Author Archives: Lamar White, Jr
Why I Will Vote For Representative John Bel Edwards (After He Clarified His Position On The War On Drugs)
Yesterday, I published an essay titled, “Why I Can’t Vote For John Bel Edwards (Unless He Changes His Position On The War On Drugs).” Representative Edwards, for those of you who may not know, is a two-term Democratic member of the Louisiana House of Representatives and, thus far, the only Democratic candidate in next year’s gubernatorial elections.
As I mentioned yesterday, I was troubled by a pre-filed piece of legislation that was co-authored by Representative Edwards, House Bill 103 (or HB 103). HB 103, which is also co-authored by Republican Representative Franklin Foil, as I explained in my previous post, purports to dramatically increase the mandatory minimum sentences in cases involving intent to distribute Schedule One opiates, particularly heroin, and opium derivatives, quadrupling the current minimums and mandating, instead, 20 year sentences, though it seems to reserve a probationary status after five years.
I want to make this abundantly clear: I am vehemently opposed to the continuation of one of the most expensive and most destructive wars in American history, the War on Drugs. Our laws are antiquated and broken, and because of our zeal in “fighting” this war- a war that targets, almost entirely, American citizens engaging in “consensual crimes,” we continue to exacerbate and perpetuate enforcement against primarily poor, minority Americans who simply do not have the prerequisite financial resources, the support network, or the education to seek specialized treatment. Instead, in our new age of privatized prisons, inmates are economic commodities: the more, the merrier.
Heroin is a particularly insidious and dangerous drug, and perhaps ironically, its danger is often a result of a complete lack of oversight, controls, and regulations. In other words, its illegality makes it exponentially more dangerous.
Opium, it’s worth noting, was the first drug to be banned as “illegal” in the United States, more than a century ago, primarily as a reaction against Chinese immigrants and their opium dens in California. And here we are, a century later, still attempting to eliminate a drug that will not relent. Something is not working.
Since the late 1970s and beginning, in full, during the 1980s, legislatures throughout the country began passing mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders. The worry, as I appreciate it, was the discretionary sentencing by judges didn’t send a strong enough message. Reformers wanted coherence and simplicity.
As we have learned during the last thirty plus years, these mandatory minimum sentences have done almost nothing to curb or prevent drug use or drug dealing. To be sure, however, there is data suggesting that draconian laws against one particular type of drug only resort in wide-scale substitution. When, in the early 1990s, we focused on prosecuting crack cocaine, the price of crack increased and the price of heroin dropped. Suddenly, heroin was, again, the drug du jour. Recently, as the price and penalties of marijuana have increased, many users began smoking chemical combinations, like K2, and even bath salts, over-the-counter mixtures that were far more harmful and entirely more deadly (no one has ever overdosed from marijuana).
I think it is critical that we finally begin to re-examine our pedagogical and ontological understanding of drug use, drug possession, and drug distribution: How do we educate society on the phenomena of drug dependency? What really motivates this almost basic and almost universal proclivity that we share toward addiction? How can we best address the spectrum of addiction, everything from coffee and cigarettes to alcohol and cocaine and heroin? What role does access to health care play in this discussion? Are people without health care more likely to become addicted to illegal, dangerous drugs? Are people with health care more likely to become dependent on dangerous pharmaceuticals? Qualitatively, what is the difference, if any, between a poor person on speed and a wealthier person on Adderral? Or a poor person on heroin and a wealthier person on valium or Oxycontin?
Yesterday, I spoke with Representative Edwards, and though we disagree with one another on the merits of his proposed legislation, I found him to be a profoundly genuine and earnestly receptive guy, a rarity in politics. He explained to me his concerns: Recently, the local Louisiana media has focused on a rash of heroin overdoses in Louisiana. (No, this has nothing to do with the death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman; they pre-dated his high-profile death by months). The stories are both heartbreaking and eye-opening.
I cannot fault Representative Edwards for seeing this problem and feeling compelled to address it. As he pointed out to me, the vast and overwhelming majority of heroin dealers are not actually heroin addicts; for them, this is a business. And they are peddling toxic, highly-addictive illegal drugs and selling them indiscriminately.
