Tulane scholarship program still ‘insider’s club,’ some say

Twenty years after excesses in Tulane’s program were discovered, some say it’s time to scrap the legislative scholarship program and its potential for abuse

“People who are connected are the ones that get all of the breaks. I’m sure that there are some very well-deserving students who are in Washington Parish who would have given their eye teeth to have gone to a school like Tulane University.” SANDRA SLIFER, president of the League of Women Voters of Louisiana

State Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, didn’t have any applicants for the full-ride Tulane scholarship that he — along with every other member of the Legislature — gets to award each year.

So he was almost relieved when Walter Reed, the district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington parishes, called him in the spring of 2011 and said he had the perfect candidate: Reed’s son, Reagan.

Reagan Reed didn’t live in Ritchie’s largely poor and rural district; he was from nearby Covington. But the younger Reed had an impressive pedigree — he was senior class president at St. Paul’s School. He also happened to be the son of the man many consider the north shore’s most powerful politician — and, with an annual income of at least $320,000, perhaps its best-compensated.

And so, with the stroke of a pen, Ritchie awarded a gift that, over four years, will save the Reed family around $172,000. Reed did not make himself available for an interview, but through a spokesman said that his son’s credentials merited the award.

It’s hardly the only instance of log-rolling in the Tulane legislative scholarship program. While the most egregious excesses of the scholarship giveaway have been reined in since they provoked a public outcry 20 years ago, the program is still, in the words of Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche, an “insider’s club.”

Goyeneche and some others say it’s time to scrap the program altogether.

“This is a perfect example of the good ’ol boy insider network, where the connected get first crack at these perks,” said Goyeneche, a vocal critic of the program in the 1990s who began scrutinizing it again after a tipster complained about the Reed award. “We’re seeing history repeat itself here. This whole process is something legislators are not equipped to handle. It’s not in the public’s best interest, and creates, I think, a fertile field for abuse and self-dealing.”

Sandra Slifer of Covington, president of the League of Women Voters of Louisiana, said that when voters see powerful people like Walter Reed benefiting from a Tulane scholarship, “it just undermines people’s faith in government.”

“People who are connected are the ones who get all of the breaks,” Slifer said. “I’m sure that there are some very well-deserving students who are in Washington Parish who would have given their eye teeth to have gone to a school like Tulane University.”

Among state lawmakers, state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, is probably the program’s most outspoken critic. In Claitor’s view, not only are legislators not the best judges of who merits free tuition at Tulane, the immense worth of the scholarships — easily the most valuable thing most legislators hand out — can put them in compromising situations. Goyeneche calls it “ethical quicksand.”

“I think everyone in the Legislature has been approached by a supporter or a contributor,” said Claitor, who simply awards his annual scholarship to the applicant with the highest combined grade-point average and ACT score. “Frankly, I would like to see the program eliminated.”

History of questions

Twenty years ago, many Louisianans were outraged to learn that every legislator in the state got to give away one full ride to Tulane every year — and that in many cases, those perks were going to friends and relatives.

The sweetheart arrangement came to light in 1993, when, at Brother Martin’s graduation ceremony, it was announced that Mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s son was getting one of the five Tulane scholarships the mayor doled out each year under a program essentially identical to the legislative one.

The Times-Picayune sued that year to get the records of all the giveaways, kicking off a two-year court battle. But early calls to end the program didn’t go anywhere. A compromise was struck: There would be more transparency about who was getting the scholarships and who was giving them.

Academic and residential requirements were also imposed: To get a scholarship today, a student must either be a permanent resident of the state or a graduate of a Louisiana high school, in the top 25 percent of their high school class; and have a composite ACT score of at least 28 or a combined SAT score of 1870. And officials were prohibited from giving scholarships to themselves — as former state representative and City Councilman Johnny Jackson notoriously did — or members of their immediate family.

It still allowed lawmakers to give scholarships to relatives of elected officials, provided they disclose it. (Those disclosure forms are not posted publicly, though they are supposed to be available to the public upon request. A request for the forms from WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate has not yet been honored.)

Scholarship recipients also had to be admitted to Tulane, and if already enrolled, they must maintain a 2.3 grade-point average.

Those prerequisites — and the outcry from the scandal — have inarguably changed the program for the better. Many of today’s scholarship recipients were among the top students in the high schools they attended.

