of $200 million.

So, on the day that this new budget shortfall is announced, large majorities in both houses of the Legislature voted to create an unlimited draw on state revenue in the form of HB-969. Representative Katrina Jackson of Monroe, who did not vote on final passage of HB-969, laid out the problem the bill (soon to be law) presents with out a cap. There is no wiggle room in the language of the bill. In the event of future mid-year budget shortfalls, the state will have to cut education and health care in order to meet its obligations to those contributing to TSOs. (See video below for more.)

Follow the LLCs

Anyone with a working knowledge of Louisiana campaign finance recognizes the immense danger HB-969 poses to the state’s finances. Consider the role of Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) in Louisiana political campaigns. As is seen in every state election cycle, LLCs offer wealthy individuals multiple opportunities to contribute the maximum allowable contribution to candidates. An individual with, say, 20 LLCs could make 20 $5,000 contributions to a candidate for statewide office. That’s $100,000 from one person, all done within full compliance with Louisiana campaign finance law (you know, ‘The Gold Standard’).

Looking at the provisions of HB-969, there is nothing in the bill to prevent a person controlling multiple LLCs from making multiple contributions to TSOs. The ‘double your money’ incentive at the heart of the rebate plan will surely catch the eye of CPAs and financial advisors across the state (thankfully, the rebates are restricted to those who file a Louisiana income tax return).

Where will the money for the rebates come from? From the General Fund of the State of Louisiana. That means the rebates will compete with funding for essential government services, particularly in times of revenue shortfalls like we’ve had in just about every year of the Jindal tenure. Hospital funding will be cut, clinics closed, teachers let go, and higher education cut in order to meet the state’s obligation to these high rollers — er, uh, donors.

At the end of the day, HB-969 is not about education. It is about enabling raids on public resources by the wealthiest individuals in the state that will deprive the state’s people and its institutions of the funds needed to provide essential services.

All of this is being done in the broad light of day under the supervision and direction of an administration that has repeatedly proven itself incapable of managing the state’s finances.

If there has ever been a more cynical and/or reckless piece of legislation enacted here, I don’t think we’d be celebrating our bicentennial this year.

Budget Reality Catches Up On Jindal

How charming? It looks as though Governor Jindal’s economic miracle in Louisiana isn’t such a miracle after all. Not that he’d admit it:

The Revenue Estimating Conference — which decides how much money the state can spend — revised the state’s financial forecast Tuesday night after listening to economists’ projections.The state operating budget that funds schools and other public services is based on those projections. When they fall short, extra money has to be found or spending has to be cut.“The problem isn’t just too high of a forecast. The problem is the economy,” said Greg Albrecht, chief economist for the Legislative Fiscal Office.

Albrecht said the underlying economy is weaker than it is being reported to be. It’s an assessment to which Gov. Bobby Jindal disagrees.

Mind you, this is after the REC reported that revenues were a full $304m less than anticipated, putting more strain on an already beleaguered State operating budget. But after the facts were presented, Jindal refused to address his role in causing the disaster:

Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater, the governor’s top budget aide, said state agencies already are aware of the financial problems.“Obviously, we’re going to have to make reductions,” Rainwater said.

The governor tried to strike a positive note during a news conference after the meeting concluded. Jindal said Louisiana’s economy is performing comparatively well. “Obviously, we’re going to work with the Legislature to make sure we have a balanced budget,” the governor said.

Jindal’s positive spin on the state’s economy conflicted with the conversation at the Revenue Estimating Conference meeting.

Well, “OBVIOUSLY” you are  required to balance the budget, but isn’t it also obvious that most of this issue is the result of Jindal’s addiction to one-time money and privatization schemes in his budgeting strategy?

Obviously.

But Jindal wouldn’t have to stray too far from the GOP alternative reality to get advice. None other than the Sinator “Diapers” David Vitter needled Jindal on this front earlier this month:

In an email to supporters, Vitter said the state’s continued use of one-time dollars for ongoing expenses only serves to “kick the can down the road from making the tough, but necessary, budget decisions for our state” because the state isn’t certain to continue to have the money.

