Levee-board reformers worry that Jindal bringing politics back into process

Last month, Jay Lapeyre, the leader of the nominating committee for the local flood authority, received a letter from Garret Graves, head of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s coastal office. It said two previous nominees from the committee were ineligible, and it asked that Lapeyre reconvene the panel and send more names up.

One of those rejected is the authority’s president and supporter of its controversial lawsuit against oil and gas companies the governor opposes.

 The letter concluded:

 “It is important to note that we have no intention of circumventing the nominations committee’s role in this appointment.”

Lapeyre isn’t so sure.

Asked whether the governor is now directing the process, he answered quickly: “Yes, definitely.”



It was never supposed to be this way, say people instrumental in post-Katrina reforms that turned the old Orleans Parish levee board into a component of  the multi-parish Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East and created a nominating committee meant to insulate the authority from politics. The reforms were led by business and civic leaders intent on redressing factors that led to the collapse of poorly built levees during the storm.

Several studies laid part of the blame for the disaster on the region’s balkanized levee board system, staffed with political appointees rather than engineers. Voters overwhelmingly approved the reforms.

Lapeyre, a New Orleans entrepreneur who helped lead the reforms, said the old levee boards were widely viewed as corrupt. Even honest members appeared distracted from flood prevention by the need to manage assets — a marina and an airport, for example — that had nothing to do with flood control.

“The political influence and money coming through — that was a huge distraction to focus on flood protection,” Lapeyre said. “The idea was to create a process where we selected people with confidence and integrity focused on flood protection.”

The overarching idea, demanded by groups such as Citizens for One Greater New Orleans, was to remove the political appointees by creating regional flood-protection authorities whose boards would oversee the staffs of the parish levee districts. The move required a constitutional amendment that passed with more than 80 percent of the vote statewide.

Just as critical, however, would be the enabling legislation — the set of laws passed by the Legislature to make the system work. The reformers were successful here too, laying out professional qualifications for the flood authority seats. And as a final defense against politicians, applicants for seats on the flood control boards were to be nominated by a committee composed of  non-politicians – engineering professionals, academics, and members of government watchdogs groups.

All of these participants are volunteers, serving without pay.

Politicians only become involved in the final stage of the nomination process, and even then they face constraints. The nominating committee is required to send nominees for open seats to the governor, who sends those he accepts to the Senate for final approval.

For seven years the reformed system drew no attention, Lapeyre said. Only one nominee was ever turned down, after it was discovered that his bona fides didn’t match qualifications for the open seat.

“There was certainly never any controversy,” Lapeyre said. “We never expected there would be.”

That all changed in July when the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East made national headlines by voting unanimously to sue arguably the state’s most powerful political players  — the oil and gas industry. The suit seeks damages from 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies on grounds that wetlands loss caused by their activities has increased the cost of maintaining storm defenses.

Jindal and Garret Graves, his director of coastal activities, became instant and fierce opponents of the suit, claiming the flood authority had usurped the power of the governor and Legislature and threatened to undermine cooperative agreements with the oil industry to help repair the coast.

The Flood Protection Authority has countered that its constitutionally created status as a politically independent subdivision of state government gives it the authority to pursue lawsuits. Further, it claims the law governing membership on the nominating committee shows that the Legislature’s intent was to keep it free of interference by politicians.

The governor as well as some members of the Legislature involved in passing the laws disagree. And Jindal, the state’s most powerful politician, didn’t wait long to announce he was stepping into the fray.

As the nominating committee prepared in October to consider candidates for four open seats on the nine-member board of the flood protection authority, Graves said his boss would not accept any nominee who supported the lawsuit.

That threat seemed to work. The panel voted not to re-nominate the vocal leader of the lawsuit, John Barry, and said they were doing so specifically because the governor opposed him.

Jindal had soon gained three seats. He accepted two nominees he had pre-screened as opponents of the suit. He then added a third anti-suit member by means of unilateral selection, an option the law allows the governor if the committee fails to make a nomination “in a timely manner” when a term expires. In this case he was filling a seat that had expired more than a year previously.

The governor’s actions and the panel’s acquiescence had plenty of critics. Barry charged the committee had betrayed the public’s trust. Some of its own members were also unhappy with the intrusion of politicians into the process.

