By C.C. Campbell-Rock
For more than a year, a group of state elected officials have been running a concerted campaign to kick Jacob Johnson, MPH, CLED, out of his job as Executive Director of the Health Education Authority of New Orleans, (HEAL) abolish the New Orleans-based agency, sell its properties, and put the agency’s functions under a Baton Rouge-based state agency.
HEAL functions as a quasi-governmental agency that assists state and local government agencies, nonprofit/501(c)3 organizations or other groups working in health care, health education, or the biological sciences in obtaining tax-free bonds to construct, renovate, or enhance facilities.
No sooner was the ink dry on ACT 577, authored by Senator Karen Carter Peterson (SB230) in 2016, which expanded HEAL statewide; several elected officials and one state agency, the Office of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, sprang into action to take HEAL out of New Orleans, terminate its African-American director, Johnson, and house it under the state’s Division of Administration.
State Senator Fred H. Mills, Jr. (R-New Iberia), State House Speaker Taylor F. Barras (R-New Iberia) New Iberia, Attorney David Groner, then newly appointed chairperson of HEAL, Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, and State Senator Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) were all a part of the effort to kill HEAL.
Purpera published a draft of an audit of HEAL in December 2016, a scathing report that Johnson says “criminalized” him. The LLA recommended greater oversight of the agency. Johnson is currently suing the LLA over the report.
Meanwhile, Senator Carter-Peterson filed SB224, which abolished HEAL. Peterson’s bill would have placed HEAL’s work and authority under Governor John Bell Edwards’ Division of Administration, while dissolving the agency, its staff, and Board of Trustees. “I am the author of a bill to repeal an authority I believe is ineffective. Some of the numbers can’t be disputed,” Peterson had said at an April 26, 2017 meeting of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee meeting, chaired by Senator Fred Mills New Iberia. After meeting with a delegation of constituents, Carter-Peterson tabled her bill.
Similarly, Senator Mills tacked on a Senate Amendment to Barras’ HB 26, which authorized the transfer of certain property near Spanish Lake in Iberia Parish. Mills’ amendment also abolished HEAL, and transferred all of HEAL’s properties to the state. The jewel in HEAL’s holdings is its garage, a business capable of generating millions. The garage is attached to HEAL’s LaSalle Street office building, behind Duncan Plaza and across from City Hall.
Members of Justice & Beyond, a civil rights forum, NAACP, and grassroots organizations rode to Baton Rouge and asked legislators not to pass Barras’ bill. That bill was tabled. Failing to abolish HEAL in the state Legislature, the effort to takeover HEAL moved to Governor John Bel Edwards’ office.
In 2017, according to Johnson, HEAL’s Board members were asked by the governor’s office, to resign from the Board. The action resulted in an agency without a Board. But Johnson kept the doors open, according to the agency’s bylaws.
Johnson then lobbied Governor Edwards to reconstitute the HEAL Board. Today, six of nine Executive Board members have been appointed.
“The governor can do better,” says Pat Bryant, co-coordinator of Justice & Beyond. “We are looking at many situations under his watch that he could have done something about that would benefit the community. This is about developers trying to make money. It’s about people who want to take old Charity (Hospital), the parking garage, Duncan Plaza, and creating something, without giving the public a buy-in. They want to destroy HEAL and its administration, without talking to the people.”
However, the conspiracy to shutter HEAL and terminate Johnson is continuing. Attorney Charles T. Cravins, CAO of the St. Landry Parish District Attorney Office, was appointed chairman of the HEAL Board by Governor Edwards in December 2017.
Cravins’ first order of business was to send an email to Johnson, on December 29, 2017, informing him that his contract would not be renewed. No such letter was sent to HEAL’s legal representatives, whose contract also expired in December 2017.
Johnson says Cravins’ action is illegal and that he cannot make a unilateral decision without a vote of HEAL’s Executive Board. Cravins’ move to not renew his contract is a “breach of Act 577, public laws, and HEAL bylaws,” adds Johnson.
Thankfully, the current inclement weather forced a meeting scheduled for today to be rescheduled. Nonetheless the executive also takes issue with items left off of the HEAL Agenda for its upcoming meeting in Baton Rouge. Absent is any mention of Johnson’s contract, the $26 million in projects that Johnson secured in the past year, a public comment period, and an outstanding debt report.
“The $26 million worth of projects is historic, in that this is the first time bonds will be issued statewide through HEAL, ” says Johnson who maintains the projects are not on the agenda because his detractors don’t want him to get credit for bringing the proposed medical and dental programs to HEAL for bonding.
Bryant sent a letter to Governor Edwards asking him to reconsider his appointment of Cravins to oversee the Board.
“We asked that Mr. Charles Cravins position as chairman and member of the HEAL Board of Trustees be reconsidered, in light of past allegations of sexual harassment and aligned with your zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment. Please read the deposition of a victimized woman/employee about his conduct as an assistant district attorney in St. Landry Parish,” Bryant told Edwards.
Karen Robinson, an 11-year employee of the St. Landry District Attorney’s Office, sued Cravins in 2011 for sexual harassment and unequal pay. Robinson, who left the job, lost the case.
Bryant also asked Governor Edwards to ensure that Johnson gets an opportunity to address the full Board.
“Cravins is being played as a pawn, Karen Carter Peterson is being played; as well as the governor, by developers. We have experienced, sadly, Black politicians who don’t want to know what the interests of the community are. They are supposed to be working for us. We’ve got to make these people accountable, “ Bryant says, summing up the political gamesmanship involved.
Johnson has since amended his lawsuit against the LLA to include defamation of character, racial discrimination, and loss of earning capacity. As it now stands, the executive is out of a job. Johnson holds a master’s degree in public health and is a certified public health administrator. While the political attacks on HEAL has damaged his reputation, Johnson says, ‘I will keep moving on.”
Calls to Karen Carter Peterson and Charles T. Cravins for comment were not returned.