Cover Story

Stonewall Jindal

by Jeremy Alford

National onlookers might be impressed with the ethics of Gov. Bobby Jindal, but here at home his administration is earning a reputation for being anything but transparent.

While the two men can usually talk circles around most of their opponents, Jimmy Faircloth and Johnny Koch were evenly matched in a recent standoff in the state Capitol’s sub-basement hallway. The channel cuts through a series of House committee rooms, and more than one passerby stopped and eavesdropped as Faircloth raised his voice and his face took on a deep shade of red.

Faircloth, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief attorney, was livid and insulted by the Louisiana Press Association’s interpretation of an administration-backed public records bill. Koch, a broad-shouldered lobbyist for the gaggle of newspapers, magazines and independent journalists, approached Faircloth to discuss LPA’s simple stance on the legislation: it flies grossly in the face of good government and would conceal more activities in the governor’s office than ever before.

Standing in the hallway, Koch barely got a word in edgewise as Faircloth’s face increased in color and words shot from his mouth like daggers. There was no middle ground in sight; Koch, in his gentle, squinty-eyed way, just nodded his head and waited for a break in Faircloth’s torrent. Meanwhile, Faircloth held his black leather portfolio at chest level, pointing to it as if it were the legislation and underlining imaginary sections that were beyond Koch’s control. “I’m willing to bet you a meal, under $50, of course,” Faircloth said, now pointing at Koch, “that if you request a record from one of our secretaries today and we go to court, we will win.”

The $50 caveat is a sly reference to the law Jindal passed in February’s special session on ethics reform that limits what lobbyists can spend on lawmakers and other decision-makers. But while Jindal and his staff have relentlessly touted such accomplishments from their first few months in office, many lawmakers, government watchdog agencies and Louisiana media outlets are discovering that the new governor often operates with a “Do as I Say, Not as I Do” philosophy.

A few days earlier, the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee had deferred action on Senate Bill 629 when the LPA and the Jindal administration couldn’t agree on the parameters of the measure. Current Louisiana law allows books, writings, accounts, letters and other records kept under the custody of the governor to be excluded from public view.

The proposed legislation authored by Sen. Mike Walsworth, a West Monroe Republican, further excludes records kept by the office — including the documents and government correspondence of practically everyone on the payroll, from the chief of staff to the scheduling director. Additionally, the bill would specifically exempt any direct communications from the governor’s office to lawmakers.

Faircloth and Jindal resumed their hallway tete-a-tete a week later during a Senate committee hearing, where Faircloth proclaimed any effort to describe the measure as more constrictive as an outright error. He said it would open up some 60 different agencies under the governor’s control to public view, with many on the committee supporting that argument. Veteran journalists, however, don’t see it that way. “I just don’t agree with counselor Faircloth’s interpretation,” says Carl Redman, an LPA spokesman and managing editor of The Advocate in Baton Rouge. “I don’t think this is an improvement. The solution is to not make special exemptions for the governor’s office, [but rather] to treat it and him like every other state agency or employee.”

That’s the path that other states have taken, but much to LPA’s chagrin, the legislation made it past its initial committee hearing and is now pending action in the full Senate.

The debate over the Walsworth bill isn’t the first time Team Jindal has gone to the mat to shield its activities from the public. During the governor’s special session on ethics reform in February, Faircloth torpedoed legislation by Republican Shreveport Rep. Wayne Waddell that would have cracked open the governor’s public records safe like never before, shining a light on communications and documents related to roughly 73 executive branch agencies and departments, including Jindal’s own inner sanctum.

Waddell tried to do the same during the tenure of former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco with little success, arguing that more information was needed on the state’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Blanco placed executive privilege over public good in her opposition and, true to form, Jindal sent his minions to do the same. But after Faircloth sank Waddell’s bill earlier this year, he vowed repeatedly, in front of reporters and lawmakers, to work with the Shreveport legislator on a compromise.

A few meetings transpired during the interim, and both sides agreed that certain protections should exist for homeland security and economic development. So it was with understandable zeal that Waddell returned to the ongoing regular session with House Bill 1100, the latest incarnation of his efforts to bring transparency to Jindal’s office. Yet since the regular session convened in late March, the administration’s willingness to find a middle ground on the legislation has seemingly evaporated. “I haven’t heard from [Jindal’s office] at all since the session started,” Waddell says. “But I am moving forward with this bill.”

In a stark he-said/he-said contrast, Faircloth told senators last week during the hearing on the Walsworth bill: “I have talked to [Waddell] and was prepared to go to the table” to work out a compromise. Sen. Lydia P. Jackson, a Shreveport Democrat, was glad to hear it and retorted that the language used in the Waddell bill “gives me greater comfort.” But there was no concession on Faircloth’s part as to what sort of compromise he has in mind.

