It's good, it's bad and it's just crazy!
THREE BLIND MICEEvery community has its share of bumbling, retrograde elected officials. For Lafayette, it's an embarrassment of riches. By IND Monthly Staff
Monday, Dec. 2, 2013
On second thought, make that riches of embarrassment.
It's appropriate that the old slapstick Three Stooges theme song was the nursery rhyme "Three Blind Mice." The gentlemen gracing the cover of this Pooyie 2013 issue - District Attorney Mike Harson as Moe, City-Parish Councilman Andy Naquin as Larry and Lafayette Parish School Board member Greg Awbrey as Curly - have definitely demonstrated a lack of vision or were, in the case of Harson, inexplicably blind to some egregious malfeasance going on under their noses.
There were some great and wonderful things happening in Lafayette in 2013, as well as plenty to illicit a collective groan. But a major bribery scandal resulting in federal guilty pleas, a stubborn refusal to protect the city of Lafayette from the inequities of "consolidation" and a concerted campaign to ensure the failure of the school system's turnaround plan make these guys the cream of the crap, er, crop.
D.A. MIKE HARSON
How, just how, could he not have known? That's his story and he's sticking to it as his longtime office manager along with an assistant district attorney and three others so far have pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges stemming from a scandal that couldn't-a, shouldn't-a happened on his watch. Harson claims ignorance about a long-running scheme in which private investigator Robert Williamson allegedly passed along a cut of the action in securing favorable outcomes in a variety of misdemeanor and felony cases in the district, most of which were for drunk driving charges. ("Allegedly" is a paper-thin adverb at this point as five people connected to the scheme have already pleaded guilty.)
Williamson, who is under indictment and facing trial in 2014, will get his day in court. But it doesn't look good. And there were so many moving parts to this ugly mess, it strains credulity to imagine Harson was ignorant of these shenanigans. But we'll give him the benefit of the doubt: D.A. Mike Harson is ignorant.
COUNCILMAN ANDY NAQUIN
Andy Naquin has done virtually nothing in his nearly three years on the City-Parish Council, but it is his stubborn refusal to help the city of Lafayette - Naquin's District 6 is the only one that is entirely within the city limits of Lafayette - ensure its economic and civic sovereignty that sticks in our craw.
In August Naquin flat-out refused to even consider an introductory ordinance that would have created a new charter commission, serving as the swing vote in defeating it. The goal among supporters was to ultimately rework the Lafayette Consolidated Government charter to create a "council within a council," that is, a "city council" within the City-Parish Council that would have sole discretion in matters pertaining only and entirely to the city of Lafayette. As it stands, councilmen who represent almost no city residents and who don't even live in the city or pay city property taxes get a vote on how the city spends its money and allocates resources. That's unacceptable. Every other councilman whose district is majority city voted for the measure.
Naquin is a longtime employee of Doug Ashy Building Materials. The Acadian Home Builders Association, whose members have been major customers of the company since forever, were instrumental in helping Naquin win election to the council in 2011. In the weeks leading up to that August vote, major players in the AHBA lobbied Naquin to vote in favor of the ordinance, more or less telling him the home builders were ready to see some return on their investment. The home builders didn't get that payoff, and we're told they are searching out a credible candidate to challenge and hopefully unseat him in 2015.
Naquin takes his marching orders from the radicals in the tea party, and so far he is passing the purity test with flying colors.
[Editor's Note: While we trust our sources on this information about Naquin, neither the AHBA nor its board officially approached Naquin about his vote on the Fair & Focused Plan, and the trade group is not undertaking an official effort to unseat Naquin in the next election.]
SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER GREG AWBREY
We closed our eyes and plucked a member of the Lafayette Parish School Board out at random to hold up as an example of how not to work on behalf of students and taxpayers. Fortunately Greg Awbrey popped out first.
It's safe to say that every disservice done to public education in Lafayette in 2013 - in general opposing Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper at every turn and especially scheming to fire him even as his turnaround plan begins to bear fruit in performance scores - Awbrey has been a willing participant if not a ring leader.
Awbrey was a member of the simple(-minded) majority that voted to reprimand Cooper for not firing maintenance/transportation special assistant Thad Welch, despite that Act I of the 2012 Legislature, which gives superintendents sole discretion in hiring and firing, appears to trump any board say in the matter.
Awbrey also distributed a self-written discipline "survey" among teachers in the LPSS - a survey rife with leading questions that pitted teachers against administrators and did nothing to address discipline issues in our schools.