I think we should fundamentally rethink the regime we have established with regard to illegal drugs and that there is a simple and obvious way to neuter these drug dealers without needing to pass ever-increasing Draconian laws about sentencing, laws that seem to only benefit the balance sheets of private prisons. I also expressed to Representative Edwards my concerns about the statutory construction of the term “possession with intent to distribute,” because I believe that it has less to do with “intent,” as we generally understand the word, and more to do with quantity. Because of this, we regularly charge and sentence people who struggle with drug addiction as if they are drug dealers, which seems antithetical to the widely-held belief that prison for addicts should be focused on rehabilitation, while prison for dealers should perhaps be more concerned with retributive justice. Representative Edwards assured me he would look into the possibility of strengthening the statutory definition of “possession with the intent to distribute,” and I appreciated his candor and his consideration; this would be huge. If a conviction on “intent to distribute” requires more than a measurement of quantity and also requires a showing of actual “intent” or mens rea, it would go a long way in ensuring that our laws are more fairly and equally applied.
Finally, I think it’s worth noting, to his credit, that Representative Edwards supports changing existing law in order to ensure that second and third offense possession of marijuana are treated as misdemeanors, not as felonies. This actually makes him one of the most progressive elected officials on this issue in the entire State, and it’s not a minor issue.
Again, we may disagree on the efficacy of mandatory minimums for heroin dealers; I still would prefer a different schematic. But I don’t fault his ultimate intention and his commitment, as expressed to me, to ensure that any law like this would target opportunistic black-market drug dealers who earn their living selling deadly drugs that, for the most part, are grown and sold in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan (Representative Edwards didn’t add that last detail; I did. But it’s true. 80% of heroin comes from Afghanistan).
I spoke too soon about Representative Edwards. He is a politician who listens, who engages, and who truly seems to appreciate a robust conversation on policy, without any sense of pretension or arrogance. That’s a breath of fresh air.
He earned back my vote through the sheer force of his decency and respect.
SHOCKING: One Month Ago, Jindal’s Lawyer on School Vouchers Donated $1,000 to Judge Hearing Legal Challenge
According to a recent campaign finance disclosure published by the Louisiana Ethics Administration, on October 24, 2012, Jimmy Faircloth, the Alexandria-based attorney and the former executive counsel to Governor Bobby Jindal, donated $1,000 to Judge Tim Kelley.
Why is this significant? Quoting from The Times-Picayune (bold mine):
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent education overhaul had its first day in court Wednesday, with lawyers for and against the voucher program changes calling witnesses to the 19th Judicial Court in Baton Rouge. Even before the opening statements were made, presiding Judge Timothy Kelley said he was confident he could make a ruling on the overhaul’s constitutionality by the week’s end.
“I don’t anticipate the need for post-trial briefs. I anticipate that after you all make a presentation, I will be able to make a ruling on this,” he said briefly after court was called into session at 9:00 a.m.
You got that? Even before a single argument was made, Judge Kelley made it abundantly clear that, essentially, he’d already made up his mind.
Guess who represents the Jindal administration?
Jindal administration lawyer Jimmy Faircloth made the second opening statement, in which he said “the subject and wisdom of the policy is not before this court.”
On the constitutionality question, Faircloth said “we didn’t conjure anything with regard to procedure…This process was handled perfectly consistent within legislative history,” Faircloth added.
And there’s this:
Faircloth made the donation to Judge Kelley through his law firm, Faircloth Law Group LLC, and although his donation doesn’t likely violate any campaign finance or ethics laws, at the very least, it should raise some serious questions, particularly considering that Faircloth’s check was cashed only a month ago.
You can download the entire report here. Faircloth’s donation is listed on page ten.
A few months ago, Judge Kelley blocked an injunction against the voucher program, a decision that seems to have been based entirely on the testimony by Superintendent John White and Jimmy Faircloth, both of whom disingenuously argued that an injunction would have resulted in $3.4 billion in deficit spending. From Casey Michels at Talking Points Memo (bold mine):
A Louisiana judge won’t stop the state’s controversial school voucher systemfrom going into effect next month. District Judge Tim Kelley ruled that he did not have jurisdiction to provide the injunction sought by the voucher program’s opponents, citing a Louisiana law prohibiting injunctions that state officials claim will create a deficit.
Superintendent John White and Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater made just such a claim, saying that enacting an injunction on the voucher program, for which 8,000 students have already applied, would lead to a $3.4 billion hole in the state’s education budget.
