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City IG Budget Exceeds State Ethics Board's Funding
Overworked, understaffed and often ridiculed as a watchdog with more bark than bite, the Louisiana Ethics Commission enters Gov. Bobby Jindal's special legislative session this week with a budget of only $1.9 million for the fiscal year 2007-2008. That's the same amount that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin proposed last year for new city Inspector General Robert Cerasoli — an amount the City Council rejected as inadequate. The council approved a first-year budget of $3.4 million to fund both the new IG's office (including a staff of 25 investigators and auditors) and the city Ethics Review Board. "Our initial budget request for next fiscal year (2008-09) was $2.9 million, which does not include anything that comes out of this session," says Kathleen Allen, deputy general counsel for the state ethics panel. Currently, the state commission's 23-member staff includes five attorneys, four investigators and four campaign finance compliance officers. The employees' many duties include enforcement of state campaign finance disclosure laws and collection of its civil fines and penalties. Jindal's campaign recently failed to report $118,000 in in-kind contributions from the state GOP within the time frame required. The charge, which has not yet been adjudicated, has knocked the new governor off his moral high perch. — Johnson

 

Jailed Ex-Judge Owes State
Former state Judge Alan Green of Jefferson Parish owes the Louisiana Ethics Commission $4,000 for failing to file a campaign report, records show. But the state may have to wait awhile to collect. A brother-in-law of U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, Green is still serving a four-year prison sentence for corrupting his judicial office. Green first reported to a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, on March 27, 2006. The Louisiana Ethics Commission last year fined Green for failing to file a state campaign report in connection with his successful re-election effort in 2002. Under current state law, Green may use his campaign funds to pay the ethics fine, a civil penalty. On June 29, 2005, a federal jury in New Orleans convicted Green of mail fraud after the judge took two cash bribes of $5,000 each from an agent of Bail Bonds Unlimited, who also was convicted. Prior to sentencing, Green donated $20,000 in campaign funds to three area churches and to Covenant House, a home for runaway youths. Green filed his last campaign report in February 2006. The report shows a fund balance of $5,526. But even if the campaign cupboard is bare, Green, now 55, will still have another source of income by the time of his scheduled release on Dec. 7, 2009 — he has not yet begun receiving his taxpayer-funded, lifetime annual pension of $50,000. He is currently confined to the Federal Correctional Institute at Cumberland, Md. Members of his family reportedly moved to Germantown, Md., after his trial. — Johnson

 

Tax Commission Cometh
Some of the most interesting — and revealing — appointments Gov. Bobby Jindal might make will be on the Louisiana Tax Commission, according to the top dog at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI). The five-member tax commission keeps assessors in line and makes sure property taxes are being applied fairly. Dan Juneau, LABI's president, says some powerful assessors resent the commission for telling them they had to assess property as the state constitution requires, not in the political fashion they had utilized for decades. Then again, the assessors as a group endorsed Jindal last year. "They have wasted no time since the election trying to influence his appointments to the Tax Commission," Juneau says. "In the very near future, we will find out how successful they have been in their lobbying." Appointing a strong and independent Tax Commission was one of the successes ex-Gov. Kathleen Blanco can hang her hat on, but Jindal, so far, hasn't shown his hand. — Alford



River, Gulf Chemistry Changing

Runoff from farming operations in Midwestern states is putting an alarming amount of carbon dioxide into the Mississippi River, according to a study published this week in the science journal Nature. The effects are being felt all along the mighty river, including in Louisiana. In the past 50 years, farming-related runoff has injected the equivalent of five Connecticut Rivers into the Mississippi, according to research funded by the National Science Foundation. "It's like the discovery of a new large river being piped out of the Corn Belt," says Peter Raymond, lead author of the study and an ecologist at Yale University. "Agricultural practices have significantly changed the hydrology and chemistry of the Mississippi." The research team analyzed current data from the Mississippi River against comparative data from the river that is more than 100 years old. The older data had been warehoused at two New Orleans water treatment plants. Researchers tracked changes in the levels of bicarbonate, which forms when carbon dioxide begins to dissolve minerals in the river. Bicarbonate plays an important, long-term role in absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide, also known as greenhouse gas. Ocean bodies, like the Gulf of Mexico, then absorb the carbon dioxide when the river dumps into it and become more acidic. Eugene Turner, a co-author of the paper and a marine ecologist at LSU, says this makes it harder for some species to survive. "Ocean acidification makes it difficult, for example, for certain organisms to form hard shells," Turner says. The researchers concluded that liming and farming practices, such as changes in drainage and crop rotation, are likely responsible for most of the increase in water and carbon dioxide in the Mississippi River, which in turn has altered the chemistry of the Gulf of Mexico. — Alford