Miffed by Cooper's refusal to fire the competent Welch, Awbrey voted with the majority to hire a third-party law firm to investigate Cooper for unnamed allegations of impropriety. And when the school board's own legal counsel, the district attorney's office, suggested that the investigation of Cooper was unwarranted, Awbrey led the charge to fire the D.A.'s office, which serves the board for free, and hire an outside law firm at a cost of up to $200,000 per year.
Who Dat Nation definitely missed Saints head coach Sean Payton and his frequently pursed Church Lady lips during a frustrating 7-9 2012 season. Banished from last year's campaign by the NFL Powers That Be for what can only be called a lack of oversight in the so-called Bountygate scandal, Payton was reinstated by the league in January and, as of this writing, has the Saints on track not only for the playoffs but a division title and first-round bye.
Spearheaded by staff members at UL Lafayette's Center for Louisiana Studies, a campaign begins in early 2014 to find and place on the National Register of Historic Places abandoned dance halls across South Louisiana. First up was the Southern Club in Opelousas. Organizers hope the NRHP designations will help secure grants to restore these iconic structures and, in some cases and with the owner-families' help, reopen them.
Downtown Lafayette got a booster shot when the Downtown Development Authority board chose attorney/urban planner Nathan Norris as its new executive director. Norris hit the ground running soon after taking the reins in January, and by September he hired Geoff Dyer for the newly created position of director of development. Dyer will serve as a one-stop-shop for real estate developers in the district, and hopefully by next year we will begin seeing both his and Norris' appointments begin to really pay off.
Lafayette's future continued to take shape in 2013 as the Comprehensive Master Plan moved from the vision phase to actually mapping out our future growth. Over the summer, the Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee got a look at the Preferred Future Scenario. The consensus choice that emerged is the "Multi Center" plan - the proliferation of mixed-use development in pockets spread around the city anchored at major intersections, with lots of so-called green infrastructure.
Speaking of the comprehensive plan, City-Parish President Joey Durel demonstrated his embrace of planning when he added to his 2013-14 budget funding for a new cabinet-level position: chief planning officer. Not coincidentally, Durel this fall tapped Kevin Blanchard, the smart, measured and consensus-minded journalist-turned-lawyer who has chaired the plan's Citizens Advisory Committee since its inception in 2012.
Shaking off years of bad blood, former Lady Cajuns softball coach Yvette Girouard and the national powerhouse team she practically built from scratch in the 1980s finally made up in April when Girouard, retired from coaching after a successful run at LSU, returned to Lamson Park for a long-overdue reunion with the team and fan base she created.
Long before most of us realized that the city of Lafayette has been paying to maintain a public park in the city limits of Youngsville for decades - because "consolidation" is inherently unfair to Lafayette, which shoulders a disproportionate burden in underwriting city-parish government - the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce unveiled the "Fair & Focused Plan." Its goal is to redraw the City-Parish Council districts so the city of Lafayette has a five-member "council within the council" that would make decisions that pertain only to the city of Lafayette. So far the plan has failed to gain traction with a stubborn City-Parish Council.
Bishop Michael Jarrell showed real leadership in May following the Boy Scouts of America's decision to allow openly gay scouts to participate in its character-building program. Roughly half of all BSA troops in Acadiana are sponsored by churches within the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette for which Jarrell is head, and there was a fear that these troops would be shown the door. But in a carefully worded letter to churches and their troops, Jarrell tacitly endorsed keeping the welcome mat out for the scouts.
As arts presenters and cultural groups scramble for dwindling corporate sponsorships and community patronage, it made sense in May when the Acadiana Center for the Arts and the Performing Arts Society of Acadiana announced their merger. While PASA will continue its Main Stage series at the Heymann Performing Arts Center, the merger will allow it to operate meaner and leaner and more devoted to purpose than ever before. A match made in ... well, you know.
The DWI bribery scheme that went down under District Attorney Mike Harson's nose was a nadir for public office in Lafayette, so it was with glee that many in the legal community greeted the announcement in September by former Assistant District Attorney Keith Stutes that he would run for D.A. Stutes proved himself over decades as a prosecutor to be a fair, forthright and diligent public advocate, and we've no doubt that if elected he would manage the office capably.
2013 has been an exciting and fulfilling year for those of us who have supported transforming the old UL Horse Farm into a central park for the city of Lafayette. That transformation stayed on pace this year, with community forums and the selection of a planning firm to take all the community input and turn it into a design for a passive park that emphasizes picnics and walking over tee ball and soccer. Lafayette Central Park Inc., the nonprofit overseeing the project, hopes to break ground next summer and have at least a first phase of the park open to the public no later than fall of 2015.
