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LSU Executive Known For Outrageous Double-Dipping Orchestrated Agreement With ‘Double Bill’ Cassidy

Less than two years after he guided and advised recently-elected Congressman Bill Cassidy on how to continue collecting a salary and benefits from LSU-HSC, Vice Chancellor Ronnie Smith retired. He’d spent 27 of his 37 years as a state employee watching over LSU-HSC’s budget and finances. But, despite his decades of service, no one threw Ronnie a retirement party, because Ronnie wasn’t actually retiring; Ronnie was cashing in and then coming right back to his $210,000 a year job.

He was retired from LSU-HSC for a grand total of two weeks, and during those two weeks, he was able to guarantee himself a $20,000 a month lifetime pension. That is not a typo: At the age of 61, Ronnie Smith retired for two weeks from his $210,000 a year job in order to begin collecting an additional $20,000 a month (or $240,000 a year) in pension funds. In doing so, Smith immediately became one of the most highly compensated public employees in the state, earning nearly four times as much as the Governor and more than the President of the United States.

As outrageous as Smith’s phony retirement may be, he did nothing illegal, and his maneuver was approved by his bosses at LSU. When he was asked about it in 2011 by Jan Moller of The Times-Picayune, Smith claimed that he was worried that if he died, his wife would only be able to collect $10,000 a month from his taxpayer-funded pension plan. “I simply cannot put my wife at this financial risk,” he said.

According to recently released e-mails, Ronnie Smith appears to be largely responsible for orchestrating and justifying Congressman Bill Cassidy’s continued employment with LSU-HSC, an agreement that has earned the Congressman more than $100,000 in salary and tens of thousands more in benefits. Smith drafted the language explaining the necessity of keeping a United States Congressman on LSU’s payroll, and Smith apparently set the terms of Cassidy’s agreement.

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 12.31.58 AMCassidy, who is currently the front-runner in the Senate race in Louisiana, has largely avoided questions about the nature of his employment with LSU since records suggesting that he billed the university nearly two dozen times while working in Congress first surfaced last week. Yesterday, at the last minute, Cassidy canceled an appearance in Shreveport with former Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and on Monday, following his debate with incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu, Cassidy refused to answer any questions from the assembled members of the media. When debate moderator John Snell of FOX 8 questioned Cassidy about his employment with LSU, the Congressman claimed that his “direct supervisor” had already answered those questions. However, Cassidy’s “direct supervisor” left his supervisory position in 2009, the same year Cassidy was sworn in as a Congressman.

Thus far, repeated efforts to reach out to both Congressman Cassidy’s campaign and his colleagues at LSU have been unsuccessful, and at least two of the e-mail addresses included in the disclosed documents have been deactivated. Meanwhile, LSU has announced it will conduct an internal investigation about Cassidy’s employment.

‘Double Bill’ Cassidy: Did Congressman Bill LSU For Meeting With Campaign Supporter At His DC Office?

Dr. Claude Pirtle, a resident physician of internal medicine at LSU-New Orleans, is, by all accounts, an ambitious and accomplished young man. According to records filed with the Louisiana Secretary of State and Pirtle’s profile on LinkedIn.com, in 2009, a year before he enrolled in medical school at LSU, Pirtle launched Nodus Studios, LLC, his own one-man web development company that specializes in Adobe Flash. One of the five clients listed on Nodus’s website is Pirtle’s alma mater, LSU. His company was apparently contracted to provide web development work for the Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center, which had subsequently been taken over by Ochsner Health Center in 2013.

This April, Pirtle launched another technology company, Intern 911, which develops apps for smart phones in order to “supplement important clinical information used in the hospital and outpatient clinic by residents and medical students.” In May, Intern 911 launched a “Louisiana Parishes” app, which it claims is designed “to test your knowledge of Louisiana’s parishes.” In August, Intern 911 released an app called Pearls, which it describes as a way “to provide relevant and ‘need to know’ data about medical knowledge used each and everyday.”

As his posts on social media reveal, Dr. Pirtle is also an outspoken supporter of Congressman Bill Cassidy’s campaign for the United States Senate.

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Perhaps then it’s not too surprising that when ABC News was attempting to find someone who could vouch for Congressman Cassidy’s work as an LSU professor, they were put in touch with Pirtle, who claims to have spent the month of March in Washington, D.C. “studying” the Affordable Care Act. Quoting from ABC News (bold mine):

Asked about specific dates on his timesheets when he recorded hours working for LSU but was also on Capitol Hill for votes the same day, Cassidy said that his LSU teaching responsibilities were fulfilled remotely from DC on days when there were conflicting votes.

Cassidy said that, for example, he has provided “resident supervision” for LSU medical students on health policy rotations in Washington, D.C.

One such student is LSU resident Claude Pirtel (sic), who spent a month in the district earlier this year and worked with Cassidy on a project that studied the implications of the Affordable Care Act on health policy.

“Two or three times a week, we’d sit down and talk about health policy and work on projects pertaining to Louisiana,” Pirtel (sic) told ABC News of his time working with Cassidy, which he described as one of “best experiences” of his time in medical school.

Shortly after Jason Berry and I broke the story of Cassidy’s questionable billing practices and work relationship with LSU, the Congressman downplayed the accusations in an interview with The Times-Picayune. Quoting (bold mine): 

In an interview Wednesday, Cassidy said that although LSUHSC records don’t show him doing lectures, he taught students as he and they worked with patients at clinics and other facilities. He also advised students, worked with them on their research and papers, including in Washington when he would meet with students doing residencies and internships in area medical facilities after the day’s congressional work ended.

But as his March timesheet indicates and as Pirtle’s posts on Facebook seem to corroborate, Congressman Cassidy appears to have charged LSU for meetings he held during the day from his Congressional office on Capitol Hill, and not, as initially reported, “in area medical facilities after the day’s congressional work ended.”