And superficially, at least, the 149 Tulane scholarships doled out by Louisiana politicians each year — 144 by the Legislature and five by the mayor of New Orleans — don’t cost taxpayers anything: Tulane eats the cost, now estimated at about $6.4 million a year. And some lawmakers tout the program as a way to keep top-notch local talent in-state, benefiting from a free education at the state’s most prestigious university.

But like most free lunches, the program comes at a price.

Perhaps fittingly, the scholarship programs were born of mutual back-scratching between Tulane and state officials. They date to a series of deals made in the 1880s, part of a grand and unusual bargain that turned Tulane from a public university into a private one.

As part of the swap, Tulane was freed from having to pay state and local sales taxes. The university also benefited from a tax exemption on property that is not used for educational purposes.

A 1995 Times-Picayune story estimated the value of those breaks to Tulane at about $2 million per year. Tulane officials said they believe the sales tax exemption saved the school roughly $3 million last year; the property tax break was nominal, worth perhaps $100,000 per year, they say. Overall, the program is a net drain on the university of anywhere from $1.5 to $3 million each year.

In return for the state largess, the 1884 law stipulated that students in legislative district in the state would get a crack at the scholarships, ensuring that Tulane would serve as a beacon for Louisiana.

The arrangement appears to be the only one of its kind in America.

Award decisions

For roughly the next 110 years, few standards on the program were imposed — politicians could essentially award scholarships to anyone.

That changed in the 1990s, but the old ways haven’t vanished entirely. Ritchie, who gave his scholarship to Walter Reed’s son, is hardly the only legislator to steer a scholarship to the child of an influential or trusted friend.

State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, has awarded her scholarship for the last two years to Collin Buisson, son of Greg Buisson, a veteran political consultant who has been handling Moreno’s campaigns and communications since she quit television journalism and went into politics in 2008.

Moreno defends the decision, saying that Collin Buisson is outstanding in his own right: He had a 4.1 grade point average at Brother Martin and was given the school’s Lambert Award for most outstanding student. He was also editor of the yearbook, she said.

While Moreno said it occurred to her that she might be accused of cronyism, she said it wouldn’t have been fair to deny Buisson a scholarship on that basis.

“I thought about that, but I also knew this particular student’s records could stand on its own,” Moreno said. “Because he is that impressive. I thought, ‘Because I know his father should I disqualify him?’ I didn’t think that was fair to him.”

Then there’s state Rep. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, who has given his scholarship for the last three-plus years to Alexandra Saizan, the daughter of consultant Darrel Saizan. Darrel Saizan has donated $2,000 to Morrell’s campaign treasury since 2011, plus $1,000 apiece to Morrell’s mother, City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, and state Rep. Jared Brossett, a close ally. Saizan is also Hedge-Morrell’s appointee to the powerful Industrial Development Board, a volunteer position.

J.P. Morrell doesn’t deny the bonds between the Morrells and the Saizans, but says Alexandra Saizan was a terrific candidate. She was also the only person from Morrell’s district who applied in 2009, he said.

“I was fortunate I had a talented young lady from my district who applied,” Morrell said.

When Richard Baumy Jr. of Slidell — the son of the longtime chief deputy sheriff in St. Bernard Parish — was graduating from St. Paul’s, he beat the bushes looking for scholarships, according to his father.

Baumy Jr. eventually found a patron in state Rep. Reed Henderson, D-Violet, who gave him the scholarship in 2010-11 but then decided not to run for re-election. The next year, state Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, took the baton, and in the fall of 2012, state Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Pearl River, became Baumy’s sponsor. Among those who made phone calls on the younger Baumy’s behalf was former Parish Councilman Joey DiFatta, a reserve captain in the sheriff’s office and a fixture of parish politics.

A few months after Crowe signed the paperwork, the senior Baumy received an invitation to a Crowe fundraiser. Though he’d never donated to the senator’s campaign before, he cut a $2,500 check to Crowe’s campaign account.

“That was after he was already selected,” Baumy Sr. noted. “It wasn’t like I was trying to help my son get the scholarship. ...I never game a dime to Lopinto or to Reed Henderson. Never even bought them a cup of coffee. I was never invited to a fundraiser….The kid already had the scholarship, so I didn’t have to give him [Crowe] anything.”

Crowe was indignant when a reporter asked him whether there was any relationship between the scholarship award and the campaign donation.

“There’s no connection whatsoever,” he said. “People who know me know I don’t do things like that. I had second thoughts about even accepting the contribution, but there was no connection between the two things.”

