Civil Rights Group Calls for Investigation

By C.C. Campbell-Rock

Justice & Beyond, a local think tank, is asking the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus (LLBC) and Governor John Bel Edwards’ office to investigate the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office for discriminatory practices and also calling for a review of the state’s compliance with federal Equal Employment Opportunity Act rules.

“Our coalition has been presented evidence that suggests racial targeting and disparate legislative outcomes depending on who is being investigated by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor,” Justice & Beyond leaders wrote in a letter.

Justice & Beyond made the request after Jacob C. Johnson, MPA, CLED, the African-American executive director of the Health Education Authority of Louisiana, (HEAL) became the latest target. Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman, Civil District Court Judge Kern A. Reese, and Arthur Morell, Clerk of Criminal District Court, and other African-American elected officials, have been investigated by the LLA.

HEAL was created in 1968, to promote medical and/or health education activities in Louisiana and to help primary institutions obtain tax-free bonds to construct, renovate or enhance their facilities. The LLA’s December 2016 report on HEAL sent up red flags among agency’s supporters.

“Caucus members on the Louisiana Legislative Audit Council are aware of the concerns indicated and we are waiting for their feedback.” On the EEO-1 Form, the LLBC is working on getting that information from each state governmental agency,” said LLBC Chair, State Representative Dr. Joseph Bouie, Jr.

The LLA’s allegations against HEAL include misuse of funds, unauthorized travel, contracts signed without proper authority clearances, a lack of projects since 2004, and other charges tantamount to fraud. At a January 26, 2016 hearing of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Advisory Council, Johnson provided legislators with a binder of documents, six inches tall, which showed LLA’s accusations to be inaccurate at best and patently false, at worst. Pat Bryant, co-chair of Justice & Beyond, called the allegations against Johnson “a modern-day lynching.”

The LLA’s report appears to be the impetus behind the push for a state takeover of HEAL.

HEAL last year gained autonomy via State Senator Karen Carter-Peterson’s, SB577/ACT 230; which freed HEAL from the oversight of the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH). The law doubled HEAL’s bonding capacity from $400 million to $800 million, and expanded its operational reach statewide, instead of within a 10-mile radius in Orleans Parish and Shreveport.

However, in a stunning reversal of her previous position on HEAL, on March 31, 2017, days away from the April 10, 2017 start of the Louisiana Legislative Session, Sen. Carter-Peterson filed SB 224, which abolishes HEAL.

Carter-Peterson’s move raised eyebrows and caused many to wonder what motivated her to change her support for the agency. The LA Weekly learned of the senator’s pending legislation early last month and called her office for an interview. Legislative Aide Catherine Cates said Senator Carter-Peterson was out-of-town. Since then, calls to Sen. Carter-Peterson’s office and a subsequent FOIA request have gone unanswered.

“It’s amazing and confusing,” Bryant said of the senator’s new bill.

Justice & Beyond asked Gov. Edwards and the LLBC to request the legislative auditor to immediately complete the EEO-1 form (profile of workforce). “We want to know how many African Americans work for the auditor and where they rank in the organization.” The group also wants the LLBC to pass a law requiring every Louisiana department, agency, board and commission, to complete a form similar to the EEO-1 annually.

“Members of the LLA Audit team have confirmed to me that the unusual way it (audit) was conducted was a witch hunt motivated by my race,” Johnson told the panel, inclusive of Orleans Parish Senator Wesley Bishop and Rep. Jimmy Harris.”

“When I’m being told that organizations with executive directors that are people of color are treated differently than those that have whites, that’s a problem.”

Taking over HEAL in 2011, Johnson reactivated a dormant agency, whose board seldom met and which had not been audited in years. Johnson ordered audits, added $24 million in new projects, and operated the entity flawlessly.

“Mr. Johnson’s work is exemplary. We need to look at what the LLA does all over the state,” Bryan concluded.

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