The good work coming out of Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera's office could have significant implications for tax coffers in a number of parishes, including Lafayette's. In what amounts to an about-face, the Louisiana Tax Commission decided in late November that it will accept a list of recommendations from the legislative auditor to tighten discrepancies in residential property values and address similar problems with assessors that are short-changing school systems and other local government services funded by the taxes. In its July report, the state auditor found significant differences in what some homeowners were paying compared to others with homes of comparable value (almost 28 percent of homes in the Lafayette area fell outside of the 9-10 percent of market value parameters required by law). Auditors also discovered that the tax commission was neglecting one of its most basic duties, ensuring that assessors update their appraisals every four years as required by law.
A story that generated some of the heaviest traffic at theind.com in 2013 actually began between Christmas and New Year's Eve 2012 beside a gravel pit in rural Virginia. That's where former pedophile priest and Abbeville native David Primeaux, then a computer science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, ran a hose from his tailpipe into the cab of his truck and committed suicide. As we learned through an Ind investigation, Primeaux's suicide came on the same day that a former victim of his from Lafayette, now a grown man, along with the nephew of another Lafayette victim who later committed suicide, flew to Richmond and confronted Primeaux with his past.
Odds are Bruce Greenstein didn't much enjoy 2013. The former secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals and close ally of Gov. Bobby Jindal resigned his position in March amid federal and state investigations into how his former employer, Client Network Services Inc., was awarded a more than $200 million contract to administer Medicaid claims for the state. Amid appearances that Greenstein rigged the bidding process in CNSI's favor, the contract was canceled. CNSI filed suit.
The Lafayette Parish School System had more than its share of issues/controversies du jour in 2013. In March it was school discipline, or a lack thereof. On March 20 the tension reached a crescendo when Derrick Comeaux, a student teacher at Carencro High, gave an expletive-loaded account to the school board of the discipline problems he encounters on a daily basis, implicitly adding that if a student laid hands on him he would return the treatment in kind. That led to Comeaux being escorted off the CHS campus the next morning and being reassigned in another parish.
Following an ethics charge being leveled at Lafayette developer and former Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority Chairman Greg Gachassin, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's office took a look at goings-on at the LPTFA. The resulting report released last summer wasn't pretty. Among the most damaging findings: LPTFA's lack of a code of ethics led to the charges against Gachassin; the LPTFA needs substantive improvements in its system of accounting and management controls. Shockingly, we learned, the LPTFA does not even prepare or adopt an annual budget, despite that it is required to do so by state law.
A ripple of shock spread across the Lafayette cultural pond in June when Festival International de Louisiane announced the sudden resignation of longtime Executive Director Dana Baker. By all indicators, Baker was doing a phenomenal job at the helm of Lafayette's most popular cultural event. But a tip of the hat to the folks at the FIL office and its board, who demonstrated remarkable discipline in sticking to the story of an amicable departure.
In July the state's 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal demonstrated why Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world when it tossed out a 12-year sentence given to career petty criminal Bill Winters and ordered him to serve a life sentence. Winters had been caught in 2009, drunk, in an office building left unlocked due to a faulty lock on the door in possession of a box of Gobstooppers candy purloined from a desk. And so it's off to prison for life. For a box of Gobstoppers.
There was some undo confusion following the government shutdown in the fall about who precipitated the brinkmanship. But that's only because we forgot about July and Sen. David Vitter vowing in Congress' upper chamber to shut down the government if the Affordable Care Act wasn't defunded. The House took Vitter and Sen. Ted Cruz's playbook and ran with it. The government shut down. Then it reopened. Then, oh, Justin Bieber in a brothel!
Following a widely publicized $175,000 Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office settlement with former corrections deputy Matthew Thomassee - a settlement that stipulated Thomassee keep his mouth shut about his accusations of malfeasance against jail personnel - another former deputy at the jail, Lonnie Murphy, supplied IND Monthly with details of corruption he alleges are daily at the jail. Our investigation found that jail officials conducted an internal probe into the alleged corruption - mainly falsifying documents for accreditation purposes - and evidently decided to scapegoat one high-ranking official before letting the matter drop. Higher-ups had no comment for our story.
Kerry Bertrand will almost certainly be convicted for the murder of his stepdaughter, 20-year-old Skylar Credeur, who was found drowned in her bathtub in Rayne - Bertrand, according to police and family members who detailed their ordeal in an IND Monthly cover story, was found hiding in the attic moments after she was found dead in the house below - a week after she filed a protective order against him. Bertrand will get his day in court. But regardless of the outcome, the case underscores a level of dysfunction in the 15th Judicial District system that should give everyone pause. If Bertrand is ultimately convicted of a crime that could have been prevented had the legal system done its job and kept him in jail, Skylar Credeur's death is at once tragic, senseless and an outrage.