“That practice is too akin to Washington’s way of business, and Louisianians rightly acknowledge Washington doesn’t know the first thing about fiscal stewardship,” Vitter wrote.The senator urged “conservative reformers” to restrict the use of such budget maneuvers that shuffle one-time dollars to continuing expenses.”It will certainly make budget decisions tougher, but I believe it will also make our fiscal house healthier in the long run,” Vitter said

The Louisiana Family Forum Financials: More Questions Than Answers

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about the financial statements, specifically the “990″ forms, submitted to the IRS by the Louisiana Family Forum (the LFF), an organization that is roundly considered the most powerful lobbying group in the State of Louisiana. These forms paint an intriguing, albeit incomplete, picture of the operations of an organization responsible for a litany of controversial laws. Among other things, the LFF was the principal force behind a statewide ballot initiative against gay marriage. The organization has vociferously opposed a bill that would have better protected public school children against bullying. And in 2008, along with the assistance of the Discovery Institute and others, the LFF helped to author and then pass the Louisiana Science Education Act, which implicitly endorses and facilitates the teaching of religious beliefs in the science classroom. The leader of the LFF, Gene Mills, is a fixture at the State Capitol, and arguably, Mills is the single most influential unelected leader in Louisiana politics. And perhaps most interestingly, Gene Mills and the Louisiana Family Forum operate, entirely, as a non-profit and rely, almost entirely, on tax-deductible donations to fund its efforts and its payroll.

Of course, in and of itself, there is absolutely nothing illegal or improper when a group of like-minded advocates form an organization to advance their policy goals in an open, democratic forum. But certainly, the laws protecting and providing for the establishment of non-profit organizations were not intended to subvert the democratic process or to allow our most powerful lobbyists the ability to finance their careers and advance their agendas as if they are protected charities, as if they are somehow exempt from the laws that govern private economic activity and regulate lobbying. As the old adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

The Louisiana Family Forum officially considers itself to be an educational organization, but for years, the LFF’s backers, legislators, and the media have properly identified it as a lobbying group. And again, not just any lobbying group, but the most powerful one in Louisiana. When the legislature is not in session, the LFF is, for all intents and purposes, dormant. Indeed, the organization’s raison d’etre has nothing to do with educating the general public; it’s about “educating” our lawmakers, which is the definition of lobbying.

To be fair, Gene Mills is a registered lobbyist, but, incredibly, for the last several years, during which time numerous people affiliated with and even employed by the LFF have testified to the legislature on its behalf, Mills has remained its one and only registered lobbyist. Anyone who follows Louisiana state government knows that, while Mr. Mills may be powerful, the LFF is not and has never been a one-man show. Yesterday, during the State Senate Education Committee hearing on the repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act, Southern University Law professor Michelle Ghetti, opposing the repeal, testified that she helped to craft and author the original legislation. Now, I could be wrong, but I doubt that Ms. Ghetti did this work pro bono. I doubt she helped write the Louisiana Family Forum’s signature law, the LSEA, as a favor. But during her testimony, she was never asked the most obvious questions: If you wrote this bill, who paid you, how much did they pay you, and was it ever disclosed? Was it Senator Nevers? The Discovery Institute? The Louisiana Family Forum? Or did you provide your services gratuitously or for free? The same questions can and should be asked of others, like former Judge Darrell White, who once appeared on the LFF’s payroll and then suddenly vanquished, even though he continued to publicly champion its efforts.

I mention this all for a reason: The Louisiana Family Forum continues to dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to the Louisiana Family Forum Action (the LFFA), its sister organization which is prohibited from receiving tax-deductible donations but is allowed a more expansive ability to lobby and influence the legislature. And today, according to its disclosures, in addition to paying Mr. Mills for his lobbying work and one other full-time employee, Dale Hoffpauir, the LFF doles out over $120,000 a year in “other” expenses related to employment, presumably consulting contracts which are not subjected to disclosure. Meanwhile, the LFFA is the beneficiary of tax-deductible donations via the LFF, which it could otherwise never receive. Mr. Mills, presumably, makes money as a lobbyist for the Louisiana Family Forum (considering he is its only registered lobbyist and it disclosed over $42,000 in lobbying expenses in its last report), and he receives a full-time salary from the Louisiana Family Forum Action, nearly $90,000 a year.