The unmistakable irony of Jindal’s stances is not lost on some of his stakeholders. It’s a bitter pill for them to swallow, as Jindal was the mastermind behind forcing lawmakers to disclose more of their income and the chief cheerleader for everything else ethics-related in Louisiana. Many legislators see a hypocrisy underscored by the Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida, which ranks Louisiana as dead last when it comes to access to the governor’s office. Even Mississippi and Arkansas trump Louisiana in this area.

“It’s unfair to citizens who want access,” says Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, one of the many advocacy groups that helped craft Jindal’s broad-based ethics agenda. Even though Faircloth counters that the CAP rankings are skewed because Louisiana’s governor controls so many agencies and boards through his office, Brandt says it’s still high time for Jindal to loosen his nearly-unilateral grip over public records. “At PAR, we are strongly supportive of more sunshine in government, and this is an area of transparency in which the state has been ranked very low,” Brandt says.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s press secretary, Melissa Sellers (left), has become Public Enemy No. 1 to many reporters at Louisiana news outlets big and small.

Photo by Karron Clark

Transparency isn’t the only quality the administration is lacking. That became evident during PAR’s annual meeting two weeks ago, when a panel of journalists and bureaucrats held forth on the state of Louisiana politics — and the modus operandi of Melissa Sellers, Jindal’s press secretary. One insightful anecdote came from reporter Robert Travis Scott, the Capitol bureau chief for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.

The source of a constant string of breaking and relevant news, Scott recently unearthed a report that Jindal had commissioned from a group of retired generals — who detailed low morale, leadership problems and nepotism in the Louisiana National Guard. When Scott first asked about the report and why the governor reappointed Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau as the state’s adjutant general despite a contradictory recommendation, Sellers denied the report even existed. “That was a disappointing moment,” Scott says. “Just telling us a lie isn’t right. I hope that never happens again.”

At its annual meeting recently, the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters invited Jindal to speak to a room full of reporters. After wrapping up a speech filled with praise for the media for its post-hurricane coverage, the governor headed straight for the exit. Baton Rouge’s WAFB-Channel 9 caught the incident on tape, including Sellers shutting the door on cameras and reporters as she repeated, “No interviews, no interviews.”

Sellers has become Public Enemy No. 1 to many reporters at media outlets big and small. The student-run LSU Daily Reveille newspaper and Louisiana political Web site went as far as calling for her resignation after Sellers repeatedly ignored their requests, while larger prestigious broadcast outlets have privately griped about being removed from the administration’s press release lists after they ran less-than-flattering Jindal coverage. That comes as no surprise to Mark Ballard, Capitol bureau chief for The Advocate. “[Jindal] has surrounded himself with people who play hardball and can be punitive,” Ballard says. It’s created a good cop/bad cop situation that allows Jindal to essentially ignore the Louisiana press corps.

Lawmakers and reporters have also experienced difficult stints with Timmy Teepell, Jindal’s brain trust and chief of staff. During the February special session on ethics reform, Teepell was busted handing out free tickets to elected officials for a Hannah Montana concert. By ducking into doorways and avoiding phone calls, Teepell ignored media requests on why he gave out the freebees when the administration was simultaneously pushing a bill that would ban lawmakers from accepting such perks.

And when the retired Louisiana generals prepared their report on Louisiana Guard morale, the group said Teepell refused several requests for meetings. “Timmy hates to compromise,” says the Picayune’s Scott.

Timmy Teepell, Jindal’s chief of staff

Teepell’s management style fell under heavy fire when Col. Jim Champagne was fired as state highway commissioner after more than a decade. Champagne disagreed with the Jindal administration’s plan to repeal Louisiana’s law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets — and was shown the door one week after a meeting with Teepell. “I want it understood publicly, please,” Champagne says. “Don’t think I was removed because I did not do the job I was supposed to do as highway safety commissioner.”

Champagne’s firing, plain and simple, smacks of vintage political retribution. Former Gov. Mike Foster, an avid motorcyclist — and Jindal’s mentor — was less than pleased when Gov. Blanco reversed his law against mandatory helmets. National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration statistics show that helmets reduce the likelihood of a motorcycle crash-related fatality by 37 percent, but Team Jindal members appear more concerned with getting some political payback for their friend Foster.

For now, Jindal is enjoying his status as “America’s Ethics Governor,” evidenced by his recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. But back home, there are serious questions about how Jindal’s far-reaching ethics package can be enforced. In particular, The Advocate’s Ballard broke a story on how the governor’s heightened standard for assessing violations could neuter any serious attempt at true ethics reform. It all boils down to the definition of “clear and convincing” evidence for ethics violations under Jindal’s plan.