A state-by-state examination of women's issues by the Center for American Progress released in September reveals what most Louisiana women already know: the not-so-great Bayou State ranks last in just about every measure. The worst state for women - by far - is Louisiana, the analysis reveals. In terms of economic security, health and leadership representation - one female in our entire congressional delegation! - the analysis rates Louisiana the lowest.
A COURT OF DUNCES
Incomprehension, incompetence and illegality have created a murderer's row for Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper.
But for the grace of God - and some back-room assurances from Lafayette's civic and business communities that credible, well-funded, informed and organized candidates will be on the ballot next fall - Pat Cooper remains our superintendent. He could have easily and understandably thrown up his hands in frustration more than a year ago, muttered "screw this" and walked. But he didn't. So there's that.
What a doozy 2013 has been, as one bad apple soured another on a board that, soon after being sworn into office in January 2011, many of us in Lafayette assumed would be a forward-thinking body eager to realize Cooper's plans to raise academic performance in our public schools. What we got instead was obstruction of congressional proportions.
Let us count the ways:
It was unbridled vindictiveness - mostly marshalled by board member Tehmi Chassion who was smarting from some staff reconstitutions at troubled schools in his north Lafayette district as well as a clamp down on his cronies in the maintenance department - that dominated the board's witch hunt against Cooper's special assistant for facilities and maintenance, Thad Welch.
January to March was consumed by the board's insistence that Cooper can Welch because the former lacks a high-school diploma - a requirement for the job according to school system policy, but a requirement that only a little research showed is frequently ignored when filling positions.
The board's insistence in the matter also ran afoul of Act I, the education reform package passed by the Legislature in 2012, which stipulates that superintendents - not school boards - make all hiring and firing decisions. That the board has also presumed to weigh in on Cooper's choices for principals is yet another example of ignorant illegality by the board.
By April the board voted to reprimand Cooper for not firing Welch, who, by all indications, is doing a fine job in rooting out malfeasance and mismanagement in the school system's maintenance department.
The issue came to a bizarre head when Chassion accused IND Monthly Staff Writer Patrick Flanagan of roughing him up in a restroom at the school board office - an allegation that went nowhere with dubious police officers on the scene. Flanagan indeed encountered Chassion in the loo - to ask him about a forgery arrest that was expunged from his police record.
By July the witch hunt against Cooper was at a boiling point, with the board passing a resolution to hire an outside law firm to investigate the super for undisclosed reasons, again failing to meet requirements in state law.
Amid a growing public protest, the board decided in October to restart the selection process for an administrator of the school system's group benefits plan. The process was marred by misinformation and a mishandling of the bidding process. The whole deal stunk to high heaven, and the board ultimately decided to stick with Blue Cross Blue Shield for another year.
By November, the board voted to cut ties with the 15th Judicial District Attorney's Office, which by state law is appointed to serve as legal counsel for the school board. The reason the board voted to dismiss its free legal counsel - with an emphasis on free - was that it didn't like the advice it was getting, namely that hiring an outside law firm to investigate Cooper was unwarranted. Unless the decision is undone, the board will now annually spend up to $200,000 (in taxpayer dollars) to hire outside lawyers when it could/should be getting it for free.
The level of dysfunction demonstrated by this board - specifically by Chassion, Greg Awbrey, Mark Babineaux, Rae Trahan, Tommy Angelle and, disappointingly of late, Hunter Beasley - has eroded public trust in the board to such a degree that the board would be crazy to put any tax proposals before voters to fund desperately needed upgrades to school facilities. The losers in all this: public school students. Hey, little Bobby, keep an eye out for those falling ceiling tiles!
NUMBER CRUNCH: 40
Requests for public records filed at the Lafayette Parish School System by former Lafayette City Councilwoman Nancy Mounce between January and October 2013. Bringing new meaning to the phrase "gumming up the works," Mounce has requested information on everything from student census data to ACT scores by high school to renovation permits to the name of a landfill where asbestos removed from Lafayette High was dumped. We're not sure what Mounce is getting at with all these requests, but she's either building one hell of a case against our public school system, or she's just trying to stay relevant. Pray it's the latter.
A handful of residents in unincorporated south Lafayette Parish showed up at a City-Parish Council meeting in March to lobby against Sharia law construction of a private park in their neighborhood. MECA Park, according to the site plan, will feature a soccer field, picnic/playground areas and basketball courts. MECA is an acronym for Muslim Education Center of Acadiana. And a homonym for a sacred Muslim city. Said one resident to the council: "I think it's a cover up of what they plan on doing in the future. ...And the people that have been there previously, they're all foreigners." MECA is a nonprofit that has operated the Islamic Center of Lafayette for years, and the group plans to eventually build a community center and classroom to serve the needs of a growing population of terrorists Islamic youth in the parish. The council ultimately denied the neighbors appeal, although the xenophobic residents did endorse a zoning variance for a chain-link fence rather than a wood fence per regs - so they can keep an eye on what's going on.
