The Advocate’s top stories of 2012

Saints suffer suspensions, accused in ‘Bounty Program’

Photo provided by Assumption Parish Police Jury -- An aerial view of the sinkhole in the Bayou Corne community in Assumption Parish photographed on Oct. 29.
Photo provided by Assumption Parish Police Jury -- An aerial view of the sinkhole in the Bayou Corne community in Assumption Parish photographed on Oct. 29.

To view the gallery for The Advocate’s Top Stories of 2012, click here

Developing sinkhole forces evacuations in Bayou Corne

Residents with homes and camps in the Bayou Corne area began noticing bubbles coming up in the swampy area in northern Assumption Parish in May.

By Aug. 3, a “slurry area” had formed in the vicinity of the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou areas. The sinkhole swallowed full-grown trees in a cypress swamp. State officials suspect a plugged Texas Brine Co. mining cavern in a massive salt dome is likely the cause. Six months later, after the huge sinkhole formed and forced an evacuation of the area, those residents are still away from their homes while public officials and company representatives try to resolve the problem. About 150 homes to the north and south of La. 70 have been involved in the evacuation order.

State Department of Transportation and Development officials are considering building a new road in the area to make sure traffic in a four-parish area served by La. 70 is not compromised should the nearby sinkhole continue to grow.

In other developments, state officials called for in-home air monitoring and specialized detectors and ventilation systems for slab-foundation and some pier-foundation homes, and Texas Brine, of Houston, has given weekly housing assistance checks to those affected by the sinkhole.

In December, residents got the sobering news that it will likely take experts until the middle of 2013 or beyond to determine the long-term problems created by the sinkhole, which had grown to 8.5 acres.

State’s budget woes ongoing

The crafting of a $25 billion state budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 erupted into a tug-of-war between Gov. Bobby Jindal and a faction of so-called fiscal hawks in the Louisiana House.

The dispute, which centered on the governor’s approach of using nonrecurring dollars for expenses that must be met year after year, briefly stalled the budget debate. Ultimately, the governor largely got the budget he wanted.

Months later, weak state sales and personal income tax collections along with other issues forced the governor to make $166 million in mid-year state budget cuts.

Jindal tossed hospice care for Medicaid recipients on the chopping block and penned a column proclaiming the state’s economy as strong.

In March, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell accused Saints players and coaches of participating in a scheme to hurt key opposing players, including quarterbacks Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton.

The so-called “Bounty Program” penalties resulted in the suspension of head coach Sean Payton for the year.

In addition, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely, General Manager Mickey Loomis was forced to sit out the first eight games of the season, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt, was suspended for six games, all without pay.

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the year, while less severe sanctions were handed down against Will Smith, as well as two former Saints — Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove.

Vilma returned to the field on Oct. 21 pending the outcome of his appeal.

Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed as appeals hearing officer in October by current Commissioner Roger Goodell, vacated the suspensions against Vilma and the other players on Dec. 11.

After the Tagliabue decision, Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the face of the franchise, said Goodell has “very little to no credibility” with players and fans because of the way the situation was handled.

Vilma, who filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell, also said he has no plans to drop the legal action against the commissioner.

For days in late August, almost all of the attention placed on Tropical Storm Isaac was on how it could disrupt the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

Once the storm crossed Florida and began to intensify in the Gulf of Mexico, that changed.

The hurricane slammed into the Louisiana coast and began pumping water into Lake Pontchartrain, forcing the evacuation of residents in Plaquemines and St. John parishes. At Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish, there was an 11-foot storm surge, with some reports it could have been as high as 13 feet.

In the city of LaPlace, residents evacuated as water came pouring in from the lake. Many residents said it was the first time they had witnessed flooding in their city. They returned home to the daunting task of throwing away carpet, furniture and other belongings destroyed by the storm.

