Clerk won’t release Tulane scholarship applications

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Tulane University in New Orleans. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Tulane University in New Orleans.

Letter: Scholarship details not for public

Leaders of the Louisiana House and Senate have decided to keep secret hundreds of documents that disclose whether Louisiana’s 144 legislators are awarding Tulane University scholarships to relatives of fellow politicians.

The clerk of the state House of Representatives recently sent a letter to the New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV explaining his refusal to disclose the one-page application forms. All students who receive Tulane legislative scholarships fill out the forms, which require them to disclose whether they are related to an elected official.

Clerk Alfred “Butch” Speer also denied an identical request made by Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

“I think it’s fundamentally wrong,” Goyeneche said of the denials. “And I think that’s exactly the kind of behavior that undermines confidence of government in general and the Legislature in particular.”

The 130-year-old program lets each of Louisiana’s lawmakers give one lucky student each year a one-year scholarship — worth $43,150 annually — to the state’s most prestigious private university.

A similar arrangement allows the mayor of New Orleans to hand out five four-year scholarship awards each year.

In the past, political or personal ties were often a ticket to getting the valuable grants.

While each lawmaker awards his Tulane scholarship to one student a year, many give theirs to the same recipient for four consecutive years, making the gift one of the most lucrative perks controlled by the part-time legislators.

Historically, the program tended to benefit children of legislators and other connected insiders. In some cases, legislators gave themselves the scholarships.

When the excesses of the program were publicized in the mid-1990s, many Louisianians were outraged, and some reforms were enacted.

The Times-Picayune led a two-year legal fight that resulted in broader disclosure requirements, and while the unusual scholarship program was not dismantled, many lawmakers were chastened.

New rules passed at the time barred legislators from giving scholarships to direct family members, but not to relatives of other politicians, a practice that still continues, though the extent isn’t clear.

A recent joint investigation by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV revealed state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, has given his scholarship for the past two years to a son of St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed.

Before that, Ritchie bestowed the award on the daughter of a member of the Washington Parish Council.

A quick check of the applications requested by The Advocate and WWL-TV would have revealed those relationships instantly.

Among the reforms of the 1990s, Tulane created a short form that all legislative scholarship applicants must fill out.

On it, the student must check one of two boxes: “I am related to an elected official” or “I am not related to an elected official.”

Those who check the first box must then list the official’s name and explain their relationship. Applicants also sign a “waiver of confidentiality” that is normally extended to students’ college applications.

Earlier this month, The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV submitted public-records requests to the clerk of the House of Representatives and the secretary of the Senate, asking to see all of the forms filed since 2010.

Goyeneche, a lawyer, said he believes state law and the settlement language of the successful 1994 lawsuit make the applications an obvious public record.

“That was something that was confected to add accountability and transparency to this legislative process after the scandals of the mid-1990s,” he said.

“And what we’re finding is that they had their fingers crossed.”

Speer initially responded to the requests by saying that the forms belonged to Tulane and were not in his possession.

But after Tulane officials provided the forms to the legislative bodies, Speer — who said he also was speaking for Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp — said he had determined the records are not public and need not be released.

Speer acknowledged the scope of a 4th Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling in the 1990s, which said “All records related to the contract and the giving of scholarships fall within the broad definition of public records.”

However, Speer reasoned the application forms do not come under that umbrella, in part because he was told the forms are only shown to legislators who request to see them.

“Therefore, only those forms Tulane University provided to a legislator for use in awarding a scholarship are public records,” Speer wrote.

Even after Speer determines which forms were shown to legislators, he said, he does not intend to make them available for public inspection.

He said the reason is that the students have a reasonable expectation of privacy, despite the form’s “waiver of confidentiality.”

Goyeneche, who has called for broad reforms to the Tulane legislative scholarship program, said Speer’s conclusion doesn’t make sense legally or logically.

“Their position defies logic and common sense,” he said.

“It’s going to add insult to injury that they’re digging in their heels, circling the wagons, in an attempt to not bring further embarrassment to who knows how many other members of the Legislature. …

“And our question is: What are they trying to hide? Why not provide this information? This was supposed to be the solution to the problem of the 1990s.”

See an application for here.