It was 20 years ago that a list of college scholarship recipients on the program at Brother Martin’s graduation ceremony included the name of then-New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s son.
Proud parents are often an embarrassment to their offspring, but this must have been the boast hizzoner most regretted.
The Tulane scholarship was not a reward for academic achievement, but showed what politicians mean when they speak of family values. The scholarship came from dad.
The mayor gets to hand out five full rides to Tulane every year, and 144 members of the state Legislature one each.
The arrangement, in place since 1888, had attracted little attention until 1993, and was, indeed, largely secret.
The Barthelemy indiscretion opened the floodgates. The public, suspecting this was not an isolated case of insider-dealing, was proven spectacularly right, although it took two years of litigation before the records were released. The program was operated largely for the families and friends of politicians who handed out scholarships entirely at their own discretion.
Students thought to be in need of a free Tulane education included the sons of then-Sen. John Breaux and then-Rep Bob Livingston, for example. One state rep of the era, John Jackson, would have been forgotten by now had he not had the nerve to award a scholarship to himself.
The program survived the resulting furor, but not without reforms. Legislators could no longer award scholarships to their own immediate family members, for instance, and a list of who got them would be made public every year. Recipients were now required to be Louisiana residents, and to achieve decent test scores.
This is still a giveaway administered by politicians, however, so it will never be quite on the up and up. The Legislature refuses, for instance, to release records showing which scholarships have been awarded to relatives of other politicians.
That will leave the public in no doubt that logrolling legislators are concocting dirty deals behind the scenes. You’d think politicians were doling out their own money the way they keep the cards close to the vest.
But then they always adopt a proprietorial attitude to our money, which in this case derives from tax exemptions granted to Tulane in exchange for the scholarships, now worth more than $43,000 a year each.
The beneficiaries are often highly unlikely charity cases. Take, for instance, Reagan Reed, who got a four-year ride when his dad called state Rep. Harold Richie, D-Bogalusa.
There’s another embarrassment of a dad. Walter Reed, as district attorney and the most powerful politician north of the lake, must have figured Richie wouldn’t turn him down. He evidently does not prize prosecutorial independence too highly either, although he could afford to pay his own bills if he cared to. His annual income, according to news reports, is at least $320,000. The Reed case is the most disgusting that has come to light in the new era of legislative scholarships, but it will obviously require more than a few rule changes to inculcate ethics at the Capitol.
Reed is far too grand to explain himself, but he had a spokesman claim that his son had the credentials for a scholarship. Refuting an allegation that has not been made is a tried and true way of evading the isssue.
State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, took a similar line defending her choice. Collin Buisson is a smart kid, she said. No doubt, but so what? It is no coincidence that he is also her campaign manager’s son. Moreno said it occurred to her that she might be accused of cronyism, so evidently she learned well in her years as a TV reporter.
What is coincidence, however, is the way the parents of scholarship recipients frequently turn round and make fat campaign contributions to their benefactors.
We have the legislators’ word for it that there is never a connection.
State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, has a plan that would ensure there never will be. He wants to abolish legislative scholarships and make Tulane pay its taxes. It is a fair and sensible proposal, so is clearly doomed.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.