The figure stems from the $3.4 billion Louisiana currently spends on state aid for school operations via the Minimum Foundation Program. Jimmy Faircloth, who represented the state during Tuesday’s hearing, said it was “unavoidable and factually inescapable” that the proposed injunction would lead to the ten-figure deficit. “It’s just indisputable,” he said, according to Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate.
It is also worth noting: Judge Kelley is a benefactor of the Dunham School, a school that currently participates in the school voucher program. According to some reports, the school’s softball field was recently renamed in honor of the Kelly Family for their sustained financial contributions over the years.
And perhaps most notably, Judge Kelley is married to Angele Davis-Kelley, Governor Bobby Jindal’s former Commissioner of Administration, who currently serves as the CEO of the Davis Kelley Group, a consultancy that, among other things, claims to specialize in government affairs. The Davis Kelley Group appears to be housed in the middle of Baton Rouge:
Judge Kelley, just like Jimmy Faircloth once did, recently and unsuccessfully campaigned for Louisiana Supreme Court, even bringing out former Governor Mike Foster as a campaign surrogate. This ad was cut only a month ago:
Over the past 15 years, I have served as your District Court Judge. In this job, I have presided over nearly 600 criminal and civil trials – jury trials and bench trials. And I have presided in hundreds of appeals from agency rulings. As District Judge, I have heard and presided over some of the most complicated tax matters, medical malpractice cases, murder trials, drug cases, product liability cases, rape trials, successions, burglaries, property disputes, armed robberies and hundreds of others. I have sentenced people to serve life terms in prison. And yes, I have had to sentence one to death by lethal injection.All of this experience is important because on the Supreme Court, our Justices must and do hear and decide on all of these kinds of issues. These are difficult times, not only in Louisiana but across America. I firmly believe our courts are in
place not to make new laws, but to fairly and consistently apply those that are on the books. That is what I do each and every day in District Court. It is precisely what I will do if elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court.Justice cannot or should not be manipulated by powerful political or other interests. In all of our courts, but particularly in the Supreme Court, cases and decisions must be made based on one thing and one thing alone: the law. I know the law, as do many other judges and attorneys. And I also know how to apply it fairly in cases that affect the very lives and futures of people – real, everyday people.I am in this race for the Louisiana Supreme Court, not because I am the best politically connected candidate, but because I believe that I am the best qualified. I will work hard over the next two months to prove that to the voters and families of our District 5. On the Louisiana Supreme Court, the last stop for most cases in Louisiana, qualifications and hard work do matter.
Given all of this, which may not prove any impropriety but still, unquestionably, creates the appearance of impropriety, the impression, even if misguided, of a quid-pro-quo patronage system between Judge Kelley and current and former members of the Jindal administration, one of whom is his wife and the other is his wife’s former colleague, Jindal’s current attorney on voucher challenges and one of the judge’s top campaign contributors, it is astonishingly strident and somewhat alarming that neither Jindal nor the judge himself ever acknowledged these multiple conflicts and submitted a recusal.
Remember the “Gold Standard” of ethics that Governor Jindal championed?
Yeah, neither does he.
Six months ago, when Governor Bobby Jindal began rolling out his education reform initiative, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial praising Jindal’s ambitious agenda, comparing it, earnestly, with then-Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s vision of an American colony on the moon. The paper called Jindal’s proposals on education reform his “moon shot,” providing me with the perfect opportunity to write a post titled “Bobby Jindal Is Mooning Louisiana.” “Bobby Jindal Is Mooning Louisiana” quickly became the most popular post I’ve ever written, and, to me, it was a clear sign that Governor Jindal’s agenda, while praised by his friends on the right and in the conservative media, was likely to become hugely controversial.
At the time, I was concerned that Governor Jindal’s critics were readily playing right into his hands. While Jindal and his hand-selected Superintendent of Education, John White, were attempting to pass the nation’s largest-ever school voucher program, many of his critics were seemingly more concerned with the Governor’s plans for tenure reform, which allowed Jindal to easily deflect the substantive questions about privatization and focus, instead, on counterattacking teachers unions as more concerned with money than school children. It was, without question, an unfair and offensive depiction, and I have to believe that many of his critics, including the leaders of those teachers unions who were suddenly being defined by the Governor and members of his administration as uncaring and self-interested, were caught off-guard by the Governor questioning their integrity. After all, when Bobby Jindal was on the campaign trail, he paid lip-service to the need to increase teacher salaries, which remain among the lowest in the nation.
