On more than one occasion since last year, Mayor Mitch Landrieu appears to have passed over female and Hispanic nominees to the city’s Ethics Review Board, records obtained by The Lens show. This despite a city law demanding that the mayor consider demographics to ensure that boards and commissions reflect the city’s population.
Since the publication of a highly critical paper over the summer by Tulane University law professor David Marcello, the Ethics Review Board has come under criticism for a lack of diversity among its members. Though the seven-member board is majority black, as is the city, it has no Asian-American or Hispanic members. Most strikingly, the board has lacked a female member since May 2014.
The board’s makeup is not the only concern. Most of its members failed to disclose potential conflicts of interest to the City Council before their appointments were approved, The Lens has determined.
The board governs the city’s Inspector General and Independent Police Monitor, and it is also supposed to be the city’s main ethics code enforcement body. It’s responsible for uncovering conflicts of interest among the city officials who make decisions about how millions of public dollars are spent and which vendors should receive them. But a majority of Ethics Board members didn’t mention in a questionnaire that their employers had recent dealings with the city.
Law puts a focus on diversity
New Orleans city code says that appointed boards and commissions should “reflect the diversity of our population.” It goes on to say that the officials who select the members “should consider the demographic composition of the board or other entity in proposing or making appointments.”
The mayor selects one board member himself. He selects the other six from lists of three nominees chosen by six local universities.
In the past year and a half, Landrieu has made four appointments or reappointments to the board. In three of those cases, one of the nominees was a woman, Hispanic or both, in one case. But Landrieu appears to have passed them over.
Sarah McLaughlin, a Landrieu spokeswoman, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on The Lens’ findings. In a written statement, she said:
“Ultimately, the administration hopes to have boards and commissions that are reflective of the diversity in our community.”
She didn’t say what actions Landrieu would take to realize those hopes.
Because Landrieu’s recommendations are subject to City Council approval, the council shares responsibility for fulfilling the diversity mandate. But members of the council’s Governmental Affairs Committee, which reviews board and commission candidates before advancing them to the full council, did not raise the issue when they considered Landrieu’s most recent recommendations for the Ethics Review Board.
Councilwoman Stacy Head, chairwoman of the committee, declined to comment.
Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell, who serves on the committee, responded to a request for comment with a written statement through her spokesman, David Winkler-Schmit.
“The City of New Orleans must abide by the inclusion policies that exist and work to continue exhibiting its commitment to being a Welcoming City. Integral to that process is maintaining fair, equitable and diverse representation on all boards and commissions.”
Like the Landrieu spokeswoman, she didn’t say what the council would do to make this happen.
A closer look at four Landrieu appointments
In re-appointing Ethics Review Board Chairman Michael Cowan to a second term three months ago, Landrieu passed over a Hispanic woman nominee, Isabel Medina, a Loyola University Law School professor. Rabbi David Goldstein was the third nominee offered by Loyola’s president, the Rev. Kevin Wildes. Loyola’s nomination letter is dated July 30, meaning Landrieu’s decision came after the release of Marcello’s criticism, released in early July.
Of the three, Cowan has the closest public ties to Landrieu. Cowan has worked with the administration on a number of initiatives, including as chairman of the New Orleans Crime Coalition, a member of Landrieu’s 2010 police superintendent search committee and the committee Landrieu convened to determine the appropriate size of the city’s jail.
“I was glad to agree to Mayor Landrieu’s request that I serve on these two bodies,” Cowan wrote in an email to The Lens referring to his work on the jail and superintendent search committees. He did not respond to questions about the diversity mandate.
In an interview with The Lens, Medina said she did not take herself out of the running.
“I was contacted once by the president’s office to confirm I was willing to be nominated,” she said. “I was willing to serve.”
Medina, who previously had been nominated for the State Board of Ethics, said the city’s selection process was much less open. At the state level, nominees appear in an open meeting before a legislative committee, she said.
In New Orleans, she said, she turned in a resume to Wildes’ office and never heard from anyone until after Cowan was reappointed.
