NEW ORLEANS -- 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 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 publicly 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 denied an identical request made by Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
“I think it's fundamentally wrong,” Goyeneche said. “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 grant a one-year scholarship – worth $43,150 annually – to the state’s most prestigious private university to one lucky student each year. A nearly identical 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 a full scholarship to the state’s most prestigious private university. While each lawmaker awards the scholarship to one student a year, many award 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 Louisianans 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 then barred legislators from giving scholarships to direct family members, but they did not ban relatives of fellow politicians from getting them. And that practice still continues, though the extent isn’t clear.
A recent joint investigation by the New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV exposed that state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, has given his scholarship for the last two years to a son of St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed. And before that, Ritchie bestowed the award to 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. Each 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 list the official’s name and their relationship to the official. 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, an attorney, believes state law and the settlement language of the successful 1994 lawsuit makes the disclosure 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 replied that the forms belonged to Tulane and were not in their possession. But after Tulane officials provided the forms to the legislative bodies, Speer – who said he was also speaking for Senate Secretary Glenn Keep – said he had determined the records are not public.
Speer acknowledges the scope of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling in the 1990s, which said that “all records related to the contract and the giving of scholarships fall within the broad definition of public records.”
However, Speer reasons that 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 writes.
But even after Speer determines which forms fall into that category, he does not intend to make them available for public inspection, he writes. The clerk’s reasoning is that the students have a reasonable expectation of privacy, even though the form includes a “waiver of confidentiality” that every applicant must sign.
Goyeneche 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.”