It’s not an insignificant amount of money. The LFF is apparently spending six figures every single year on consulting services that are not disclosed. This begs the question: Who is getting paid? And while the nuances in the tax code between 501c3s (tax-deductible non-profits) and 501c4s (advocacy arms) may seem impossibly labyrinthine, it’s actually quite simple: Under the current tax regime, a 501c3 that effectively operates as a lobbying group may attempt to shield itself from exposure by setting up a 501c4, as long as the 501c4 raises its own funding. The problem for the Louisiana Family Forum, insofar as I see it, is that it’s engaging in an obvious shell game, operating its 501c4, almost entirely, with the tax-deductible donations it receives from its 501c3. You can do that, no doubt, but there is no obvious advantage: Every penny that a 501c4 receives from a 501c3 is subjected to laws that govern 501c3 expenditures. Or, at least, it’s supposed to be.

I need to be careful here: I am not accusing Mr. Mills or the Louisiana Family Forum of doing anything illegal. I’m merely suggesting that they’re being shady, that, to me, it appears as if the organization has, for years, acted like it has something to hide– whether it’s shielding the full disclosure of hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting services or ineptly exploiting the distinctions between 501c3s and 501c4s. But more importantly, I strongly believe that, as a matter of public policy, we should not provide a tax advantage to a small, politically-connected cabal of powerful lobbyists who pretend as if their alleged religious convictions entitle them to special treatment under the law.

Gene Mills may call himself a reverend, but he earns his living as a lobbyist.

LFF’s annual report: 2010-721416555-07ba1665-9

LFFA’s annual report: 2010-201380165-07c0636f-9O

Jindal Again Mocked After Speech To Out-Of-State Republicans

We all remember the awful beating Jindal took after his national debut. During his response to President Obama in 2009, Jindal was mercilessly mocked both on the content of the speech, and his bizarre presentation.

Unfortunately for Bobby, his national aspirations were slapped back again last night:

La. Gov. Jindal finds New York crowd big, but not easy

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, sometimes mentioned as a candidate for vice president, didn’t exactly wow the 700 or so gathered for the annual New York Republican dinner at the midtown Sheraton.

His keynote speech started out well enough, many Republicans said, but droned on far too long. He told a stale joke (My father walked to school. Uphill. Both ways.) then went deep into the weeds of the Bayou State’s financials — focusing at one point on “UAL” debt.

He received mild, occasional applause but, all the time, the volume of conversation at the 100 or so tables rose noticeably as attention waned.   

And, after a dinner break and Jindal’s departure, the next two speakers made pointed references. “I’m going to speak a little shorter than the prior speaker,” Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said — generating applause.

“My father gave me some great advice, too,” Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua), said referring to a part of Jindal’s speech. “Be brief and be gone.”

Jindal’s team placed copies of his book, “Leadership and Crisis,” on the chairs throughout the Sheraton ballroom. Afterward, some New York Republicans joked about trying to give their copy away.

He might be Babe Ruth in Louisiana’s minor league, but he can’t hit a lick in the majors.

UPDATE: Mayor Mitch Does The Deed And Endorses Former Senator Cynthia Willard-Lewis

As reported here last week, Mayor Mitch Landrieu went ahead yesterday and endorsed a very questionable character in Former State Senator Cynthia Willard-Lewis. Mayor Landrieu cited Cynthia Willard-Lewis’ race and her willingness to work with him as reasons for his decision:

“I’m a politician. And so I’m not going to pretend that I don’t think about political things,” he said. “I always do. And there are important strategic factors that you always consider. But it really does always come back to, at this point in time, given this choice, what is the best choice for all of the people of the city of New Orleans.”

“I need someone who’s going to be a partner with me to represent all of the people of the city of New Orleans,” Landrieu said to a cheering crowd of more than 100 gathered at the New Orleans Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue.As a white mayor of a city that is 60 percent black, Landrieu has to walk a fine line in matters of race.