But as I wrote back in February and as I continue to believe today, with all due respect to our fine teachers, the real threat that Governor Bobby Jindal’s plan poses to public education has very little to do with his efforts to change the teacher-pay matrix and the ways in which we award tenure; the real threat is that Jindal intends on using taxpayer dollars to create a parallel, unaccountable, privately-owned, profit-motivated system of religious schools. And by divesting tens of millions from the public school system and investing these public dollars into religious schools, Governor Jindal’s program will guarantee the firing of hundreds, if not thousands, of Louisiana teachers. Already, Lincoln Parish has announced the layoffs of thirty public school teachers as a direct result of the voucher program.
Importantly, these religious schools are not constrained by the teacher qualification requirements imposed on public schools; that is, teachers in private schools, who are typically paid less than their public school counterparts, aren’t required to be certified or even knowledgeable in their subject matter. Moreover, these religious schools do not have to adhere to the same core curriculum that Louisiana requires for its public schools.
In ostensibly attempting to establish a program that allegedly would provide parents with the opportunity to use public dollars to remove their child from a struggling or “failing” public school, Governor Bobby Jindal and Superintendent John White have actually facilitated the creation of a separate and unequal system of religious schools, schools that are not held to any real accountability, schools that are not required to employ certified teachers, schools that do not have to adhere to the same curriculum standards. And in so doing, Governor Jindal and Superintendent White are ensuring a substantial disinvestment from the public schools most in need and the elimination of hundreds of jobs. Under this scheme, the failure of public schools becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
But that is only one part of the story. Policy and ideological objections to school vouchers aren’t new, and they’ve been debated and litigated all over the country, with mixed results. There’s something strikingly unique about Bobby Jindal’s plan. When it was up for debate in the Louisiana legislature, Governor Jindal and his allies ensured that his critics were all but shut out of the debate; they relied on procedural maneuvers to pass the bulk of his plan in the middle of the night. And once passed and signed into law, Governor Jindal and Superintendent White began implementing this plan in a way that could only be described as embarrassingly incompetent.
They didn’t think it was necessary to enforce standards for the schools they qualified for funding. The process became a free-for-all, with fly-by-night schools applying and then being qualified for millions in taxpayer subsidization, without ever being subjected to any scrutiny whatsoever.
When Superintendent White published the list of the schools that had qualified for voucher funding, the story suddenly began to take shape. My friends at The Daily Kingfish were actually the very first to report on the fact that the overwhelming majority of voucher funding was awarded to schools created by or associated with a church, 92% in total. It took the mainstream media over a month to catch up.
And then, a funny thing happened: We started really investigating the schools on the list. The Monroe News-Star broke the story of the New Living Word School, which received more voucher spots than any other school in the state and which relies on DVDs instead of teachers and is housed in a church gymnasium. John White approved increasing New Living Word’s enrollment by 258%, without ever even stepping foot in its campus. A few days ago, we learned that New Living Word, in order to accommodate the massive influx of new students, will be dividing its chapel into four classrooms.
After the story made national headlines, leaked e-mails revealed that Superintendent White had proposed to his colleagues that they create a news story about the process by which schools qualified for vouchers in order to “muddy up the narrative.” In almost any other state, the explicit acknowledgment by the head of a state agency to manufacture a false story to the public would be grounds for termination, but John White kept his job. And, instead of apologizing, he feigned outrage that his private e-mails had been released to the media.
About a week after the New Living Word story broke, The Town Talk reported that another school that Superintendent White had qualified for $400,000 in vouchers was led, in part, by a woman who previously pled guilty to extorting thousands of dollars from the school. That school, thankfully, has subsequently been disqualified.
The slow drip of the news about the merits of these voucher schools piqued my interest, and it also piqued the interest of my friend Zack Kopplin, the Baton Rouge native who is currently a sophomore at my alma mater (and his parents’s alma mater), Rice University. We swapped stories, including this one, which was published on AlterNet on June 18th. According to AlterNet, some of the schools that had qualified for vouchers in Louisiana were using textbooks that advanced, among other things, the idea that the Loch Ness monster was alive and well and that, therefore, its existence disproved the theory of evolution.
