BATON ROUGE, La. -- A rookie state senator has become the first legislator to release documents designed to show the public whether lawmakers are awarding lucrative Tulane University scholarships to the relatives of fellow politicians.
State Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, is the lone state lawmaker to date who has been willing to provide The Advocate and WWL-TV with a copy of the application form submitted by the student who receives his annual full-ride scholarship to Tulane.
At least two other legislators have pledged to do the same.
The two news organizations recently sent formal requests to each of the 144 members of the Legislature. Brown’s honoree for the past two years, Desmond Graves of Geismar, writes on the forms that he is not related to any elected official.
Tulane’s legislative scholarship program, which dates to the 1880s, is thought to be unique in America. It is a vestige of a complex bargain with the state that transformed the then-public university into the state’s most prestigious private one.
Under that deal, mostly unchanged since, every legislator gets to award a full, one-year scholarship to Tulane each year, while the mayor of New Orleans annually awards five four-year scholarships. In exchange, Tulane is excused from paying any state sales tax, and it gets a break on some city property taxes.
The application forms sought by the news organizations were created amid a public hue and cry over the scholarship program in the mid-1990s, when many Louisianians first learned about it. It emerged then that many legislators had awarded the scholarships — which now have an estimated annual value of $43,150 — to their own relatives, or those of fellow politicians.
The mid-1990s reforms did not bar such awards, but they required all scholarship recipients to disclose any relationship to any elected official.
The organizations have made repeated attempts to gather the forms in the wake of the revelation earlier this year that state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, had awarded his scholarship to the son of 22nd Judicial District Attorney Walter Reed, who does not live in Ritchie’s district, but is perhaps the Northshore’s most powerful politician.
Tulane keeps copies of the forms for several years, but the university has declined to provide them directly to The Advocate and WWL-TV on the grounds that Tulane is a private institution and thus not subject to the Louisiana public records law.
However, the university provided copies of the forms, dating back to 2009, to the clerk of the state House of Representatives, Alfred “Butch” Speer, and the secretary of the Senate, Glenn Koepp. But Speer and Koepp refused to turn over copies of those forms to the news organizations, saying they believed doing so violated the students’ right to privacy.
More recently, the organizations asked each member of the Legislature directly for the forms, citing a 1990s ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal saying that each individual legislator is considered the custodian of all public records related to the scholarships he or she awards, whether or not the records are in his or her possession.
Most legislators have not responded directly to the news organizations’ request at all. Of the few who have, most have directed the news organizations to Koepp and Speer, who have already refused an identical request.
Koepp and Speer each recently issued new letters to The Advocate and WWL-TV reiterating their view that the records sought are “NOT public records.”
The form includes a confidentiality waiver, but Koepp and Speer maintain that the waiver is limited in nature, insisting that the students retain a right to privacy.
Notwithstanding that view, Brown readily provided the information sought by the two news organizations. And several other representatives and senators have indicated they are willing to turn over the forms for the students they sponsored, although none has done so yet.
State Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, sent WWL-TV an email showing that he has asked Tulane to provide the requested information to him, but the university has not yet done so.
And state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, said he’ll do the same.
“I think anything legislators do through the legislative process should be open and transparent to the public,” Badon said.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration also took a completely different view than Koepp and Speer. The administration gave the two news organizations the application forms for all 20 of the students to whom the mayor has given scholarships since taking office.
Only one of the 20 checked the box; that student said he was the great-nephew of a judge on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, based in southwestern Louisiana.