Reality Check
Recently retired Criminal Court Chief Judge Calvin Johnson, the father of Louisiana's first mental health court, says the arrest of a recently discharged mental patient for the murder of New Orleans police officer Nicola Cotton shows that the state's mental health-care system has failed once again. "We still have not come to grips with the reality of mental illness in Louisiana," says Johnson. "The reality is that we do not have sufficient resources to deal with the incredible complexity of the problem. And we don't have [enough] advocates advocating [for reform]." Johnson, who retired Jan. 2 after 17 years on the bench of Criminal Court, all but dismissed a clamor of calls to arm NOPD officers with electronic stun guns for future encounters with violent mental patients. He says he has seen no evidence that tazers can effectively subdue a person "in a psychotic state." Johnson says his five years at mental health court — which relies on intensive counseling, medical treatment and monitoring by social service agencies as an alternative to jail — brought him criminal cases involving 400 mentally ill defendants. "We never had one involved in a violent confrontation," Johnson said. Judge Arthur Hunter has taken over mental health court since Johnson's retirement. — Johnson

Call for Investigation
Local activist Brad Ott is calling for an investigation of Louisiana's mental health care system in connection with the Jan. 28 murder of NOPD Officer Nicola Cotton. But who should lead the probe? Lawyers say the state attorney general's office would be obligated to defend the state against any civil litigation arising from a probe. Ott, a health-care activist, says the City Council's committee on mental health care may know how to probe any "system failures" that resulted in Officer Cotton's death. Bernel P. Johnson, 44, a mental patient with a history of violence, was diagnosed as a "danger to others" and was forcibly committed to state care by the Orleans Parish Coroner's office on Jan. 4. For reasons that remain unclear, he subsequently was released from a state mental institution. Three weeks later, Johnson fatally shot Cotton with her own weapon after a struggle that cops say was captured on videotape. Johnson, who also has been in and out of private mental health-care facilities, remains in jail without bond. A competency hearing is pending. — Johnson

Leftist, Shrink Praise NOPD
Brad Ott, a local health-care activist and veteran of anti-war demonstrations who has marched to protest police brutality, acknowledges he's plowing unfamiliar ground for a leftist. Ott has joined psychiatrists and other experts in praising the grieving police department's overall handling of mentally ill patients post-Katrina. Ott credits NOPD mental health experts Jim Arey and Cecile Tebo with giving the rest of the force "solid," specialized training on how to handle disturbed mental patients. Ott acknowledges his outspoken support of local cops is "unique," given his left-wing political views. But Ott says that post-Katrina he's been impressed by the vocal support of law enforcement for re-establishing a central medical facility for the mentally ill, whom cops otherwise would transport to jail. "It's a whole side of the Police Department that we didn't see [pre-Katrina]," Ott says. "They are front-line providers of mental health care since the storm." Dr. Janet Johnson, a clinical psychiatrist at Tulane University Medical Center, agrees. "Our staff has been impressed by the way the officers have handled our patients," Johnson says. "Our police department is probably better educated than most police departments around the country in terms of dealing with the mentally ill." — Johnson

Keeping it in the Family
There seems to be a Cajun Camelot developing on the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, the state board that regulates hunters and anglers. Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, appointed Stephen W. Sagrera of Abbeville to the commission last week. Sagrera takes the place of his father, Wayne Sagrera, who formerly chaired the board. The seat represents commercial fishing and fur interests. The younger Sagrera is both a cattleman and a crawfish farmer, but is probably better known as president of Gators Unlimited and vice president of Vermillion Gator Farm, which is run by his father. He is by no means new to representing the industry and getting involved with policymaking, though. He previously served as president of the Louisiana Alligator Farmers and Ranchers Association. Jindal also reappointed Earl P. King Jr. , of Amelia, to the commission. King has been the owner and president of King Trucking Inc. since 1967 and is a member of the Tiger Athletic Foundation, Louisiana Motor Truckers Association and the American Petroleum Institute. — Alford

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