In The Earl of Louisiana, A.J. Liebling wrote that "reform" in the Bayou State means moving the fat hogs away from the trough so the lean hogs can move in and get their fill. My late friend Jim Carvin, the dean of Louisiana political consultants, had a similar take. "In Louisiana," he said, "reform means cutting out somebody else's piece of the pie."
Both men were right.
I was reminded of their sage observations when the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) nominating committee decided not to re-nominate author John Barry for another term on the regional flood protection board. Barry literally wrote the book (Rising Tide) on flooding in Louisiana and is recognized nationally as an authority on levees and flood protection. He has served on SLFPA-E's board since its creation after Hurricane Katrina. Until recently, he was the darling of the "reformers" who convinced us to toss the corrupt old levee boards — or at least, some of them — and replace them with experts vetted and nominated by (drumroll, please) the reformers.
It's ironic but hardly surprising that Barry's demise as a levee board commissioner comes at the hand of some of the very do-gooders who once were his biggest supporters.
What happened? Did Barry suddenly become a crook?
No, he did something much worse. Barry's sin was political blasphemy: he espoused the notion that the energy industry ought to pay for its role in destroying thousands of acres of protective wetlands in southeast Louisiana.
Somebody get the net. The man is obviously insane.
When he accepted the SLFPA-E appointment, Barry apparently believed all that hoo-hah about political independence and qualifications and what-not. As long as he pleased the silk-stocking do-gooders, lots of folks bought into the charade.
But as soon as he and his fellow SLFPA-E commissioners sued 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies for the environmental and flood damage caused by the vast network of canals that Big Oil carved into Louisiana's wetlands, the notion of political independence became a quaint (and expendable) anachronism.
Gov. Bobby Jindal rushed to the defense of the energy industry, accompanied by his loquacious "wetlands czar" Garret Graves. The two men made it plain that Barry, whose term on the flood protection board expired June 30, would not be reappointed, even if the "independent" board of "experts" were to re-nominate him.
The nominating committee is chaired by businessman Jay Lapeyre, who was arguably Barry's biggest champion before the lawsuit. Lapeyre also was chair of the local Business Council during and after Katrina, and he led the charge for levee board reform. In fact, he spoke louder than anyone of the need to take the politics out of flood protection.
That was in 2006 and 2007. Since then, Lapeyre apparently has had an epiphany, for he announced at the nominating committee's meeting last week that, lo and behold, pure qualifications are overrated because the flood authority is "in the political world now."
Now? Only now?
Until now, the media have described Lapeyre as the president and CEO of Laitram LLC and the Council for A Better Louisiana's representative on the committee, which is correct. But he's also a major stockholder in, and the chairman of the board of, ION Geophysical Corp. of Houston, which, according to its annual report, counts oil companies among its "principal customers."
Um, isn't that a conflict of interest? And shouldn't Lapeyre have disclosed that conflict — and recused himself — before voting on Barry's re-nomination, which he voted against?
Apparently not. As Carvin noted, "reform" means cutting out somebody else's piece, not your own.
Barry's re-nomination failed on a 5-5 vote. The LSU School of Engineering rep voted with Lapeyre against Barry. Recall that LSU's engineering school got more than $2 million from Chevron recently. The LSU rep was the only academic on the committee to oppose Barry — but at least he wasn't masquerading as a reformer.
When I was young and idealistic, I thought reformers were the good guys. Now I know better. As Lapeyre informs us, we're all in the political world now.