Government & Politics

Top aide in mayor’s office asked department heads to campaign for Landrieu

As the mayor’s race entered the home stretch, some department heads at City Hall received text messages requesting that they attend a campaign debate and canvas neighborhoods for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s re-election effort.

The text message was sent Jan. 16  by Ava Rogers, who recently replaced Ann Duplessis as Landrieu’s deputy chief administrative officer for operations.

State law says public employees can’t use their office “to compel or coerce” anyone, including other public employees, to engage in political activity. Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for the Landrieu administration, said Rogers sent the message from her personal cell phone, on personal time, and there was “no requirement for participation.”

The Lens learned of the text message after reporting that the three employees of the city’s Neighborhood Engagement Office had asked nonprofits and neighborhood association leaders to endorse Landrieu. Gamble said the employees did that on their personal time, too, though timesheets didn’t substantiate that for one of them.

Rogers’ message, sent the day The Lens published that story, read:

Dear department heads, the campaign has requested that you plan to attend the mayoral debate forum, scheduled to take place on Thursday at Dillard University. You are kindly requested to arrive no later than 6 p.m. Please feel free to invite guests to attend this important civic forum. In addition, you will be requested to participate in saturday canvassing, possibly as early as this coming weekend. Let me know if you have any questions. Ava

Ryan Berni, who is on leave from the mayor’s press office to work for Landrieu’s re-election campaign, confirmed that Rogers sent the text message. He didn’t answer the Lens’ question about who received it.

According to the city’s organizational chart, Rogers’ oversight includes:

  • New Orleans Recreation Development Commission

  • Department of Safety and Permits

  • Taxicab & For Hire Bureau

  • Historic District Landmarks Commission

  • Vieux Carré Commission

  • Department of Sanitation

  • Parks and Parkways

  • Department of Code Enforcement

The city code of ethics defers to the state code of ethics, which reads: “No public servant shall use the authority of his office or position, directly or indirectly, in a manner intended to compel or coerce any person or other public servant to engage in political activity.”

The Lens didn’t find any opinions from the Louisiana Board of Ethics that directly address a situation such as this. It has weighed in on similar matters, however.

In one case, supervisors in a state department arranged for employees to supply food for a luncheon held in connection with the dedication of a new building. The Ethics Board noted that employees were told that participation was voluntary, and some didn’t bring food.

However, the board wrote:

Supervisors should be sensitive to the fact that, because of the relationship they normally have with any employee under their supervision, that requests by them of their employees inherently involve elements of compulsion.

In another case, the board warned supervisors against asking their employees for favors or services, whether or not it takes place during work hours. That opinion also noted that the supervisor-employee relationship “by itself may constitute a sufficient element of ‘coercion’ and ‘compulsion.’ “

The Lens asked the city’s Ethics Review Board, which was set up after Hurricane Katrina amid widespread disgust over public corruption and ethical corner-cutting, about the text message. Michael Cowan, the board chairman, declined to comment.

But within minutes of Cowan’s response, mayoral spokesman Tyler Gamble provided this statement:

In support of the Mayor’s re-election campaign, unclassified employees are allowed to volunteer during their personal time and while on-leave. In this case, the text message [from Rogers] was sent from a personal phone during personal time with no requirement for participation.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
About Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led to guilty pleas in federal court. Her work attracted some of journalism's highest honors, including a Peabody Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award and a gold medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors. She can be reached at (504) 606-6013.

  • Janet Hays

    Clearly unethical.

  • Persons and any government official or officer that high up should know better than to do that.

  • Patty Beth

    It is always part of being appointed in government. To believe otherwise is just naive. You serve at the pleasure of the Mayor and therefore owe him or her your job. They expect it. And they know who is or isn’t working for their campaign. Regardless of the law.

  • yes- and journalists listen for trees falling in the woods, and speeding tickets slow traffic…
    Congrats to the mayor on his re-election.
    And with him term limited, and his kids clearly years away from a run- I hope he is willing to change the City Charter 3.5 years now that takes us out of the “Stone Age and prevents future Johnson Controls contracts.
    Lets use what works elsewhere and make major changes, as our mayor office matters too much, while the council too little in how we are run. PLEASE CHANGE IT!!!!!!
    Best from Freret

  • nickelndime

    If anyone expects a Landrieu to do anything ethical now or in the future on behalf of the common good – well, perish the thought. The voters have spoken-again. “A thousand flies can’t be wrong.” Even Ray was re-elected (still trying to figure that one out), but as the saying goes, “Give ’em enough rope, and…” But this Landrieu clan is a suave and slippery group, but surely in alignment with the federal government. Nagin was local – and naive – he should have known better than to outsmart his betters. Is this scary? It should be.

  • nickelndime

    “What’s ethics got to do with it?” There is no such thing as ethics in politics. It’s an oxymoron.

  • nickelndime

    AhContraire – you know way too much. You are way far ahead of the times. The public is not ready for you. You have been attacked for what you know. Keep it up.