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.