You'd think Bobby Jindal, AKA the "Gallopin' Gov" and former secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, could have put on his health-care policy wonk hat instead of effectively throwing his hat into the 2016 GOP presidential field by rejecting an expansion of Medicaid per the Affordable Care Act. But Jindal, in a thinly veiled attempt to score political points with the base, stubbornly rejects a damn good deal from Uncle Sam: the feds would pay 100 percent of the expansion for three years and 90 percent after that for a total of nearly $16 billion in federal assistance to help more than 240,000 low-income Louisiana residents get access to affordable health care (as opposed to visiting the emergency room when they're ill and passing on the cost to the insured or, you know, just dropping dead). A handful of his fellow GOP governors who initially turned their noses up at the Medicaid expansion have since chosen to accept the deal, realizing the benefit to their constituents. DHH, the agency Jindal used to head, estimates the state could save as much as $367 million over the first decade of expansion. Worse case scenario is it would cost Louisiana $1.71 billion over that time - a small price to pay considering the alternative. Jindal is essentially making us taxpaying citizens who have health insurance subsidize his political ambitions by passing on the cost of providing health care to a quarter million uninsured people. Moral issues aside, it's just plain wrong-headed.
Witch doctor-loving state Sen. Elbert Guillory, who was a Republican before he was a Democrat before he was a Republican, proved himself worthy of the mantle "flip-flopper" this fall when he insisted he never represented an Opelousas woman in a lawsuit against St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz, despite court documents proving that he did. Guidroz and Guillory, you see, are chummy politicos in tightly knit St. Landry, even donating to each other's campaigns. Guillory cried conspiracy to KATC, citing unnamed "egregious slimeballs" for planting the story, but even Guidroz called BS on his protestations, telling the TV station he didn't begrudge Guillory filing suit against him but he wished the state senator/attorney would just own up to it. Whatever.
The thing about the First Amendment is we all support it when we agree with the speech. But it's when speech is unsavory, when it rubs us the wrong way or offends our sense of truth, justice and the American way, that the First Amendment is most important. And so it was with Salvador "Ace" Perez, the Lafayette pop artist who ran headlong into one of our most sacred cows: the memory of the 9/11 attacks and our memorializing thereof. Perez had the temerity to affix to the rusting steel beams of the 9/11 memorial downtown a pair of cardboard airplanes. Nearby he placed a cardboard effigy of former President George W. Bush holding a wad of cash in one hand and a remote control device in the other. Perez's tableau was an artful work of graffiti, but it was also a political statement suggesting that the federal government was behind the attacks of 9/11 - a fringe conspiracy theory to be sure, but not so fringe that most everyone didn't understand the "statement" when they saw images of it on the evening news. Worth noting: Perez's act of "vandalism" - quote marks there because no damage was actually done to the memorial - occurred on the 12th anniversary of 9/11. Perez was arrested and - here's where the couillon element comes in - caving to public pressure to teach the young artist a lesson about respecting our sacrosanct observances, the district attorney's office referred the case to a grand jury. Fortunately, in mid-November the grand jury actually expressed respect for that pesky First Amendment and exonerated Perez.
"I don't think government services give me more quality of life. Quality of life is what I can give my family and friends."
- City-Parish Councilman Jared Bellard, the District 5 tea party fave who, for Christmas, birthdays and other special occasions, bestows upon his family and friends paved roads, potable drinking water, street lights, police and fire protection, parks and recreation centers and other amenities. Bellard knows the gub-mint is just a bunch of lazy bureaucrats collecting paychecks and extravagant retirement.
THE BRIGGS TRANSLATOR
President of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association and a principal apologist for energy-industry tomfoolery, Don Briggs has had a busy few years helping us understand how the world works. He foretold the economic calamity that would lay waste to South Louisiana as result of the federal moratorium on deepwater drilling following the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And that levee board lawsuit against Big Oil over the latter cutting our coastline to ribbons in pursuit of black gold? Don't even go there!
Fortunately, a handy new tool has been created to help students and slow learners navigate the tricky straits of environmental reporting: The Briggs Translator.
Here's how it works: Simply feed a phrase into one side of Don Briggs' head and a translation any dummy can understand comes out the other side.
Try it, kids!
LOU KING PATIN