Interesting to see what happens here, and if Landrieu really is going to fall prey to that old adage, “if you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.”

Preening Jindal Jumps On Romney Bandwagon

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has endorsed Mitt Romney on the heels of Rick Santorum’s announcement he is”suspending” campaign for president.

Jindal said Republicans should focus their energy on the fall campaign, which he described as giving American a choice “between Obama’s lurch toward European-style big government and the Republican alternative of a thriving private sector with a smaller government.”

Earlier in the campaign, Jindal had supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the GOP nomination. Perry later dropped out of the race.

One thing is sure. Romney is doomed. But not because of the reasons you think.

You see, Bobby Jindal’s endorsement is like the kiss of death. Let’s review some select Jindal-endorsed candidates:

  • Jimmy Faircloth, Candidate for State Supreme Court – (LOST in 2009)
  • Lee Domingue, Candidate for State Senate Special Election- (LOST 2009)
  • Brent Callais, Candidate for State Senate Special Election – (LOST 2009)
  • Jane Smith, Candidate for State Senate – (LOST 2011)
  • Rick Perry, Candidate for… uh, uh, oops… President – (Dropped out ignominiously in 2011)

Of course, the quick Romney endorsement isn’t about winning the presidency or consolidating Republicans behind old Mitt. No, this is all about Jindal’s obscene arrogance about his own political trajectory. Jindal is often mentioned by wingnuts as Vice-Presidential timber. And with a politician as egocentric as Jindal, it certainly goes to his head.

His preening extends throughout his administration. He has set out to remake the State with the most hottest button wingnut policy agenda he can muster.

While Jindal knows how to multi-task, some of his first-term fights were clearly driven by national politics. Most glaring was his all-out effort to prevent a tiny tobacco tax from being renewed, despite a dearth of identifiable opposition, even from most fiscal conservatives. The only sensible rationale was that Jindal wanted to keep his anti-tax record pristine, a virtual requirement in national GOP politics these days.The biggest news to break about Jindal’s second term agenda — that he plans to push for a significant expansion of private school vouchers — suggests that Jindal is at it again.

Like staunch opposition to taxes, vouchers too are near and dear to national movement conservatives’ hearts.

Louisiana is just Jindal’s petri dish. And before the experiment is over and the results are known, he’ll be off chasing another national name, begging to be a cabinet secretary of a part of a losing GOP ticket.

Why Conservatives Can’t Govern

The overwhelming tide of legislation in this first session of the new order of things in Louisiana has focused on exclusively partisan, ideological policy choices. Pragmatism is practically dead. And why? Because Conservative Republicans don’t know how to govern in democratically elected government. That authoritarian streak has become so pervasive that rigorous, objective study of policy outcomes is no longer necessary. Just do as you feel. All of this explained in one paragraph:

State government historically has focused on pragmatic solutions, he said.

“The working majority now is conservative Republicans,” Cross said. “The focus is now on their ideology.”

Even while Louisiana legislators were hustling through a massive education overhaul, despite hundreds of schoolteachers chanting their opposition on the State Capitol steps, they were also advancing other measures — over loud objections.

One bill that eventually could allow firearms to be carried just about anywhere was opposed by prosecutors, police and higher education officials, but passed out of committee easily. Another bill aimed at removing “special protections” against discrimination government agencies have given gay people.

We’re seeing what was rhetoric for national politics really make inroads at the state level and there hasn’t been much pushback,” Cross said. “At least for the near future, through the end of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s terms, that is the direction this state is headed.”

And those are your political horizons, folks.

Rep. Schroder files “License to Bully” Bill

State Representative Schroder has once again followed his masters at Louisiana Family Forum Hate Inc. and filed the Louisiana version of the “License to Bully” (Or the Bully the Gay Away) bill that we have seen in other states such as Tennessee and Michigan this year – BOTH of those states killed their versions of this bill.

