Two decades ago, a scandal involving the awarding of Tulane legislative scholarships embarrassed some of the great lions of Louisiana politics, from John Breaux to Bob Livingston.
Reformers seized the upper hand and installed new procedures to clean up a program that had become an insiders club for the children of the powerful. The beneficiaries had included children of Breaux, a key Senate dealmaker, and Livingston, who nearly became speaker of the U.S. House. One of the key reforms: Recipients of the political scholarships had to fill out forms reporting whether they were related to an elected official.
Who knows what the politicians of today are trying to hide, but it will be hard for the public to have confidence when only one of the 144 legislators has released the forms filled out by the recipients of their $43,150 scholarships. Two more have promised to do so. Instead of speaking out for themselves, legislators are, for the most part, hiding behind two bureaucrats — the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate — rather than responding on their own behalf to public records requests from The Advocate and WWL-TV.
In a lawsuit stemming from the scandals of the 1990s, state courts held that each legislator is the custodian of the public records resulting from his or her scholarship awards.
That is as it should be, because legislators are accountable to the public. But when the newspaper and TV station transmitted public records requests to the 144 legislators, the responses chiefly came not from elected officials but from Alfred “Butch” Speer and Glenn Koepp, representing the House and Senate.
So far, only two politicians have had the guts to release their own records. One is Troy Brown, a senator from Napoleonville, who released the paperwork for his one recipient.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who gets to distribute five Tulane scholarships a year under a program similar to the legislative awards, released the forms for all 20 of his recipients.
Not surprisingly, neither man had anything to hide.
The two who say they plan to release their records are Reps. Patrick Connick and Austin Badon.
After the recent disclosure that the son of the well-paid district attorney for St. Tammany Parish received a scholarship from a legislator in a different district, lawmakers again have been talking big about the need to reform a program that seems to produce scandal every generation. But if they want voters to believe in their zeal for reform, they can start by releasing their records.
As they did 20 years ago, the courts will ultimately force the release of all the records. Lawmakers who continue to hide behind Speer and Koepp will be able to keep their secrets for now. But each month they delay brings us closer to the 2015 election season.