Zack, for those of you who don’t know, had previously made national and even international news, as a high school student, for challenging the Louisiana Science Education Act, a pernicious piece of legislation, endorsed by Governor Jindal, that implicitly allows the teaching of new earth creationism in the science classroom. When Zack read about the textbooks that some of these voucher schools were using, he immediately recognized the implications. I sent him a link to John White’s “master list” of approved voucher schools, a list that, only a few days ago, was taken offline, and he spent the next week parsing the list, identifying schools that raised suspicion, and then exhaustively researching each and every one of those schools.
The more he uncovered, the more obvious it became that he was sitting on a much bigger story than AlterNet had initially reported. And for me, it also raised some serious questions: I have no doubt that Zack is a preternaturally smart and savvy guy, but here’s a 19-year-old college sophomore on summer break conducting the due diligence on voucher schools that should have already been done, months beforehand, by the Louisiana Superintendent of Education and his staff. Zack found that at least twenty of the approved schools teach new earth creationism instead of science, but, truthfully, that was only the tip of the iceberg. Many, if not most, of these schools advance a virulently anti-scientific curriculum. And most disturbingly, if a student objects, many of them reserve the right to expel the student on religious grounds, meaning that these schools, literally, will be pocketing taxpayer funding from students against whom they will discriminate on the basis of religion. It’s a foregone conclusion: Under Jindal’s plan, we will be spending public dollars to help prop-up schools that discriminate against students because of their religion.
Religious discrimination is not the only issue. Schools may also discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation. And because voucher schools are not required to accommodate disabled students and students with special needs, many worry that the program will ultimately create a unconstitutional “separate” education system for the disabled.
After Zack published his findings (which were immediately republished here and on The Daily Kingfish), it took around a week for the mainstream media to pay attention, but once they did, they were relentless. And there are no signs of letting up.
Superintendent John White, however, would, understandably, prefer to change the subject as quickly as humanly possible. He doesn’t want to admit that he and his entire department completely and utterly failed to properly scrutinize the schools they qualified for massive taxpayer subsidization. While arguing that he simply wants to ensure that parents are armed with all of the information needed to provide them with the ability to make a “choice” on their child’s education, Superintendent John White has removed the list of schools that he qualified for vouchers from the Department of Education’s website, and currently, he is refusing to cooperate with the request for records pertaining to his selection process. He’s also been accused of subverting the state’s open meetings laws by improperly participating “walking quorums” with BESE board members. Again, in almost any other state in the country, this man would have already been fired, but this is Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana; he’s Bobby Jindal’s Superintendent, and this is Bobby Jindal’s “moon shot.”
A few days ago, after the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to grant an injunction against the voucher program, John White quickly declared moral and legal victory, when anyone with a shred of honesty and an ounce of integrity would readily recognize that the court’s refusal had nothing to do with the merits of vouchers and was based, entirely, on John White’s disingenuous affidavit that an injunction would create a $3.4 billion deficit. I wrote about this a couple of days ago, and yesterday, Mike Hasten of Gannett backed me up.
Yesterday, we also learned that Superintendent White is finally acknowledging the need to more thoroughly scrutinize the private schools he approved for voucher funding, telling Mr. Hasten, “Conditions have changed such that the nonpublic approval process now has greater importance.” Nothing about these schools has changed; the only conditions that changed, as far as I can tell, is that John White’s decisions have been repeatedly criticized by the state and national media.
In the last two weeks, not only has this story been the subject of headline articles in every major news publication in the State of Louisiana, it’s also been featured in The Washington Post, Esquire Magazine, The Huffington Post, “Hardball” with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, the Associated Press, and Reuters. In addition, the story was also picked up by prominent education policy scholar Diane Ravitch, Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley, LSU professor Bob Mann, and the website Above the Law, among others.
The coverage has been intense and interesting, and with only a couple of minor corrections, the national coverage has been, for the most part pitch-perfect.
As awesome as I think it is that Zack’s research on creationist schools and my research on the profiteering prophet (which inspired a brilliant and hilarious editorial by Clancy DuBos of The Gambit and another great report by Lafayette’s The Independent Weekly) have made statewide and national news, it also worries me. Again, if a couple of college students on summer break can easily learn more about the schools that qualified for public subsidization than the department that approved them for funding, then, clearly, our leaders and elected officials are not doing their jobs.
