News Briefs

The legacy of J. Bennett Johnston, hurricane "experts," Erin Z. moves on and more


The Independent Weekly launched its new blog Da Bog last week. If you haven't checked it out at, you're missing breaking news, quirky items and opinions on everything from politics to sports from The Ind's editorial staff. For a sampling, a number of this week's IndBriefs were reported first on Da Bog. ' Scott Jordan


Everyone's abuzz about the big new oil discovery in the Gulf of Mexico and what it could mean for Louisiana with the offshore royalty revenue-sharing bills pending in Congress. But it may not be quite the windfall everyone was hoping for; due to a "mistake" in oil leases sold by the feds in 1998 and 1999, some of this big find is apparently exempt from any government royalty payments.

Most news reports neglected to mention the lead role some of Louisiana's own representatives played in this mistake. Former Louisiana U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston was the architect of an original oil industry incentive bill passed almost a decade ago to spur exploration in the Gulf, which first expempted new oil finds from royalty payments. The bill may not have been such a bad thing, except for the fact that Congress neglected to include an "escape clause" which reinstated royalty payments once oil reached prices above a threshold like $35 a barrel. At the time the incentive package was passed, oil was at $16 a barrel. It's now at $64 a barrel. The result has meant billions in lost revenue for the federal government.

Johnston's not the only one to blame. Former La. Rep. Bob Livingston was also a big proponent of the bill. And last week, a congressional committee heard further evidence of a culture of corruption within the Interior Department, which not only failed to include escape clauses in an estimated 1,100 oil leases, but also attempted to cover up the mistake.

The New York Times first broke the story of the lost royalty payments back in March. Looking back on his bill, Johnston told The Times, "This is not what we intended. [The bill's] got a lot of very obscure language."

The federal government now estimates it stands to lose as much as $10 billion over the next decade because of the mixup ' a portion of which would have likely been dedicated to Louisiana coastal restoration. Both Johnston and Livingston now work as Washington D.C. lobbyists with extensive ties to the oil industry. ' Nathan Stubbs


Members of Louisiana's congressional delegation plan to "git 'em up and move 'em out" on Saturday, Sept. 23, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Rita's landfall.

Cattle drives have been a way of life for ranchers from the rural parish for a century, and resilient residents aren't deterred by the devastation of the storm. "Riding the Trail to Recovery" will be cowboys from Cameron Parish accompanied by Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, Reps. Bobby Jindal and Charles Boustany, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom and Lt. General Russel L. Honore. The trail ride kicks off at 10 a.m. from the intersection of Jimmy Savoie and Trosclair Roads (5 miles west of Oak Grove) and rounds up at the Cameron Recreation Center at noon. Hot dogs, hamburgers and jambalaya will be served to the public at the end of the ride.

On Sunday, Sept. 24, following an interfaith service at the Lake Charles Civic Center, a summit focusing on the need to restore Louisiana's wetlands will convene at 2 p.m. The event, hosted by the America's Wetland Campaign in partnership with the LSU AgCenter and the governments and chambers of commerce of Cameron and Calcasieu, hopes to train the national spotlight on the aftermath of the "forgotten hurricane," Rita. For more info, visit the Americas Wetland Web site at, or call the Southwest Louisiana Chamber of Commerce at (337) 433-3632. ' Mary Tutwiler


Our cover story last week ("Coastal Call") was an extended interview with acclaimed author Mike Tidwell, whose extensive coverage on coastal erosion produced the fine 2003 book Bayou Farewell. In Tidwell's new book, The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities, he makes a compelling case for the effects of global warming on increased hurricane intensity. He's extremely critical of NOAA, claiming the government agency is ignoring science, actively trying to downplay global warming and even going so far as covering up the evidence.

An Associated Press story last week gives further credence to Tidwell's view on global warming, detailing how new scientific research funded by the Department of Energy shows that global warming is contributing to disturbing weather patterns. That's noteworthy by itself, but this section also stood out:

"Not so sure of the findings was William M. Gray of Colorado State University, a longtime hurricane expert who issues forecasts each year of the expected number of storms.

Gray said the models do not deal with all necessary ocean processes and called the report 'a desperate attempt to keep the bandwagon going. They've kept it going with global warming and now they want to keep it going with hurricanes.'

"'I am very sure over the test of time it will not hold up,' said Gray, who was not part of the research team."

Gray is part of the crack team of "hurricane experts" at Colorado State University who predicted an extremely active hurricane season ' hardly the news anyone wanted to hear after Katrina and Rita. They've since revised their forecast downward twice in recent months, with no sufficient explanation. Using that logic, why even bother to predict the number of hurricanes in the first place? They resemble sportswriters who make bold preseason picks, then jump ship mid-season after realizing their "expert" opinions and chosen teams are sinking fast.