A similar sequence unfolded the last time Crowe gave out a scholarship. In 2008, he collected a $550 contribution from Richard Jeffries, the father of Holly Jeffries, the Northshore High valedictorian whose Tulane scholarship Crowe sponsored from 2008-12. It is the only campaign donation made by Jeffries listed on the state’s digital archive. Efforts to reach Jeffries were unsuccessful.

Some refuse donations

While taking donations from scholarship recipients violates no state ethics laws — provided one is not given explicitly in consideration of the other — some legislators don’t like the appearance of it.

“This program is controversial as it is,” Lopinto said. “You’ve got to understand that. And to take a campaign donation from someone you just gave a scholarship to, in my opinion, it’s improper. It may not be an ethical violation, but it’s not smart to do so.”

State Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, sees it the same way. Connick, who like some other legislators uses Jefferson Dollars for Scholars to find a worthy candidate for his annual scholarship, recently received — and promptly returned — a $500 campaign contribution from the father of a recent scholarship recipient. He sent it back with a certified letter that read, in part: “Please do not take this the wrong way, but I must return the check….While I appreciate the donation, I must return it because it may appear to some that donation is somehow connected to the scholarship. It is not.”

In an interview, Connick said: “It’s a privilege given to me to be able to award a scholarship. But the key to make it successful is I don’t want anything in return for giving that scholarship.”

But as Crowe’s example illustrates, not every legislator applies such an uncompromising standard.

In fact, an analysis of the 145 legislative awards for 2012-13 shows that it’s quite common for parents or other relatives of recipients to donate to their patrons. At least 38 legislators — or about one in four — appear to have collected money from relatives of the people they gave scholarships to that year.

But in most cases, the donations are of the token variety — $100 or $200 gifts were common. But there were at least 10 exceptions — including Morrell and Crowe — where donations were at least four figures.

They include:

  • William Zeichner of Natchitoches gave $2,500 in 2011 to state Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, who awarded a scholarship to Sidney Zeichner for the next two school years.
  • David Patterson of Berwick gave $2,500 in 2012 to state Sen. R.L. “Bret” Allain, R-Franklin, who that year awarded his scholarship to Kimberly Patterson.
  • Gary McGoffin of Lafayette gave a total of $1,250 to Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, in 2010 and 2011. Cortez, at the time a state representative, began sponsoring a scholarship for Eric McGoffin in 2009.
  • Adam Johnson of Arnaudville gave a total of $2,000 to state Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia, in 2010 and 2011. Mills in 2011 began sponsoring a scholarship for Katherine Johnson.
  • A Lafayette firm owned by Dwayne Hargroder has given a total of $4,500 to state Rep. Ledricka Thierry, D-Opelousas, since 2009. That year was the first of four years in which Thierry sponsored a scholarship for Elizabeth Hargroder.
  • Meg Goorley of Shreveport gave $1,000 to state Rep. Richard Burford, R-Stonewall, in 2011; that year, Burford began awarding Gina Goorley a scholarship.
  • Bobby Dupre of Opelousas donated $5,000 to Sen. Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas, in 2009 and another $2,500 in 2011. Meghan Dupre began receiving a scholarship from Guillory in 2009.
  • David Delapp of Leesville gave $1,000 to state Sen. John Smith, R-Leesville, in 2009, the same year that Ashley Delapp began receiving a scholarship.

In each of those cases, public records or news reports — or both — show a familial relationship or a common address between the scholarship recipient and the donor. The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV asked each legislator about those contributions, and five of them — Long, Allain, Cortez, Mills and Burford — responded.

Each stressed there was no quid pro quo, and that the students selected were outstanding.

Long said Sidney Zeichner was “by far the top candidate” for his scholarship, and noted that he sends invitations to fundraisers to a variety of doctors and lawyers. The elder Zeichner is a doctor.

Allain said Kimberly Patterson had a legislative scholarship through another lawmaker for three years when he made the award, and he felt it was unfair to take it away.

Burford said the Goorley family had supported him for years, and he noted that Gina Goorley was ranked third in her high school class.

Mills said he had known the Johnson family for years and that they were longtime supporters of his. Katherine Johnson, he said, is “absolutely brilliant.”

Cortez said Eric McGoffin was selected on merit, and he said that while he knew the McGoffins, he also knew the families of all the other applicants for the scholarship.

Range of methods

While the eligibility rules for scholarships have tightened up considerably, there’s still almost as many methods for awarding them as there are legislators.

