March 30, 2005 12:00
The Price of Perks
Legislative Fiscal Officer Johnny Rombach has been forced out of the job he's held for 17 years. His departure came after it was revealed Rombach rewarded himself with a retroactive pay raise and a car allowance. A media favorite, Rombach was a high-profile official whose office analyzed the impact of bills on the state budget and estimated the costs of legislative action on the budget.

Rombach contends that his decisions on compensation were consistent with those of his predecessor, Mark Drennen. Rather than have the Legislature vote on his fate, Rombach opted to leave the post he's held since 1988. His retirement will become official in July.

Rombach's automobile arrangement has prompted an examination of similar perks for other government leaders in Baton Rouge. Recent revelations indicate that a bevy of elected servants are driving in style thanks to the generosity of their constituents.

The purchase of a fully loaded Harley-Davidson Ford F-250 for Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley has resulted in an inordinate amount of damage control from his office. Citizens are picking up the tab for the $40,000 vehicle, which replaces the 2004 Eddie Bauer-designer edition Ford Expedition that the state bought for Wooley a year ago. Other state officials also enjoy luxurious top of the line cars and trucks on the taxpayer's tab.

Wooley's extravagance is nothing new for statewide officeholders; he had the misfortune of being the one showcased in a slow news cycle. A plethora of stories about his new transportation noted the distinctive racing stripes adorning Wooley's Ford.

Despite an embarrassing flood of headlines, this commissioner is not in the same league with predecessors Sherman Bernard and Doug Green, who both served time for ethical and criminal lapses of judgment. (Jim Brown, the man who hired Wooley, spent six months in a federal lock-up after being found guilty of lying to an FBI agent.) Wooley is the first insurance czar elected since 1967 who has not logged jail time.

BLANCO, CASTRO AND CONSERVATIVES

Gov. Blanco's unexpected two-hour lobster dinner with Cuban President Fidel Castro will likely go down as the last supper a Louisiana governor has with the septuagenarian dictator in Havana. Blanco's meal was greeted with a main course of criticism from Louisiana Republicans, and the governor probably wishes she never sat across the table from the world's most resilient tyrant.

GOP Chairman Roger Villere said he was happy to comply with prodding from President Bush to publicly chide Blanco, but Republican Louisiana House member Robert Barham, who also made the Cuba jaunt, challenged Villere on any White House rebuke for the Blanco-Castro powwow.

"If I had received any indication they didn't want me to go for some reason, I wouldn't have," Barham said. He represents the North Louisiana hamlet of Oak Ridge, hardly a Castro stronghold.

"That was an insult to our foreign policy and to the president of the United States," Villere said of the governor's choice for a Cuba dinner companion. Blanco Chief of Staff Andy Kopplin, who also sampled the lobster with Castro, told reporters the governor's delegation received no instructions from the White House or State Department to avoid meeting with the dictator.

Blanco's trip was successful from an economic development perspective, with Cuba agreeing to purchase $15 million in state products over the next 18 months.

The governor's meeting with Castro wasn't unprecedented. Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois met with the communist cigar aficionado a few years ago, and drew condemnation from President Bill Clinton. The last governor to huddle with Castro on Cuban turf was former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura of Minnesota. Ventura, author of the autobiography I Ain't Got Time to Bleed, survived the photo op with Fidel. It's likely Louisiana voters will have forgotten Blanco's meal with Castro by the time the Lafayette Democrat faces the electorate again in 2007.

Republicans may have pilloried her for the Castro incident, but Gov. Blanco is displaying some conservative credentials on social issues. The latest example is her support for a drug-testing plan for state government agencies under her authority. Blanco has issued an executive order on mandatory drug testing for the state's health, social services, labor and environmental quality departments.

The governor's order also requires random testing for government employees with various responsibilities, including the use of public vehicles. Spokesman Roderick Hawkins says the policy is a continuation of former Gov. Foster's drug testing edict. Boards and commissions appointed by the governor are also subject to the order.