NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has released the application forms of each of the 20 students who have received Tulane University mayoral scholarships over the last four years — forms identical to the ones that leaders of the state Legislature decided last week to keep secret, on the grounds that they are not public records.
On the forms, scholarship recipients must disclose whether they are related to a politician. None of Landrieu’s awards went to a relative of a local politician.
The one-page forms must be filled out by every student who receives one of the five four-year scholarships awarded by the mayor each year — or one of the 144 one-year scholarships awarded by state legislators annually.
The forms are cursory, asking for the student’s name, address, phone number, date of birth and high school. Then, each student must check one of two boxes: “I am related to an elected official,” or “I am not related to an elected official.”
If the student checks the first box, he or she must say who the elected official is, and how they are related.
The forms, which were created in the wake of widespread outrage in the 1990s over politicians’ abuse of the scholarships, also include a waiver of confidentiality.
Despite that waiver — and despite the sweeping language in a 1990s court ruling that said all records surrounding the Tulane scholarship program would be public — the Legislature has refused to release the forms. The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV had sought permission to review every application submitted since the year 2000.
Albert “Butch” Speer, the clerk of the state House of Representatives and the custodian of the House’s records, said in an Oct. 18 letter to the news organizations that the only application forms that could possibly be deemed public are those that legislators have specifically asked to review. He said he has asked Tulane to send him only the forms that meet that test.
But even after he receives those forms, Speer doesn’t intend to release them. He wrote to the news organizations that he believes the confidentiality waiver on the forms is limited in nature, and that the students who sign the forms still have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Speer said he had consulted with his counterpart in the upper chamber, Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp, and that the two men agreed on the interpretation of the law.
But the Landrieu administration apparently views the law differently. The city’s Law Department promptly turned over the applications for each of the 20 students who have gotten mayoral scholarships since 2010. (The Advocate and WWL-TV had requested the mayoral scholarship applications dating back to 2000, but the administration said it has not been able to locate the records from before Landrieu took office in 2010.)
The Landrieu administration’s view that the records are public didn’t surprise Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission and a vocal critic of the legislative scholarship program. Goyeneche has also sought the application forms from the Legislature and had his request denied.
“I think that just shows any reasonable person looking at those documents has to come to the same conclusion the average person on the street would come to: that that’s a public record,” he said.
“I’m sure they ran that through their legal staff, and they probably read the 4th Circuit Court decision, which said that all documents related to the Tulane legislative scholarship program are public records. The law is on the side of disclosure, and now the mayor’s office has also weighed in.”
The records turned over by City Hall show that, of the 20 recipients of mayoral scholarships, only one checked the box that says, “I am related to an elected official.” But there’s little evidence that the relationship played a role in the award.
The “yes” box was checked by 2013 scholarship recipient Nicholas Gobert, a Jesuit High School graduate who wrote on the form that his great-uncle is Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux.
Thibodeaux is the chief judge for the state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, which is based in Lake Charles and covers much of southwestern Louisiana.
Interviewed by phone Friday, Thibodeaux said he didn’t even realize his great-nephew had gotten one of the mayoral scholarships, though he knew Gobert was attending Tulane and was receiving some sort of financial aid.
Thibodeaux said he and the mayor know each other, but not well:
“We have a cordial relationship,” he said, noting that the mayor formerly was a longtime legislator and that the mayor’s sister, Madeleine Landrieu, is a judge on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
Thibodeaux said he’s still disappointed that his great-nephew isn’t going to Dartmouth, Thibodeaux’s alma mater. Gobert was accepted there, but he didn’t receive any financial aid, Thibodeaux said, adding that Tulane is a “great school.”
Through his press office, Landrieu has said that he has little to do with making the actual scholarship awards. The mayor picks the five winners from a list of 15 finalists — three from each City Council district — screened by a selection committee. Three of the five committee members are high-school principals or counselors chosen by the mayor. The other two are chosen by the city’s university presidents. Committee members serve for a year.
The city’s rules bar a long list of people from receiving the scholarships. Those ineligible include 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 any 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.”
Presumably, Tulane determined that Gobert met that bar. Goyeneche, who wants the Legislature to make its Tulane application forms public, said the form is not meant to suggest that no one who is related in any way to any politician should get a scholarship. Rather, the idea is that such relationships should be disclosed so that the public can make its own judgments.
“Being related to a politicians should not be an automatic disqualifier,” Goyeneche said. “It needs to be put in the context of who’s making the award, and what their relationship to the politician is.”
He added that the screening process the city has adopted for scholarship awards makes it less susceptible to political gamesmanship; legislative scholarships, by comparison, are awarded completely at the discretion of the lawmaker making the award.
“The process that has been put forth by the mayor is a perfect example of what can be done to reduce the potential for political interference,” Goyeneche said. “The legislative process ... doesn’t have the benefit of insulating the politics. Legislators can award scholarships on the basis of a whim.”