In East Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes, hurricane-force winds and torrential rains downed trees, leaving tens of thousands of people without power. In the entire state, 39 percent, or 830,280 utility customers, were without electricity at the height of the storm. The East Baton Rouge city-parish Department of Public Works estimated about 200,000 cubic yards of debris had to be collected after the storm, about one-tenth of the 2 million cubic yards of debris left by Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

By early September, Isaac’s cost to state government totaled $119.6 million. The tally includes taking evacuees by bus to shelters, activating the Louisiana National Guard and distributing 3.1 million meals, 5.3 million bottles of water, 1.4 million bags of ice and nearly 100,000 tarps.

The Legislature, at the urging of Gov. Bobby Jindal, approved three sweeping bills aimed at overhauling public schools in Louisiana.

One of the bills expands the state’s voucher program.

Under the measure, students in public schools rated C, D or F, and whose families meet income requirements, can qualify for state aid to attend private and parochial schools.

Jindal and other backers contend the law is allowing nearly 5,000 students to escape failing public schools.

However, teacher unions and other critics filed a lawsuit that challenged the measure.

And a 19th Judicial District Court judge has ruled that the expansion is unconstitutional because it redirects money specified for public schools to non-public schools.

The ruling is being appealed.

State lawmakers also went along with Jindal’s request for a law that makes it harder for public school teachers to earn and retain a form of job security called tenure.

Backers of the change said that, under previous rules, virtually every teacher in the state got favorable annual reviews, which they said showed the evaluations were all but meaningless.

Critics contend the law will lead to the wholesale dismissal of qualified teachers, and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, a teachers’ union, challenged the measure in court.

A 19th District Court judge upheld much of the law, including the tenure provisions.

He struck down other portions, including parts that would strip authority from local school boards.

That ruling is also being appealed.

The Legislature voted to overhaul Louisiana’s pre-kindergarten system, including a new rule that will assign letter grades to pre-K schools and centers.

Backers said the change will lead to a higher rate of children ready for kindergarten, which is 54 percent now.

Michaela “Mickey” Shunick got on her bicycle at her friend’s home in Lafayette and was heading home at 2 a.m. on May 19, but the University of Louisiana at Lafayette anthropology student never made it home.

The search for the 21-year-old went on for weeks, involving a huge community response. On July 5, police arrested Brandon Scott Lavergne, a 33-year-old offshore worker and a registered sex offender from St. Landry Parish.

On Aug. 17, he stood before a 15th Judicial District judge and pleaded guilty two counts of first-degree murder in the slayings of Shunick and Lisa Pate, a Lafayette woman killed in 1999.

Lavergne told investigators he had followed Shunick and knocked her off the bicycle with his pickup truck. Armed with a knife and a semi-automatic handgun, Lavergne got Shunick into his truck, where she put up a fierce struggle, spraying him with Mace, grabbing his knife and lunging at him. After driving to Acadia Parish, Lavergne shot Shunick in the head, killing her instantly. He drove Shunick’s body to his home in Church Point, where he destroyed the clothes he was wearing and tried clean out the truck before taking Shunick’s remains to a cemetery near Mamou. He then headed to New Orleans, dumping Shunick’s bicycle near the Whiskey Bay Bridge off Interstate 10 and seeking treatment for his wounds. The next day, he returned to the cemetery and buried Shunick’s body in a heavily wooded area nearby.

In exchange for his guilty plea, Lavergne was sentenced to life in prison and prosecutors agreed to not seek the death penalty.

LSU Tigers continue with top flight team

LSU’s football team started the year with another chance at a national championship, but when the game was done it was former LSU football coach Nick Saban lifting the BCS National Championship trophy after Alabama’s 21-0 victory.

Despite the loss, players looked back at a successful season. “We came up short in the end, but we were 13-0 in the regular season, got the SEC championship; we beat the national champions once,” defensive tackle Michael Brockers said, “and we had an amazing season all the way around.”

The 2012 season also proved to be just as promising for the Tigers, entering the season as the No. 3 team in the nation. The Tigers could have had an even higher ranking had it not been for the suspension, and ultimately the loss, of star defensive back Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu.

Mathieu, a Heisman Trophy finalist in the 2011 season, was kicked off the team after reportedly failing multiple drug tests. Any chance of Mathieu returning to the team next season evaporated following his arrest along with former LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson and two other men on drug counts earlier this year.