Nick Altiero, who represented Tulane University’s School of Science and Engineering on the committee, said, “We’re being put in a position, in my opinion, to send up inferior candidates, and I don’t think I was put on this committee to put up inferior candidates.”

Jindal was not finished, nor was he going to wait until the state’s annual legislative session is gaveled to order in March, where he hopes to use his power to derail the suit.

He had failed to get a fourth seat during the October changes when the committee re-nominated Tim Doody, the authority’s sitting president, and retired judge Richard Gorbaty for the St. Bernard slot. Jindal never acted on either nomination. In that January letter Graves declared both men ineligible and asked Lapeyre to reconvene the committee and “select new nominees.”

Jindal’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

This latest move by Jindal may be the first of several as the administration probes for handholds on the nominating process — including timetables and deadlines for action — that will allow the governor to gain control of the Flood Protection Authority once and for all.

There is little debate that Gorbaty no longer qualifies. The retired judge is now chief administrative officer of St. Bernard Parish, and state law prohibits public employees from serving on the Flood Protection Authority for a year after they leave government work.

But Jindal’s claim that Doody is ineligible because of “a conflict of interest relating to his employer” is dubious.

Doody previously acknowledged that the law firm he works for had asked him to recuse himself from votes involving the lawsuit because the firm might represent some of the plaintiffs in the future.

But the state Board of Ethics already ruled that anti-suit board member Joe Hassinger, also a lawyer, can continue to serve and vote on lawsuit issues — even though his firm represents defendants in other matters.

The call by Jindal for more nominees in place of those he dislikes raises legal questions that were left unanswered by the first-time incursion of a politician into the process, Lapeyre said.

What happens if the governor vetoes a qualified nominee? Is the committee required to find nominees the governor likes?

State law says sitting members continue to serve until they are replaced, which  raises the possibility of standoff: Could the board repeatedly send the same rejected nominee to the governor?

Lapeyre said he still isn’t certain what the law allows, or what his committee will decide to do.

“Do we even have an obligation to meet and send up new nominations? I’m not certain if that’s clear in the law,” Lapeyre told The Lens. “Can we just send the same person we think is the most qualified back to the governor even if he rejects them?  I don’t know the answer to that, either.”

In fact, Lapeyre isn’t sure his committee would even agree to consider the governor’s request until after it meets, something that won’t happen until Feb. 25 at the earliest.

Yet if the committee decides not to send new nominees to Jindal — even those he has already rejected — the governor might claim the right of another unilateral appointment under the time-limit portion of the law.

Lapeyre said his reading of the law requires sending the governor nominations within 60 days from the date the state publishes a call for applications, which apparently went out Jan. 16, the day Graves sent the letter to Lapeyre.

Seats on the flood authority board expire at the end of June, which would make Aug. 31 the deadline for a fresh round of nominations. But Lapeyre said the committee never honored that deadline in the past because it felt it couldn’t be sure of current law until after the end of the state Legislature’s annual session and the governor’s veto period that follows it. The authority’s first yearly meeting had usually been in mid-September.

“No one has made that an issue until now,” Lapeyre said.

“There are just a lot of issues that have come up as a result (of the lawsuit) that we never had to deal with before.

“We’re in uncharted water now.”

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About Bob Marshall

From 2013 to 2017, Bob Marshall covered environmental issues for The Lens, with a special focus on coastal restoration and wetlands. While at The Times-Picayune, his work chronicling the people, stories and issues of Louisiana’s wetlands was recognized with two Pulitzer Prizes and other awards. In 2012 Marshall was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Loyola University School of Communications Den of Distinction.

  • crabioscar

    “illegible” or “ineligible”? I’m sure the latter, right?

  • sbeattyTheLens

    Yes, apologies. You’re officially the first reader on this story, catching that typo in the first paragraph as we were finishing the publishing process. It’s been fixed, thanks.
    –Steve Beatty, editor

  • crabioscar

    haha, at your service!

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    It was “assumed” and “believed” that the actions of the pre-Katrina levee boards caused the flooding in New Orleans in 2005. Even though, to this day, there is no proof, no causal link.