That ambiguous wording was a last-minute change made by Sen. Bob Kostelka, a Monroe Republican, to what is now Act 23. Ballard caught the oddity and brought it to light, further adding to other fears that Jindal’s restructuring of the Ethics Board to include governor’s appointees is nothing more than a form of political protection for administration supporters. At a brief news conference, Jindal dismissed the “clear and convincing” controversy as a disagreement between lawyers — but the governor and Teepell have ignored Ballard’s inquiries. “They have all avoided talking to me about it,” Ballard says.

The lack of response has become standard operating procedure for media inquiries on the administration’s stances and initiatives. Rarely a week goes by when the press secretary, chief of staff or governor himself doesn’t punt on a request or issue that was routinely fielded by previous administrations. A cursory review of media reports since Jindal took office found more than a dozen stories — on vital issues like education, ethics enforcement and budget funding — where the administration offered no comment. Some noted three or four calls made to the governor, press secretary or chief of staff that went unreturned.

Publicly, Jindal maintains a schedule that favors tightly scripted speeches and appearances to community groups and gatherings of supporters, spreading an unwavering message of positive change that’s garnered him approval ratings above 70 percent, his Leno sitdown and a speech last week to Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club. Behind the scenes, media and good-government groups like PAR scratch their collective heads as they watch the transformation of Louisiana’s Ivy League-educated Rhodes Scholar governor from an engaging, serious policy wonk to a stonewalling, carefully protected politician.

And it doesn’t appear that Jindal’s interested in changing that strategy anytime soon. Both he and Sellers refused a request for comment for this story.

Jindal's Media Playbook

Any reporter at the Capitol will gladly tell you that landing an interview with Gov. Bobby Jindal, as compared to former chief executives, is akin to finding the Holy Grail. If you can manage to get through the tightly-managed press office, or garner an audience at a public event, both of which are highly unlikely, answers from the GOP darling are dished out in a rapid-fire stream of more words than substance.

Unless you represent a national media outlet, forget talking to the governor these days. It’s all part of the playbook — limited access. At last month’s annual meeting of the Public Affairs Research Council, Robert Travis Scott, Capitol bureau chief for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, put it best: “He really doesn’t talk to us that much.”

Here’s a small sampling of recent stories that illustrate the Jindal media strategy.
Jan. 31:**
Jindal’s key aides’ salaries similar to Blanco’s — The Advocate
“Jindal’s chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, did not return two requests for comment on the governor’s payroll.”

Feb. 16:
Jindal gives away tickets to concert — The Advocate
“Jindal’s chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, did not respond to four requests for comment.”

March 4:
LSU Lab School access defended — The Advocate
“Jindal did not respond to five requests for comment Tuesday.”

March 4:
Nagin urges Jindal to fund N.O. projects, change ports — The Advocate
“Jindal did not return a call seeking comment after meeting with (New Orleans Mayor Ray) Nagin.”
March 4:**
Jindal may back tuition tax breaks — The Times-Picayune
“Jindal press secretary Melissa Sellers did not respond to questions about tax breaks for private school tuition or to a more specific question about (the) effort.”
March 19:**
To H2B or Not to H2B: State leaders are working different avenues and coalitions to solve this year’s critical shortage of seasonal immigrant workers. — The Independent Weekly
“Jindal Press Secretary Melissa Sellers did not respond to an inquiry about the governor’s involvement.”

March 26:
Educated Guess: The Jindal administration has yet to roll out the details of its education reform plans. So why are teacher unions already so leery? — The Independent Weekly
“The Jindal administration did not respond to multiple requests for comment ... The Independent submitted questions to Jindal Press Secretary Melissa Sellers asking for the governor’s position on vouchers, tax deductions for parents of private school students and merit pay for teachers. When asked at Jindal’s March 17 Lafayette press conference about the pending request, Sellers promised the paper a phone interview with the governor but never returned a follow-up e-mail inquiry.”

April 7:
Jindal preaches transparency, doesn’t follow through — LSU Reveille
“Jindal’s Press Secretary Melissa Sellers did not return calls requesting a comment for this column.”

April 9:
Former highway safety chief believes he was fired over helmet disagreement — Associated Press
“(Col. Jim Champagne) said he was fired March 25, after a meeting with chief of staff Timmy Teepell, and left six days later. Teepell did not respond to requests for comment.”

April 20:
Evolution talk cut from bill: Proposed law now calls only for ‘objective discussions’ — The Advocate
“Asked for a comment from Gov. Bobby Jindal or for Jindal’s position on the bill, the governor did not respond.”

April 30:
House panel to hold hearings in Angola 3 case — The Advocate
“Jindal did not respond Tuesday to two requests for comment.”