Tulane scholarship program restraints proposed

A state senator has submitted a proposed revamp of the controversial Tulane University legislative scholarship program following revelations of political awards and lack of transparency.

State Sen. Dan Claitor prefiled the “Legislative Scholarship Fairness Act” for debate by the 2014 Legislature, which opens March 10. The legislation would ban scholarship awards — valued at an estimated $43,150 annually — to relatives of Louisiana elected officials and legislators’ political donors, as well as requiring legislators to publicize the scholarships and Tulane to publish annually who gets them and from whom.

“I want to make the program better known and more understood and eliminate that insider feel that it has,” Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said Tuesday. “It can be an insider game. It should not be that. It should be totally transparent and available to any Louisiana person.”

The program dates back to the 1880s when the then-public University of Louisiana was privatized into Tulane. As part of the bargain, the state and city agreed to waive many of Tulane’s tax obligations, including all sales tax, while Tulane promised to allow each member of the Legislature and the New Orleans mayor to distribute scholarships each year. There are 144 legislators who today each award a scholarship.

The program encountered problems in the 1990s after disclosures that then-New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s son got a scholarship and that the awards were going to legislators, their children and other insiders. Rules were revamped to impose residential and academic requirements and to bar legislators from giving scholarships to immediate family members. The rules still allow legislators to give scholarships to relatives of elected officials, as long as they disclose it.

Claitor’s legislation comes in the wake of a joint investigation by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV, which uncovered some scholarship awards to the children of elected officials and political campaign advisers and legislative leaders’ refusal to release documents related to the scholarship awards.

The investigation found that state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, gave his scholarship for the last two years to the son of District Attorney Walter Reed, whose 22nd District covers St. Tammany and Washington parishes, and before that to the daughter of a Washington Parish Council member. Also, state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, awarded the scholarship to the son of her longtime political consultant, Greg Buisson.

“I certainly want to tighten it up,” said Claitor, who recently announced he was running for the 6th Congressional District. “I guess what I am trying to do is put it more in line with what public perception should be. Transparency for sure.”

Claitor did not respond to an earlier public-records request from The Advocate and WWL-TV to turn over copies of the application forms filled out by the students to whom his Tulane scholarships have been awarded. Identical requests were sent to each of the Legislature’s 144 members. The request was sent by mail and email to Claitor on Dec. 26.

Claitor said he does not have the document sought in the public records request. “As I understand it, that’s something Tulane has,” he said.

Glenn Koepp, the secretary of the Senate, sent a reply to The Advocate on Dec. 27 saying the records the news organizations are seeking contain private information and are not subject to public-records requests. Koepp wrote that his letter “represents the response of the Louisiana Senate and all individual senators.”

However, some senators have responded on their own behalf, including Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, who provided the news organizations with the application forms filled out by his nominee. Several other legislators have said they plan to turn them over.

During the 2013 legislative session, Claitor won passage of legislation requiring LSU and Southern University to file reports by Aug. 1 annually to the Legislature on who is getting scholarships awarded by members of their boards of supervisors. The reports are also supposed to include whether the scholarship consists of a waiver of tuition or a cash award or both, and the dollar value of the scholarship.

LSU board members control 20 scholarships each, while Southern board members can award varying numbers, the most being five by the board chairman. Other higher education management board members do not have the same privilege.

Claitor’s 2014 legislation — filed as Senate Bill 1 — would stop legislators from nominating a relative for a Tulane scholarship, spell out that no Louisiana elected officials or any person related to them is eligible, and ban legislators from receiving or accepting campaign contributions from a recipient or a relative of a Tulane scholarship recipient.

Legislators would have the option of nominating a student for the scholarship or requesting Tulane to award one on their behalf through an open competitive process.

Claitor proposes that a selection preference be given to the surviving children of members of the U.S. armed forces, employees of the U.S. Department of State, and law enforcement officers and other public personnel killed while on active duty or otherwise performing duties of their office or position. In addition, a student who receives the scholarship for two or more academic years would be required to perform twice the number of public-service hours specified in the university’s public-service graduation requirement.

Each legislator would have to publish information regarding the existence of the scholarship program on his or her legislative website and include a link to the Tulane website, where potential recipients can obtain an application form and detailed information on eligibility criteria, guidelines, deadlines and other program requirements.