In Louisiana, when people attempt to divert attention or weasel their way out, we call it “crawfishing.” And apparently, Governor Jindal and Superintendent White, just like crawfish, prefer muddied waters.
SHOCKING: Bobby Jindal’s Vouchers Will Provide Over $700,000 Per Year to School Led By “Prophet, Apostle”
Meet Leonard Lucas, a former, one-term Louisiana State Representative and erstwhile candidate for New Orleans City Council. When Mr. Lucas sent out a press advisory announcing his candidacy for City Council, here’s how The Times-Picayune reported the news:
Lucas, the founding pastor of Light City Church and a one-term state representative, sent out a statement riddled with grammatical errors saying he will formally announce his candidacy today at 1 p.m. at the shuttered Schwegmann’s Shopping Center on Bullard Road.
Mr. Lucas is also the proud owner and registered agent of at least three dozen different companies, the overwhelming majority of which are non-profits (or, to borrow a term from my friend Dambala, “con-profits”) listed as “Not in Good Standing” by the Louisiana Secretary of State.
Dambala excavated the bones a few months ago. Suffice it to say, Leonard Lucas is a shady, almost comically ridiculous figure. He’s named as a registered agent for numerous non-profits, yet none of those companies disclosed their 990 returns.
And all of this apparently qualifies Mr. Lucas for nearly $700,000 a year in public voucher funding for his school. Mr. Lucas’s school was approved for 163 voucher spots at $4,555 per student. To be clear, the Jindal Administration, in the first year, has already preliminarily granted eighty spots, at a cost of $364,000. Quoting from his church’s “School of Prophets” website, which, as a reader pointed out to me, should not be confused with his Light City Academy webpage (even though both are hosted on the same domain and both appear to be organized under the same 501c3, Light City Church):
The Light City Church School of the Prophets is a training institute for those who sense the flow and pull of the prophetic upon their lives. The mandate of the school of the Prophets just as it was in the Old Testament days is to train men and women effectively in the prophetic. It is a time of proper training, mentoring, and developing of the spirit in the prophetic realm. It is a time that you are taught how to hear from God, how to speak the mind of God, and how to nurture the gift of prophecy.Those individuals that accept the challenge to attend must have an understanding that they are yielding themselves to the tutelage of Apostle Leonard Lucas Jr., who walks in the fullness of his calling and wears the mantle of an Apostle and Prophet. If you believe this is the calling upon your life, we invite you to join us for dynamic teaching and thought provoking sessions. Classes are held every Friday at 7:00pm at Light City Church, located at 6117 St. Claude Ave. Please call 504-301-4593 for more information.
Light City Christian Academy is a small school located in inner-city New Orleans. Students may begin as early as age five in kindergarten and continue their studies until the completion of High School. We have a·90% success rate of our graduates continuing higher studies in Universities across the state. We are a state approved private school.
The Academy is the realization of the vision of Leonard and Varnise Lucas. At the inception of the Academy, their goal was and continues to be, “to educate children according to the highest academic standards possible, as well as, prepare them to become responsible, courageous leaders.”Our motto is, “Raising A Generation of Leaders.”
Apparently, upcoming events at Light City Christian Academy include catechism classes and “School of the Prophets” training. Education.com describes Light City Christian Academy as follows (bold mine):
Light City Christian Academy is located in New Orleans, LA. It is a private school that serves 53 students in grades K-12. Light City Christian Academy is coed (school has male and female students) and is Christian (no specific denomination) in orientation.
Governor Jindal and Superintendent White have, effectively, provided Light City Christian with the taxpayer funding necessary to nearly triple its enrollment, and that’s just in Year One. If all goes according to plan, Light City Christian Academy will expand its enrollment much more dramatically, from only fifty-three students to well over 200, an expansion that will be paid for and brought to you, almost entirely, by taxpayer funding.
I don’t know Mr. Lucas personally, but I know this: He is not an Apostle. He is not a Prophet. And he does not deserve or merit taxpayer dollars. If anything, he deserves a thorough audit.
But in Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana, with the full support of Superintendent John White, Apostle/Prophet Lucas is the future of education.