    While a new levee board paradigm of governance was needed and likely beneficial, the Levee Board Reform was an enormous distraction from the agency overwhelmingly responsible for the death and destruction, the Army Corps of Engineers.

  • Marlon Landry

    Didn’t Federal Judge Stanly Stanwood Duvals decisions give proof that the Corps and the Levee Districts
    contributed to the levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina.

    Are you saying Federal Judge Duvall who approved a class action lawsuit that claimed sloppy work by the Orleans, Lake Borgne Basin and East Levee districts contributed to the levee breaches during hurricane katrina

    was wrong with that decision? The basis of his decision was sloppy work performed by levee boards. Right?

  • Marlon Landry

    Didn’t Federal Judge Stanwood decisions give proof that the Corps and Levee Boards contributed to the Katrina levee breaches?

  • Marlon Landry

    Didn’t Federal Judge Stanwood Duvalls decision give proof that the levee districts sloppy work contributed
    to the Katrina levee breaches?

  • Roy Arrigo

    I attend the SLFPAE board meetings. The members of this ‘reformed’ board who were placed there by the ‘reformers’ are worse than and more corrupt that the previous pre-reform board.

    Those who put this lawsuit knew it would not be allowed. They secretly created a scheme to funnel millions of dollars to a hand picked friend when the legislature acted as they always expected it to act.

    Does this video give reason to be concerned?


    Sorry for typos-sent from iphone.

  • jeffsadow

    It is a myth that any entity with political power is “depoliticized,” as the board’s actions in the last year have reaffirmed. See http://jeffsadow.blogspot.com/2013/07/politicized-la-board-subverts.html.

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    Judge Stanwood Duval approved a settlement which is not proof or evidence of wrong doing.

  • Roy Arrigo

    “There was certainly never any controversy,” Lapeyre said. “We never expected there would be.”

    Ask the property owners living along the outfall canals if they’d agree with that statement. Jay Lapeyre obviously doesn’t own any of the property that was stolen by the thugs on this board.

    This flawed system allows these appointed thugs to make poor and illegal decisions without any accountability. They can’t be fired, can’t be voted out.

  • Marlon Landry

    When a judge reviews a proposed settlement doesn’t he use his or her traditional judging skills. The merits of the claims.

    What are the class claims?

    How strong the claims are.

    Wouldn’t that be fraudulent and corrupt for a judge to approve a settlement that has no merit? The judge approved a class action settlment that claimed sloppy work by the Orleans, Lake Borgne Basin and East Levee districts contributed to the levee breaches during hurricane katrina.

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    Not true. A judge does not have to believe a Plaintiff’s contentions to approve a settlement. That $20 million settlement was a pittance compared to the claimed damages and was fully paid by insurance. If the plaintiffs had a good case they would not have settled for so little given the vast assets of the levee board defendants. 

  • Marlon Landry

    Didn’t the Fifth Circuit Opinion of December 16, 2010 say the settlement did not benefit any class members, It only benefited the class action lawyers?

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    If an insurer refuses a bona fide settlement within limits they then become liable for the full amount of any future settlement or judgment even if it exceeds their limits. The total claimed damages were many billions. So the insurers each had the choice to pay $5 million (which was probably reinsured) or roll the dice any end up bankrupt. It’s not hard to see why a rational insurer would chose to settle. 

  • Marlon Landry

    Thanks Sandy,
    Wasn’t this the case where it was rumored the plaintiffs’ lawyers who had negotiated the settlement, and who stood to benefit, had secretly represented the State, which made it a clear conflict of interests, since the levee boards were political subdivisions of the State.

    One thing for sure the states levee board were under insured. Heck, the CCC Connection was insured more for flood than the levee board.

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    Levees.org does not comment on rumors. Any rumors.

  • nolafem

    The Governor can refuse to accept an appointment of some who is ineligible (although that nominee, Judge Gorbaty, was eligible when he was nominated.) However, the Governor has no right to refuse to accept the nomination of an eligible candidate simply because he disagrees with his position on the levee district’s lawsuit. That is rank interference with an independent political entity that was intentionally set up to be about qualifications and public safety, not politics.