In a misguided attempt at trying to seem reasonable by filing their own Anti-Bullying legislation, LFF Hate Inc. has filed their so called “Clean Bill” by stripping out the characteristics that all current research shows is necessary in order to have a policy that actually prevents bullying that leads to suicide. Students from schools with an enumerated policy are 50% more likely to feel safe at school (54% vs. 36%). Students without such a policy are three times more likely to skip a class because they feel uncomfortable or unsafe (16% vs. 5%).

Specifically excluding the characteristics that are shown to be needed and then by adding that nothing being done do a child can be considered bullying IF it is considered “religious, philosophical or political views, provided that such expression does not cause an actual, material disruption to the work of any public school” clearly shows the intent of the author that it is perfectly permissible to at least TRY to “Bully the Gay Away.”

This policy is WORSE because it declares OPEN SEASON on all children who have been labeled as “Gay.” It gives sanctuary codified into law to each child who cares to use it. We should not forget that recent data shows that 80% of youth harassed for being perceived as gay actually identify as heterosexual. These youth are 5 times MORE likely to attempt suicide.

HB 1101 By Rep Schroder should be voted down and Louisiana Family Forum should be called out to STOP playing POLITICS with Children’s lives.

Citizens who believe that ALL children should be protected and provided with a safe learning environment should be supporting HB 407 and SB 619.

Naming Names, Senate Edition

(Reposted and updated to reflect the Senate’s shameful vote.)

Bobby Jindal’s school vouchers bill passed the Louisiana State Senate easily - see the roll call vote to know how your legislator voted.

This bill is the opposite of progress - yet 6 Senate “Democrats” voted in favor. We don’t know what motivated them, but we can guess.

Politics. Money. Re-election. Selfishness. Fear. General spinelessness. Any other guesses?

Whatever it was, it wasn’t their conscience. No one with a good conscience can vote for a bill that robs money from the public education system in Louisiana – that gives taxpayer-funded handouts to the rich and makes inflated promises of hope to the poor. This vote is inexcusable.

Without further adieu, let’s see the roll call of Democrats who gave Bobby Jindal a sweeping victory (and dealt a major blow to our public schools) on his landmark education reform legislation.

BOBBY JINDAL DEMOCRATS

Troy Brown of Napoleonville

Elbert L. Guillory of Opelousas

David R. Heitmeier of New Orleans

Jean-Paul J. Morrell of New Orleans

Gary Smith of Norco

Greg Tarver of Shreveport

Landrieu Backs Scandal-Plagued Potential Successor In Council Race?

According to several sources inside city government, Mayor Mitch Landrieu is set to endorse former Councilwoman (and former State Senator) Cynthia Willard-Lewis in the city’s hotly contested at-large council race. Legislative sources indicate that the Mayor’s office has reached out to local officials to pressure them to endorse Willard-Lewis and also to join Landrieu in a press conference announcing the Mayor’s intentions sometime early next week. Those same sources suggest that many legislators have declined to participate or endorse due to Willard-Lewis’ possible association with an ultra-high-profile scandal erupting in the New Orleans area. As the Democrats only and last hope for statewide office, we can’t see this as a good thing for Mitch Landrieu. Mayor Landrieu is repeatedly mentioned as a 2015 gubernatorial candidate. From Al Hunt in Bloomberg just this week:

He’s likely to be re-elected in two years. A year later he’ll have to decide whether he stays or, as maybe the only Democrat who could win a statewide race, runs for governor.

With Mitch gone as early as 2015, is a Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis his hand-picked successor as the ground-breaking first African-American female Mayor of New Orleans?

Willard-Lewis is a longtime Democratic stalwart, with a large political family and a strong base of support with African-Americans throughout the city. She narrowly lost a race against fellow Democrat J.P. Morrell for the 3rd district Senate seat after her former district was redistricted away from New Orleans and into the river parishes.

According to our friends over at Slabbed, Cythnia Willard-Lewis may also be embroiled in a massive political corruption case emanating from River Birch Landfill in Jefferson Parish. The long and short of the story is that, after Hurricane Katrina, Fred Heebe, owner of River Birch, angled to shut down or divert all the trash and debris from hurricane-clean-up to his landfill, River Birch. This was, and apparently continues to be, big money business for Heebe.