Some lawmakers, like Connick, turn the process over to a nonprofit like Dollars for Scholars. Others set up their own committees to review applicants. Some keep a file on their desk of students that contact them. And others call Tulane University for help when it’s scholarship time.

Most prefer to give the scholarship to a freshman, and re-award it to the same student for the next three years. But that’s not required, and Lopinto says he tries to find a senior each year, figuring he can help more students by just giving one year of aid.

Yvette Jones, the university’s executive vice president for external relations, says lawmakers are supposed to receive a list from Tulane of Louisiana students who have applied and been accepted. If they want help from the school — for instance, if they want a student from their district — they are free to request it.

For such a valuable perk, the scholarships are oddly obscure. The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV interviewed more than a dozen current and former legislators, and many said they have had trouble finding suitable candidates from their districts. Still, none of them took the initiative to advertise the scholarship on their legislative websites.

Just 132 Louisiana students who were admitted to Tulane last year applied for the scholarships — a little over half the number that eventually matriculated. Of those, 27 were successful.

State Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, says he has yet to award a scholarship to a student in his district, though he’d like to. Most of his nominees have at least been from metropolitan New Orleans, he said.

State Rep. Jeffery Arnold, D-Algiers, also said he typically doesn’t get applicants from his home district, even though it includes three large public high schools. “I am surprised at the lack of interest,” he said.

Morrell, the New Orleans representative, agreed. “I wish more high school counselors would recommend good students from their schools,” he said.

Arnold said he used to make an effort to alert principals about the scholarships, but he hasn’t done so for awhile, and he is leery of the stampede that might result.

“I don’t want to promote it any more than it’s promoted,” Arnold said. “I don’t want to be the one who has to tell someone I’m gonna give it to Joe instead of Jane. So we don’t advertise it any more than it’s advertised.”

The low profile of the scholarships means that there’s often a lot of horse-trading; legislators who haven’t picked anyone will often be approached by other lawmakers who have used up their scholarship. It also means that the original premise of the program — young men and women from every corner of the state attending Tulane for free — often goes unfulfilled.

Unknown in some corners

Lesley McKinley, the principal of Bogalusa High School and a longtime teacher at the school, said he emphasized matching students with scholarship. But he’d never heard of the Tulane awards.

“Unfortunately, here at Bogalusa High School we have not heard of this scholarship,” McKinley said. “I’m shocked that something like this is available, and we’re not aware of it here at Bogalusa High School.”

McKinley said he thinks his school — Ritchie’s alma mater, who went out of his district to help Walter Reed’s son — would make a good feeder for Tulane, if students only knew about it.

“I do think we have worthy candidates, not only here at Bogalusa High School but in Washington Parish, period,” he said. “There are some great kids here.”

Jones defended Tulane’s outreach efforts. The awards are advertised in several places on Tulane’s website, she said, and the university meets annually with Louisiana guidance counselors to go over the various scholarship deals available.

“I don’t know if any district, any legislator, actually puts it out their website or not, but I feel confident that we’re putting it out there,” Jones said.

Jones said the scholarship program is worthy in most ways, and noted it provides an annual trove of homegrown students, all of whom have to be admitted to Tulane on their own merits.

“I don’t believe this is an insiders’ program,” she said. “We’ve got 144 students who come here [on legislative scholarships] and they’re not all related to somebody. They’re not all insiders.”

That said, Jones said Tulane officials would be glad to take the program in-house. While she says so more delicately, Jones essentially agrees with Goyeneche that there’s no reason scholarships ought to be handed out at the whim of legislators.

In fact, Tulane proposed that very reform in the 1990s amid the scandal, but lawmakers didn’t want to relinquish their grip.

“Do I think that having Tulane make the selection would provide consistency across the board? Yes,” Jones said.

She added: “We review the program every year. Do we find egregious problems with it? No.”

Goyeneche begs to differ: On Wednesday, he sent a letter to House Speaker Chuck Kleckley asking that legislators “adopt a uniform scholarship nomination process” with standardized criteria and broader notifications.

“These reforms are necessary to bring transparency to the process and ensure that all Louisiana students are afforded a fair and equal access to the scholarships without regard to political connections or campaign contributions,” he wrote.

While Tulane officials take a rosier view of the program, university officials would be happy to support another round of reforms if there’s momentum in the Legislature for change, Jones said.

“That is something as we go forward, if we’re going to talk about the program and the way it’s run, something we could put on the table,” she said.