“In this process there was absolutely no contact. No interview. No affidavit. No questions,” she said.
In another instance, in 2014, Landrieu picked Tulane-nominated Donald Frampton over Ludovico Feoli, a Hispanic Tulane political science professor. It’s unclear if Feoli was eligible to serve on the board. City law prohibits membership for anyone who has held a position on another government board or commission within two years of their appointment. Feoli was appointed to another city board, the Quality Assurance Review Committee, in December 2013, just a few months before Tulane nominated him for the Ethics Review Board in March 2014. But in an email to The Lens, Feoli said he never actually served because the board committee lacked enough members to meet.
Like Medina, Feoli said the process did not involve any vetting.
“I was asked at some point whether I would object to my name being presented,” he said in an interview, adding that he was never asked to submit a resume and wasn’t even aware that his name had been forwarded to the city.
Feoli said even if he had been appointed, it would not have “advanced diversity in any significant way” because he does not consider himself to be representative of the local Hispanic community.
“I’m in the university,” he said. “I’m up in the ivory tower.”
In the third instance, also in 2014, Landrieu selected Dillard University-nominated Brandon Boutin over Nick Harris and Kemberley Washington, a female Dillard professor. It’s unclear if Washington was willing and fully qualified to serve on the board because she did not respond to requests for comment.
Landrieu’s fourth appointment to the board in the past year and a half was Boutin’s reappointment. Dillard renominated Boutin, a pastor at Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church who publicly endorsed Landrieu’s 2014 re-election. Dillard did not send any other names in its renomination letter, though city law requires three. Boutin was reappointed in September.
Boutin declined comment for this story.
Members did not disclose possible conflicts on form
In its examination of Ethics Review Board members, The Lens also found four of seven Ethics Review Board members failed to disclose possible ethics conflicts.
A questionnaire required for prospective city board and commission members by the City Council reads:
“If you acted as a consultant for or have received compensation from any entity that does business with, has a contract with, or seeks approval from the City or City Council of New Orleans, Sewerage and Water Board or New Orleans Aviation Board then list all such positions held during the past five (5) years.”
Cowan, Allen Miller, Joe Ricks and Howard Rodgers all wrote that they had not received compensation from an entity doing business with the city. In fact, all of them do.
In an interview, Ethics Board attorney Dane Ciolino pointed out that all of them listed their employers on the forms. Any business those employers had with the city was public information.
“So it’s really kind of immaterial,” he said.
Only one member, James Brown, an attorney who works for the law firm Liskow & Lewis, disclosed a financial relationship with a city agency. The Lens was unable to find city transactions involving Boutin, Frampton or their employers.
Cowan works for Loyola University, which had at least four city contracts during the relevant period. He did not respond to a request for comment about his questionnaire.
Neither did Miller, an attorney at Phelps Dunbar, a law firm that frequently does business with the city. Miller also defended city contractor American Traffic Solutions in a federal case challenging the constitutionality of the city’s red-light camera program. The city was a co-defendant in the case. Miller disclosed none of that in the questionnaire.
Ricks, the chairman of Xavier University’s Division of Business, submitted his questionnaire in July 2013, just a few months after Xavier donated several parcels of land to the city. The land donation facilitated the construction of a $3 million publicly funded pedestrian bridge over Washington Avenue, a project the university had long sought to complete. On the questionnaire, Ricks wrote that he did not work for an entity that does business with the city.
“Clearly that was an error on my part,” Ricks wrote in an email. “In my role, I have no dealings with any of the mentioned entities as I lead the academic business unit here at Xavier.”
He said he didn’t remember filling out the form and said he must have misunderstood the question.
Rodgers is the executive director for the New Orleans Council on Aging, a nonprofit that provides services for the elderly on the city’s behalf. Part of his job even involves appealing to the City Council for resources during the city’s annual budget hearings, which he will do again later this month. Rodgers told The Lens that the answer he provided on the questionnaire, “N/A,” was an oversight, adding that the organization’s financial ties for the city are public knowledge.
“I guess I just need to go back and submit another one,” he said.