Lord help us.
During the last couple of years, Louisiana progressives have been fighting for the passage of an anti-bullying bill, which would better protect our children against harassment, intimidation, and bigotry in the classroom. This should be an easy issue. After all, with the exception of a commenter on The Town Talk‘s website who thinks it’s “sissified” for the government to even consider adopting anti-bullying legislation, most of us would likely agree that it’s vitally important for us to ensure that our school system is as safe as possible, that our children can receive a decent education free from oppression, and that we are obligated to prevent, to the best of our collective abilities and to the fullest extent of the law, the possibility that any child would feel compelled to commit suicide or harm themselves in any way as a result of things said or done to them in school.
Indeed, so far, twenty-two states have already adopted similar legislation, including our neighbors in Arkansas. But, fortunately for Arkansans, they don’t have to contend with a man like Gene Mills, an organization like the Louisiana Family Forum, or a governor who is all-too-willing to kowtow to the intransigent demands of a small but powerful group of radical right wing fundamentalists.
(Governor Bobby Jindal being “prayed” on by Mr. Gene Mills in the privacy of their own made-for-TV special)
“Bullying” is a word we primarily apply when children are involved. When it involves adults, we call it assault, and if you’re found guilty of assault, it’s likely that you may spend time behind bars. And if you assault someone specifically because of their ethnicity, disability, religion, or sexual orientation, in most states, your punishment will be even more severe; it would qualify as a hate crime.
Understandably, we treat children differently; we transpose the word “bullying.” But if the rash of recent suicides by bullied children proves anything, it’s that bullying is not merely some rite of passage that we must all endure; it’s not simply a part of being a kid.
Throughout the last two years, Gene Mills, the chief lobbyist and President of the tax-exempt Louisiana Family Forum, has fought vociferously against the passage of anti-bullying bills, with the implicit support of Governor Bobby Jindal and his administration. Mr. Mills (he refers to himself as a Reverend, but until he fully discloses his organization’s finances, I see no reason to bestow him with any honorarium) has opposed the legislation because it, among other things, protects children from bullying on the basis of their sexual orientation. And this, according to Mr. Mills, who fashions himself as a Christian leader, is merely an attempt at advancing the “gay agenda.”
I don’t have much patience for charlatans or bigots or people who promote themselves as religious leaders in order to justify their discriminatory beliefs. Mr. Mills, with the assistance of State Senator Rick Ward, is now authoring his own anti-bullying bill, which appears to be nothing more than a toothless, meaningless recapitulation of existing law designed to help Mr. Mills and his organization reclaim a public relations war, and which, unsurprisingly, has the endorsement of Governor Bobby Jindal. Governor Jindal’s support is telling; it reveals, among other things, how much power Gene Mills and the Louisiana Family Forum have over him and his agenda. Just last month, Jindal’s aide, Russell Armstrong (who completely embarrassed himself), argued against the anti-bullying bill on behalf of his administration, suggesting that there was no reason to change existing law.
Mr. Armstrong, on behalf of Governor Jindal, said that the Jindal administration doesn’t “believe in passing legislation for the sake of passing legislation.” Now, we know that is simply not true. Russell Armstrong and Bobby Jindal were opposed to the anti-bullying bill for the same reason Gene Mills was opposed to it: The bill mentioned, among many other things, the need to prevent bullying (read: assault) against children on the basis of their sexual orientation.
The (Louisiana Senate) panel refused to back a second bill by Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, that would spell out that harassment and bullying would not be allowed because of a person’s characteristics, including race, ancestry, religion, physical or intellectual disability, mental illness, language ability, sexual orientation, gender identity and political ideas. Such a list has been repeatedly opposed by the conservative Louisiana Family Forum and religious groups as introducing sexual politics into the classroom and promoting a “gay agenda” in schools.
Gene Mills, head of the family forum, helped write Ward’s bill, without a list of characteristics.
“This is a careful attempt to balance the rights of children with the duties of adults,” Mills said.
