Screening cuts conflict in mayoral Tulane scholarships

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Twenty years ago, outrage over the news that then-New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy was awarding a full scholarship to Tulane University to his son sparked a much larger examination of how a scholarship program had been perverted into a perk for the politically connected.

Most Louisianians had been unaware until the scandal that each of the state’s 144 legislators got to award a full one-year scholarship each year, and that the mayor got to give out five four-year awards, under separate but similar programs that date back to the 1880s.

Today, with the legislative scholarship program coming under fire again — and some calling for new reforms to it — lawmakers might want to look to City Hall for inspiration.

In the wake of the scandal of the 1990s, the City Council set up a blue-ribbon committee system to screen potential scholarship recipients and forward the cream of the crop to the mayor for his selection.

While the laws have been updated several times, most recently in 2002, they have several attributes that the guidelines for the legislative scholarships lack.

For one thing, the guidelines take some of the power out of the hands of the mayor. Although the mayor does get to pick three of the five members of the selection committee, all three must be high-school principals or counselors — two from public schools and one from a private school. The other two committee members are chosen by the city’s university presidents.

The screening committee, whose members’ terms last just one year, chooses three candidates from each council district, and the mayor then picks from among the three.

The committee is also supposed to take applicants’ financial need into account, something the legislative scholarships do not do.

In addition, a whole host of people are barred from receiving the mayoral scholarships, including anyone appointed to any city position or board, or any of their relatives — including in-laws, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and first cousins. No relative of an elected official can receive one either, unless the person “is certified by Tulane as having ranked among eligible participants with the highest academic credentials and highest level of financial need.”

That said, there’s nothing stopping the mayor from awarding a scholarship to the son or daughter of a financial supporter, and in at least one case, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has done just that.

Records show that in 2012, Landrieu awarded one of his five scholarships to Malayne Matherne, whose father, Renaissance Publishing CEO Todd Matherne, has given Landrieu at least $8,500 since 2007. Renaissance publishes New Orleans Magazine, among other titles.

Todd Matherne made one of those $2,500 donations around the time of the scholarship award, and a second one for the same amount this year.

Matherne said his support for Landrieu long predates the award, and he plans to keep contributing to Landrieu as long as the mayor remains in politics.

He added that his daughter, a McGehee alumna now studying architecture at Tulane, was an outstanding student who had scholarship offers from a number of other prestigious architectural schools.

But none was as generous as the Tulane offer, which, because his daughter’s program lasts five years, is worth $215,750, according to Tulane.

Matherne added that while he likes the mayor’s politics, the two are hardly close, and that he never lobbied Landrieu for the award.

“He’s not like a personal friend. It’s not like I’ve ever been in Mitch’s office,” he said. “I would almost guarantee you that if you called Mitch, he wouldn’t know” that Matherne’s daughter was the recipient.

Of the 20 scholarships Landrieu has doled out, a review by The New Orleans Advocate found no evidence in the other 19 cases that recipients’ relatives were political donors.

Tyler Gamble, a Landrieu spokesman, said Matherne’s contributions to Landrieu played no role in the award.

In fact, Gamble said that Malayne Matherne got the award almost by default: There were only two qualified applicants from her council district that year, he said, and the committee’s first choice decided not to go to Tulane.

So Landrieu simply gave the scholarship to the lone remaining candidate.

Though the process is not spelled out this way in city ordinances, Gamble said Landrieu has always had his committees recommend a top candidate in each council district, and he has rubber-stamped the committee’s recommendation.

Gamble said the mayor has not considered refusing or returning the contributions Matherne has made since his daughter got the award, as some other lawmakers have done after receiving campaign checks from recipients’ families.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, which has been examining the Tulane scholarship program and is agitating for reforms, said the city’s process appears to be far superior to that used by the Legislature. But it could still be better, he said.

“Where you have politicians that are dependent on campaign contributions making decisions like this, even if it’s totally innocent, it still creates the appearance or perception that the money played a role in the award,” he said. “All things being equal, the money could be perceived as a tiebreaker.”

He said the city could contemplate more reforms, such as barring sons and daughters of contributors from the program, or forbidding the mayor to accept donations from recipients’ families, or recusing the mayor in such cases.

But the over-arching problem, he said, is that putting politicians in charge of an extremely generous scholarship program creates all sorts of opportunities for conflicts — and appearances of conflicts.

“Anytime you marry together something as valuable as a scholarship to a private institution, and you give that responsibility to a politician that depends on campaign contributions … when you combine those two things, there certainly may be some who perceive that it’s not a coincidence, and that the contributions played some kind of role,” Goyeneche said.

Still, he added: “The city’s process is vastly superior to that of the Legislature. Maybe they [the Legislature] should use it as a starting point and work to improve it.”