Four years ago, Gov. Bobby Jindal hoodwinked lawmakers, the public and most of the Louisiana Press Association into supporting legislation that he uses to keep virtually all his administration's records from public view. He also uses his enormous power to prevent that law from being overturned or narrowed.
The 2009 law, which Jindal cynically proclaimed a "transparency bill," is a prime example of the old wisdom that the devil is in the details. It contains an Orwellian provision that allows anything deemed part of the governor's "deliberative process" to remain secret. Under the law, Team Jindal gets to "deem" as liberally as it pleases.
Turns out Jindal loves to keep lots of things secret, particularly details about himself and his policies.
Since 2009, the Jindal Administration, including departments that are not even part of "the governor's office," have hidden behind the "deliberative process" scrim every time someone files a bothersome public records request. It's why Jindal is widely known as the least transparent governor in America. More important, it makes it next to impossible for an average citizen, or even a news organization, to pry public information out of Louisiana's executive branch.
Now that the feds are investigating the Jindal administration for possible criminal violations relating to the hiring of a Maryland contractor, CNSI, to process the state's Medicaid claims, it's becoming clear why Bobby Jindal likes to keep things secret. Former state Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein, who previously worked for CNSI, pushed through changes to the bid solicitation that helped his former employer win the state contract.
Surprised? Don't be.
Details about those changes, how they came about, and when, are precisely the kind of things that Team Jindal typically deems "part of the governor's deliberative process."
Lucky for us, that dodge doesn't cut it with the feds. They have subpoenas. The rest of us, sadly, have to rely on Louisiana's public records laws, which, thanks to Jindal, have been eviscerated.
That could change. State lawmakers are considering at least two bills to remove the "deliberative process" loophole. You can bet the governor will once again pull out all the stops to kill both measures — but there's hope this year. Because Jindal is now even less popular in Louisiana than President Barack Obama, perhaps lawmakers will muster the courage to correct the grave error they committed in 2009.
The two bills are House Bill 19 by Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard, I-Thibodaux (co-authored by Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston), and Senate Bill 95 by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton. Richard's bill will be heard Tuesday, April 30, in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.
"The goal is to get rid of that 'deliberative process' provision," Richard says. "I remember their testimony in 2009, when they said it was only going to be for the governor's office. That's not the case now. It's used throughout the executive branch. You name it, they use 'deliberative process' to hide it. That's not transparency. That's shielding things from the public, and it's how we got into some of the problems we have now."
Adley long ago predicted the 2009 bill would take Louisiana "from sunshine to moonshine." He was correct.
Media organizations should support both bills — the Louisiana Press Association (LPA), the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters and others. LPA president Norris Babin, who publishes the St. Bernard Voice and the Plaquemines Gazette, understands the issue well.
"LPA feels that the deliberative process has morphed into something other than what we thought it would be when it was presented in 2009," Babin says. "It's being used more broadly than promised. We were told it would make more records public. In actuality, it has taken more things off the public records table — and we would like to see something done about that."
If you care about making government more open and responsive, take the time to contact your state reps and senators. Tell them you're paying attention to the issue of public records. Tell them you'll remember how they vote on this issue next time you vote.
And remember that it was Bobby Jindal who got us into this mess.