On the field, LSU continues to have a top flight team and ended the season as the 8th ranked team in the Bowl Championship Series. But finishing 8th didn’t get LSU a spot in a BCS bowl. Instead, the Tigers from Baton Rouge will play the No. 14 Tigers from Clemson in the Chick-fil-A bowl in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve.

People who live in the 70805 ZIP code area in Baton Rouge and surrounding communities for years have had to endure high crime rates, but a new initiative aims to change that.

Members of the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination (BRAVE) Project will use research and data analysis to identify the people they want to target. Researchers also will use information gathered to determine where and when crimes are occurring on a daily or a weekly basis, to track long-term crime trends, and to break up criminal networks.

In October, law enforcement officials credited the BRAVE program when they announced the indictment of 15 repeat offenders. Eight of the 15 people recently indicted had direct ties to the 70805 ZIP code area, U.S. Attorney Donald Cazayoux said.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said the arrests are a positive development in the cleanup of the 70805 ZIP code area but are merely a by-product of BRAVE. The actual research, and data collection and analysis part of the program funded through a federal grant, is still in the early stages.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White said the relationships the Police Department’s BRAVE patrol unit has created with people in the 70805 ZIP code also have cultivated tips that have helped solve seven murders.

People in the area “are actually saying they are feeling safer and that they are seeing a change,” White said.

The city’s 70805 ZIP code is bordered by Airline Highway to the north and east, Choctaw Drive to the south and the Mississippi River to the west.

In November, officials with the University of Cincinnati and the city of Cincinnati came to Baton Rouge to talk with officials involved in the local BRAVE project. The Ohio city has also started a BRAVE program of its own, which has helped lower the number of shootings in the city by 22 percent.

In May, The Times-Picayune, the daily newspaper in New Orleans, announced plans to convert to a 24-hour, 7-day a week digital news source with a print edition only on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

In June, the newspaper announced that 200 of its employees, including 84 of the newsroom’s 173 employees, would lose their jobs.

In July, The Advocate announced that it was setting the groundwork to provide daily newspaper service to New Orleans just as The Times-Picayune began its three-day-per-week delivery of newspapers.

“From the moment that they announced that they were going to a three-day-a-week newspaper, we thought there would be tremendous opportunities for The Advocate to fill a void they’re creating,” said Richard Manship, president and CEO of Capital City Press, which publishes The Advocate.

In staffing its New Orleans bureau, The Advocate hired some former employees who had been let go by The Times-Picayune.

Several pages in The Advocate’s New Orleans edition, including the front page and the B-section (South Louisiana/Business) front, are reworked each day to display major New Orleans area stories. And on Thursdays, the edition includes the Community section, providing New Orleans area feature stories, and the Beaucoup section, highlighting local arts and entertainment.

Within three months, daily circulation of the edition topped 20,000.

Louisiana’s public colleges and universities underwent dramatic change in 2012 as two system presidents and three campus leaders either retired, were fired or announced plans to retire in the near future.

Departures at lower levels have been of greater concern as department heads, deans and faculty are beginning to search outside of Louisiana for comparable jobs.

Many attribute part of the blame to Louisiana’s financial outlook. Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have cut higher education funding by more than $426 million since 2008 in order to balance state budgets.

Higher education leaders also say colleges across the country are starting to look at Louisiana as fertile ground to pick off some of the state’s top talent.

When research faculty are recruited or leave on their own, they often take millions of research grants with them. That hurts universities in national rankings and compounds the “knowledge drain” that typically accompanies year-after-year budget cuts.

In April, LSU System President John Lombardi was fired; Michael Martin, chancellor of LSU’s Baton Rouge campus left, in August to lead the Colorado State University System; LSU at Shreveport Chancellor Vincent Marsala retired in June; University of Louisiana System President Randy Moffett retired in September; and Louisiana Tech University President Dan Reneau is expected to retire in June 2013.

Changes have hit the state’s flagship campus especially hard with LSU losing several key administrators.

In addition to its chancellor, the campus has lost its College of Science dean, business school dean, CFO and vice provost for equity, diversity and community outreach.