Can we be honest with one another here? Governor Jindal, Gene Mills, and the Louisiana Family Forum do not object to a bill that would prohibit bullying against a child because of their race, ancestry, religion, physical or intellectual disability, mental illness, language ability, or political ideas. They have no problem with that; it’s fair. Their issue is a bill that would prohibit bullying on the basis of a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. In their view, apparently, the prohibition against such bullying would result in the introduction of “sexual politics” (a term I have never heard until now) and the promotion of the “gay agenda.” In Governor Jindal’s and Gene Mills’s world, the government can prevent the introduction of “sexual politics” (again, wow, what a turn of phrase) and the advancement of the “gay agenda” by ensuring that kids aren’t singled out for bullying other kids because of their sexual orientation. To them, it’s more important to protect the right of an ignorant and hateful bully to chastise and ridicule someone for being gay (because, you know, Jesus gave them special permission to be sanctimonious jerks) than it is to protect the safety and dignity of the children most vulnerable to attack and most susceptible to depression and suicide.
Without question, the overwhelming majority of Louisianans would support legislation that protects our children against bullying. I don’t know what Governor Jindal and Mr. Mills are scared of. Here is Governor Jindal, just yesterday, saying that he doesn’t believe in discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation:
Still, while Governor Jindal auditions in front of the country for Vice President, back in Louisiana, he continues to embrace Gene Mills and the divisive, destructive, and hypocritical agenda of the Louisiana Family Forum. And to be clear, I hope Governor Romney selects Governor Jindal, as David Frum implored him to do earlier this week, because when all is said and done, Jeremiah Wright has nothing on Gene Mills.
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
On May 26, 2011, Stafford Palmieri, who was then serving as the Education and Workforce Policy Advisor to Governor Bobby Jindal, testified in front of the Louisiana House Committee on Education in opposition to the repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act (the LSEA). Ms. Palmieri, a 2008 graduate of Yale University, offered a notably convoluted and torturous defense of the LSEA, a law that allows public school science teachers the ability to bypass the teaching of science and supplement their curricula with their own non-scientific and religiously-based beliefs.
“This bill is seeking to remove protections for teachers that give them the ability to teach the full breadth of scientific teaching,” Ms. Palmieri said. This is simply not true, however, as the LSEA has nothing to do with “scientific teaching” and everything to do with equivocating religious beliefs with science. Indeed, the LSEA does not “protect teachers” with “the ability to teach the full breadth of scientific teaching;” if anything, it harms our students by undermining the value and the integrity of science education. More than likely, the LSEA is also unconstitutional; it not only violates the precedent established by the Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard, it also raises serious questions about our fundamental protection under the First Amendment against the state establishment of religion. No matter how hard some on the religious right may try, creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories; they are both articles of religious faith. And as earnest as some may be in promoting such beliefs, when we conflate them with science, we are doing a disservice to both religion and science.
A few months ago, Ms. Palmieri was promoted to Policy Director for Governor Bobby Jindal, a commendable accomplishment for a young woman who is still in her mid-twenties. But there’s an interesting footnote here, and it needs to be pointed out.
And recently, despite Ms. Palmieri’s outspoken endorsement and defense of the LSEA, the Fordham Institute, her former employer, issued a report that chastised and ridiculed the LSEA in strong and direct language. Quoting (bold mine):
The Louisiana science standards are reasonably challenging and comprehensive, but they suffer from a devastating flaw: Thanks to the state’s 2008 Science Education Act, which promotes creationism instead of science, the standards (especially for biology and life science) are haunted by anti-science influences that threaten biology education in the state.
“A devastating flaw,” “haunted by anti-science influences that threaten biology education in the state.” This is not analysis by a partisan enemy of Governor Jindal; this is the opinion of the former employer of Governor Jindal’s Policy Director, a conservative think-tank.
I don’t know Ms. Palmieri, but I’m certain of a few things: Her testimony to the Committee on Education was riddled with misrepresentations. It is exceptional and noteworthy that the former employer of Governor Jindal’s Policy Director would publicly criticize her policy statements on education, the very issue she worked on when she was under their employ. And considering this, along with Ms. Palmieri’s exceptional resume, I can only conclude that she is merely doing the bidding of Governor Jindal, even if it means turning against her own true beliefs and the outspoken, public statements of her former colleagues.
This issue will not go away. I, for one, will not back down, and during the next few weeks, I’ll continue to call attention to this critical issue.
Last year, 43 Nobel laureates supported a repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act. And thanks to the continued efforts of my friend Zack Kopplin, there are now 75 Nobel laureates on board; it’s astonishing.