Transparent as Mud

by Jeremy Alford

If Gov. Bobby Jindal truly wants state government to be open and honest, his own office would be a good place to start. With each passing day of his new administration, it appears more likely that Bobby Jindal has an evil twin. The Jindal we see today seems to lack the courage of his campaign convictions — those promises of open government and transparency that he made last year while touring the state and wooing voters. Yes, he’s pushing an unparalleled ethics agenda that convenes for a special session Feb. 10, but trying to get full and complete answers out of his own office is proving more difficult these days than springing Edwin Edwards from federal prison.

For instance, when he was campaigning on a “Fresh Start for Louisiana” last year, how do you think Jindal would have answered the following question?

Should the son of an executive who holds tens of millions of dollars in contracts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers be appointed to a position that oversees coastal affairs?

Based on all of his pre-election 2007 rhetoric, Jindal would have likely promised that his administration would do everything it could to avoid even the appearance of an impropriety or conflict of interest. But ask his administration that question today and you’ll hear the sound of crickets chirping.

The Independent Weekly contacted Jindal’s press secretary, Melissa Sellers, last week to inquire about a very real potential conflict, not a hypothetical one. The father of Garret Graves, Jindal’s senior coastal adviser, is the owner of an engineering firm that is among the top contract holders in Louisiana with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Because Graves also serves as chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, whose primary partner is the Corps, we asked Sellers if there was a potential conflict of interest and if Jindal was aware of the connection.

Graves was appointed Jan. 3, according to a press release, and interviewed with Team Jindal the previous month. Yet somehow Jindal knew nothing of the potential conflict until last week when The Independent made its inquiry, Sellers says. Furthermore, in a written response, she argues that Graves also knew nothing of his own father’s work and public contracts until recently. Somehow, everyone involved missed the fact that the firm made $47 million last year from Corps contracts alone — and the fact that the firm also does contract work for the state.

Garret Graves’ father, John Graves, president of Evans-Graves Engineers, says everyone should have been aware of the connection by last week. “I know it had been put to the staff more than a month ago,” he says. “... I said from the beginning there was a potential conflict of interest, and apparently that fell on deaf ears.”

Does that mean the information never reached Jindal until last week? Was it withheld from him? If so, who initially interviewed Graves? When asked directly who interviewed him, Graves declined to answer. So did Sellers. In fact, Sellers was repeatedly asked for the name or names of the individuals who interviewed Graves, but she staunchly refused and repeated the same answer each time: “A few folks on the transition team.”

The response is about as far from Jindal’s “transparency” as you can get. Why, exactly, can’t the names of the interviewers be released? Nothing illegal has happened, and safeguards have now been put in place; Evans-Graves Engineers, which was well established before Garret Graves was ever born, has agreed to stop pursuing projects that might cause a conflict of interest. And the younger Graves is well qualified to hold the position. The entire situation could be no more than a communications breakdown inside the governor’s office, but the fact that information is being withheld sure makes it look like something worse.

No matter where the chain of responsibility leads or ends, Jindal has some answering to do. The bullish tactics that insulate him from the press have quickly become a hallmark of his nascent administration. When The Advocate in Baton Rouge tried last week to take a closer look at the salaries various administration members are making, the newspaper noted that Jindal’s chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, did not return two requests for comment on the governor’s payroll.

As Jindal prepared to roll out his plan for a special session on ethics reform, The Independent also asked him about Rep. Gordon Dove, a Houma Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. Industry representatives have complained in writing that Dove is also facing a potential conflict of interest: Dove admits to owning roughly 1.4 percent of an oil well located north of Baton Rouge that provides him with roughly $900 per month in income.

Dove says he told House Speaker Jim Tucker, a fellow Republican from Algiers, about his financial interests before being appointed as committee chair. When we asked Sellers if the administration was made aware of this — and for a comment from Jindal on the potential conflict — only one sentence was offered in return. “The governor was not aware of that conversation,” Sellers says, referring to the exchange between Dove and Tucker, who also could not be reached for comment. If Jindal has a problem with a lawmaker on his team overseeing a department that regulates an industry in which he has a financial interest, he certainly didn’t feel like talking about it last week.

Notwithstanding Jindal’s promises of “transparency” and a “gold standard” for ethics reform, the new boss looks a lot like the old boss. In the coming weeks, as his ethics agenda winds its way through the Legislature, perhaps voters will catch a glimpse of the Bobby Jindal they worshiped and adored during the 2007 campaign.

For now, though, simple questions like “Who interviewed Garret Graves?” remain unanswered — and serve as a stark reminder of just how far this administration needs to go to keep the governor’s promise of transparency.