As you’d expect in Louisiana, the big dollar nature of this ploy meant that Heebe played a strong political hand, and he played it hard. His finger-prints have been found all over the Jefferson Parish corruption that up-ended the entire political establishment and helped land Parish President Broussard under Federal indictment. Heebe’s own wife is former Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Jennifer Sneed. Heebe also seemed to pay off half of the politicians in and around New Orleans to help fill up his dump.

Heebe’s tentacles, however, have yet to been placed on any currently relevant (or serving) politicians. Most of his friends have been outed, targeted, or retired. However, a tipster points out some strong clues that might point to Cynthia Willard-Lewis’ possible involvement in the River Birch scandal. First, slabbed reviews a River Birch-related lawsuit by one of Heebe’s competitors:

Only recently revealed, it appears that the plaintiffs’ counsel in the related judicial challenges brought by “concerned citizens” of New Orleans East seeking to challenge “the basis under which Waste Management sough to operate its landfill in an area of the City of New Orleans that is not zoned for such use,” Mr. Kyle Schonekas and Ms. Joelle Evans, were both secretly on retainer by the River Birch Defendants as undisclosed “lobbyists.”

Upon information and belief, the River Birch Defendants and their secret lobbyists, Schonekas and Evans, also enlisted the services of Walter Willard to assist with their litigation against the Chef Menteur landfill and challenging Mayor Nagin’s emergency authorization. Mr. Willard was retained, at least in part, to curry favor and political influence. In particular, Mr. Willard is the brother of Cynthia Willard-Lewis, then the New Orleans Councilperson for District E where the Chef Menteur landfill was located. At one point, Ms. Willard-Lewis was one of the strongest proponents and supporters of the Chef Menteur landfill because she deemed it critical to expediting the clean-up and recovery of her district in New Orleans East… Upon the retention of her brother to allegedly “assist” in the River Birch sponsored litigation against the landfill, Ms. Willard-Lewis suddenly reversed course and became a vocal opponent to the continued operation of the Chef Menteur landfill. Ms. Willard-Lewis attributes her changed position to the public outcry over health and safety concerns arising from the location of the landfill.

Ok, so at least that sounds fairly fishy. But a tipster points to the recent resignation of a Federal Prosecutor for online comments may also be instructive:

As River Birch landfill owner Fred Heebe saw a $160 million contract with Jefferson Parish slip from his grasp in December amid lawsuits and whispers of a back-room deal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone offered him some free, unsolicited advice. “If Heebe had one firing synapse, he would go speak to Letten’s posse and purge himself of this sordid episode and let them go after the council and public officials,” he wrote.

Perhaps it is no secret that Federal prosecutors are circling “council” and public officials, but it’s an awful specific mention and might point to several potential targets.

The American Zombie also mentions Cynthia Willard-Lewis in his “Sneaky-Snake” countdown:

Zombie has spent years researching the intricate web of corruption in and around New Orleans, and clearly has a very good record. 

Insiders speculate that if Cynthia Willard-Lewis were to win the Council At-Large race, she would have the inside track on a candidacy for Mayor of New Orleans, potentially in 2015 when Mayor Landrieu decides to run for Governor. Ms. Willard-Lewis would be a popular, city-wide African-American public official, similarly positioned to former Councilman At-Large (and convicted Federal felon) Oliver Thomas in 2007, and she could edge out all others over the next 2-3 years with smart moves on the council.

The question at hand, of course, is to what degree is Former Senator and Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis related to the ongoing Federal River Birch investigation. Maybe we don’t know, and Mayor Landrieu does. But it becomes a little hard to understand why Landrieu would involve himself in a race that poses serious credibility challenges for any future statewide races. New Orleans corruption allegations or associations have sunk statewide campaign efforts of politicians like Congressman Bill Jefferson and others. With Landrieu’s high-marks continuing with his city, is this a risk he can just afford to take? Can Democrats risk losing their one rising star over a meaningless council race in New Orleans?

It seems we are about to find out.

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