And how does Department of Energy-funded research qualify as "a desperate attempt"? What "bandwagon" is Gray referring to? And his last quote is ridiculous. If his previous forecasting ability is any indication of Gray's ability to look into the future, then you can take it to the bank that the research over the test of time will hold up. ' Scott Jordan


In the lot of a vacant building on the corner of Polk and Vermilion streets in downtown Lafayette, there's a monument 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide displaying "GOD'S TEN COMMANDMENTS."

The property's owner, Roland F. LeBlanc Sr. of Abbeville, placed the reminder there. "It's my property," he says, "and I think the good Lord wants us to know the Ten Commandments. Ninety percent of those young people from high school graduate, and they don't even know the Ten Commandments. I think it would be a better place for the community once they realize that we're interested in the obedience of God's commands." The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount are displayed on the other side of the monument.

"I was instrumental in putting up a very large monument on private property in Abbeville, right across from City Hall and the courthouse building," LeBlanc says. "That one measures 4 by 6 feet, and we have lights on it at night." With $250 in donations left from the Abbeville project, LeBlanc was able to "get a good deal" on the smaller stone displayed in Lafayette.

LeBlanc says he plans to illuminate the Lafayette monument as well. "If it's suitable to the renter of the property," he adds, "hopefully I can get a bigger one to put out there." ' R. Reese Fuller


Talk about a Capra-esque campaign commercial. Baton Rouge Republican State Sen. Jay Dardenne walks the hallowed halls of the upper chamber with his head bowed like a humble servant. All of it is in black and white with delicate narration. When Dardenne used it a few years ago for his Senate re-election, it won an award from the American Association of Political Consultants. So it's no surprise Dardenne recycled the ad statewide for his secretary of state campaign.

But Pat Bergeron, a political operative from Baton Rouge who publishes The Louisiana Political News Service online, says a phrase referring to Dardenne's support for "less taxes" was taken out of the most recent version. The reason? Dardenne voted for several tax measures over the years, and the statement could have left him open for attack on the state level.

Dardenne says the script was altered in its entirety and expanded to fit a larger market. "That is a typical move by the Web site to criticize my every move," he says. Dardenne then lashes out on a familiar topic in many political circles: Bergeron is on the payroll of Mike Francis, the former chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party facing off against Dardenne and a group of others in the Secretary of State race. "He's been paid $4,000 and there's no disclaimer at all," Dardenne says. Bergeron contends his blog is his "personal" outlet and has nothing to do with his professional life. "I don't write anything on the blog that is untrue to the best of my knowledge," Bergeron says. "It appears to me that Mr. Dardenne is just shooting the messenger." ' Jeremy Alford


Incumbent Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon yanked one of his television advertisements off the air last week, after violating a rule prohibiting use of footage from the chamber floor for political or campaign purposes. Bradley Beychok, Melancon's campaign manager, says the oversight was addressed as soon as the campaign became aware of the problem. "It mistakenly appeared and we have already requested a change with the television stations," he says. "It was only about a second and a half of footage."

State Sen. Craig Romero of New Iberia, the Republican running against Melancon in the 3rd Congressional District, didn't miss an opportunity to turn insult into injury. A complaint was filed with the U.S. House Committee on Rules, and Brent Littlefield, Romero's campaign manager, issued a press release linking Melancon with a fellow Louisiana Democrat who broke House rules and is under federal investigation. "Charlie Melancon now has something else in common with [Congressman William] Jefferson, aside from their liberal voting records," says Romero, a native of Napoleonville. A call seeking comment from the House rules committee was not returned; in the past, violators of House rules have either been ignored or publicly admonished.

"No one has contacted our office," Beychok says. Pundits predicted the 3rd Congressional District race, which stretches along the coast from Iberia Parish to St. Bernard, would be the hottest and muddiest going this election cycle, and Melancon's return volley to Romero only strengthens that forecast. Beychok released a four-page report entitled "The Romero Record on Ethics" in response, detailing a laundry list of activities involving Romero that have been reported in recent years, like a 1995 decision by the Louisiana Ethics Board forcing four of Romero's siblings to pay a $10,000 fine after doing business with Iberia Parish while Romero was parish president. ' JA


The Independent Weekly's Erin Zaunbrecher has been an integral part of our editorial staff since the paper's launch three years ago. The multi-talented Zaunbrecher has covered everything from food trends and hurricane recovery to political races, and been a major part of all our team projects. Now she's taking her versatility out West; Zaunbrecher's moving from Lafayette to San Francisco. We'll miss her, and hope she saves us some couch space in her new digs. Contact her and wish her well at [email protected]. ' SJ