Monday, 24 April 2017 18:25

Giving Governor Edwards "the business" over Bankston flood recovery business

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edwards midRecently, a U.S. House of Representative with a Republican majority gave Louisiana’s Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards the business over the speed and execution of flood relief. But did he deserve that?

The committee’s majority probed certain decisions made by the Edwards Administration that seemed to delay getting money into the hands of flood victims. One line of inquiry in particular focused upon the on-again, off-again, now maybe off-again situation with hiring a contractor to coordinate the distribution of aid, which had become entangled with the realities of executive power.

Essentially, the entity responsible for vetting the selection, the State Licensing Board for Contractors, on advice from its counsel Larry Bankston, shaped the original bidding so that the contract would have gone to an entity that employed his son. The disqualified winner then sued the state, in short order the state rebid and again awarded it to the original firm, and now another firm has filed a complaint with the state over the process which ultimately could end up in court.

Bankston’s insertion into the affair redounded unfavorably to Edwards, as the committee asked the governor several questions about the role of the former state senator sent to prison on corruption charges. Not long after Edwards assumed office, the long-time former counsel, Republican Murphy Foster, found his services suddenly no longer required, followed by the Board twice letting contracts to Bankston, a Democrat stalwart whose father had helmed the state party in decades gone by. In fact, GOP Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry, who had to approve of contracts for personal services, had raised objections to the choice the second time around, an action which drew public criticism from the Edwards Administration.

All of which leads to the question about how much responsibility rested on Edwards for Bankston gumming up the works. It seems too coincidental that the Board would dump Republican Foster after some years not long after the election of Edwards for a controversial Democrat without his coming into office having something to do with it all.

The Board is an agency under the Governor’s Office comprised of 15 members from various disciplines and areas serving six-year terms, appointed by the governor with perfunctory Senate approval. Most importantly, its members serve at the pleasure of the governor, meaning he can dismiss any one of them at any time.

This leaves three ways in which a governor may influence decisions made by the Board. First, he could directly tell members what he wants, with the threat of canning recalcitrant members or not reappointing them; second, he can indirectly drop hints about his preferences; third, he needn’t communicate at all, knowing that members realize his preferred actions without need of explicit or implicit conveyance of these.

After I wrote a piece in the Baton Rouge Advocate noting that events and actions suggested Edwards had influenced the Board into having Bankston as counsel (although I erroneously had argued that Edwards had selected members to it, having carelessly misread press release dates), somebody best described as close to Edwards initiated a conversation with me. This source insisted that Edwards had done nothing of the sort, despite the rather compelling circumstantial evidence that made it appear that he had.

My contact told me that Edwards had said he never asked any board member to hire Bankston, nor even gave the slightest hint to any that it should occur. The explanation: Edwards had lots of stuff going on with three legislative sessions held and the aftermath, so this matter barely reached the level of trivial. Indeed, the source recommended that I contact the Republican activist chairman of the Board about the matter to confirm this account.

However, the problem with doing that is that no gubernatorially-appointed member of anything ever will admit that the governor has influence over him. To publicly tell the world that, yes, I’m nothing more than the governor’s lapdog goes against the image they want to project as serious, thoughtful, and influential policy-makers who decide on the basis of principle, not someone taking orders from anyone out of fear they’ll lose their plum position. If asked that, appointees either will avoid giving an answer or simply prevaricate.

But let’s say that’s how it went down (a request to the source to have Edwards personally communicate to me a first-hand account that it happened this way did not produce the desired result); must Edwards still take the rap for Bankston? Consider the third channel of influence, which reached national consciousness concerning actions some years ago against conservative organizations by the Internal Revenue Service and more recently in surveillance of Pres. Donald Trump during this campaign.

Former Pres. Barack Obama or members of his Administration did not have to tell IRS officials to target conservative organizations applying for 501(c)3 or 501(c)4 status; appointees and civil servants sympathetic to Obama knew they had the green light to help his political fortunes by deliberately and discriminatorily delaying the approval process. Likewise, the Obama White House did not have to give orders even indirectly for operatives to use illegally politically information about Americans incidentally gathered in observing foreign elements; his appointees knew what would benefit Obama and his political allies.

So, to be influenced by Edwards Board members needn’t have some kind of communication with him; they easily could intuit that unless they handed out patronage that favored his political associations/party, they might not secure reappointment (many but not all whose terms expired to date subsequently have) or even could get dismissed prior to their terms’ ends. And when, in the aftermath of Landry’s reluctance to approve Bankston’s contract the Edwards Administration released a statement supporting the Board’s action to hire Bankston while not explicitly endorsing Bankston, this acted as a signal to the Board that Edwards tacitly approved the action, because the Board acts completely as an arm of a governor who basically can hire and fire its members at will.

Chances are Edwards has no real love for Bankston and didn’t foresee the political problems that could result from giving the felon some control over the recovery process. Probably what happened was his antipathy to Landry got the best of him: interpreting Landry’s sensible attempt to keep Bankston out as a kind of political attack, he let that emotion override better judgment and dug in not to support Bankston, but to oppose Landry.

In the final analysis, Edwards influenced the chain of events that got Bankston the gig that put the new counsel in the position to make a decision that politically embarrassed the governor. Does anybody seriously believe the Board would have hired Bankston had one of Edwards’ Republican opponents won the election? Or if Edwards had issued a statement when Landry’s objections surfaced that the Board may wish to consider the attorney general’s concerns, instead of attacking Landry's motives? Thus, Edwards bears responsibility for the wrench Bankston has thrown into the recovery process.

Jeffrey Sadow

Jeffrey Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.   He writes a daily conservative blog called Between The Lines

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