On March 24th, Pirtle posted this image of himself outside of the Capitol:

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Cassidy was in Washington, D.C. that day. He participated in two roll call votes in the early evening. The next day, March 25th, Cassidy billed LSU for “five hours” of “clinic services or resident supervision” in Baton Rouge.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 11.28.40 PMThere’s only one problem here: On March 25th, Cassidy wasn’t in Baton Rouge; he was still in Washington, D.C. He cast his final vote on March 24th at 7:08PM and his first vote on the 25th at 2:27PM, not nearly enough time to fly down to Baton Rouge, log five hours at the clinic, and then arrive back in D.C. the next day. There is likely a simpler explanation: That Cassidy billed LSU five hours for the time he spent visiting with Dr. Pirtle in his offices on Capitol Hill, under the pretense of “resident supervision.”

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct had made it abundantly clear to Congressman Cassidy, in painstaking detail, that he could only collect a salary from LSU if he taught a class for credit. They did not permit or approve him to charge the taxpayers of the State of Louisiana for meetings he conducted with students from his Congressional offices.

I am unaware of any other Congressman in the history of the United States of America charging his state government or anyone else for that matter for discussions he has with constituents from his office on Capitol Hill. Cassidy’s arrangement with LSU, suffice it to say, was troubling and unusual, and thus far, his explanations have led to more questions than answers.

(Thank you to Amy Lafont, a law student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a student in the Clinton School of Public Service’s Masters Degree program, for bringing this to my attention and for conducting a great deal of background research. Amy will be contributing a follow-up guest column within the next couple of days unpacking these issues in more depth).

‘Double Bill’ Cassidy’s Double Talk

Yesterday, Rep. Bill Cassidy, an Illinois native who is now the front-runner in the run-off election for U.S. Senate in Louisiana, responded to a series of recently disclosed public records calling into question the nature of his ongoing work relationship with Louisiana State University Health Science Center while also serving in the United States Congress. In separate interviews with The HillThe Times-Picayune, and The Advocate, Cassidy directly contradicted what his campaign spokeswoman, Jillian Rogers, told E&E Daily, an energy industry news publication, in July of this year, months before these records were released. Then, Cassidy and his campaign claimed that LSU-HSC was merely covering his out-of-pocket expenses for medical malpractice insurance. We now know that in addition to paying for his insurance, licensing fees, and continuing medical education classes, LSU also provided the Congressman with a base salary of $20,000.

Per the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Cassidy was supposed to have been teaching part-time, 16 hours a month. Instead, his arrangement with LSU called on him to continue his clinical work for 30 hours a month.

Apparently, as his time sheets indicate, he wasn’t just being paid a salary for work he didn’t do, which has serious legal implications; he was being paid for work he couldn’t do, which has ethical implications.

The records, which were first reported here on CenLamar and by Jason Berry of The American Zombie, include 16 time sheets submitted by Cassidy to LSU-HSC, e-mail correspondence between Cassidy and LSU-HSC administrators, and Cassidy’s personnel status forms. Taken together, along with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct’s advisory opinion regarding Cassidy’s employment, the documents raise serious legal and ethical questions about the Congressman’s compensation and benefits package from LSU, as well as his actual work-related responsibilities as a tenured Associate Professor of Medicine, Teaching, and Research. According to time sheets, on at least 21 separate occasions, Cassidy billed LSU-HSC for work done on the same days as he attended committee meetings and cast roll call votes in Washington, D.C.

Cassidy downplayed those questions and refuted criticism of his work with LSU-HSC, arguing that his time sheets accounted for only a portion of the time he spent on the job and claiming that he frequently worked from Baton Rouge during the morning and flew to Washington, D.C. in time for the roll call votes in the evening. He also claimed that he occasionally checked in with LSU resident physicians working in area D.C. hospitals as a part of his job with LSU-HSC. Even if his baffling work schedule is true, it appears that he directly violated the guidelines established by the House Committee, and it raises further and perhaps even more important questions about how seriously Cassidy treated his full-time job in Congress. His same-day jaunts down to LSU-HSC’s clinics and back up to Washington, D.C., all on the taxpayer’s dime, are also troubling and profoundly hypocritical, particularly considering his relentless attacks against Mary Landrieu, his opponent in the race, for inappropriately charging $33,000 in travel expenses to her Senate office and not her campaign, an error for which she apologized and quickly rectified.

“(Cassidy) said he would log about three hours in the clinic, supervising residents who were treating patients, on Monday and three more hours on Tuesday morning,” reports The Advocate. “Then he would board a noon flight back to Washington, which would put him on Capitol Hill by late afternoon, in time to make votes.”

Cassidy, if he is to be believed, has spent his years in Congress working two different jobs, collecting checks and benefits from both the state and the federal government. As admirable as the practice of medicine may be, Bill Cassidy was supposed to hang up his stethoscope the day he took the oath of office as a Congressman. Physicians are prohibited from earning outside compensation for the practice of medicine, though they can be reimbursed for the actual expenses- not a salary- necessary to conduct charitable medical services. As previously reported, Cassidy was approved by the House Committee to teach classes for credit, on a part-time basis, at LSU-HSC. His correspondence with LSU-HSC administrators reveals that almost immediately after he was elected, he hoped to either be exempted from the “teaching” requirement or, alternately, to interpret the definition of “teaching” so broadly as to actually include his own practice of medicine.

In his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Cassidy has touted his experience as a medical doctor, often appearing in campaign commercials and direct mail pieces dressed in scrubs and a lab coat. He’s attempted to use his work as a doctor to deflect criticism over his voting record, and much to his credit, he has been effective, even if, at times, his deflections have been disingenuous. Yesterday, in his interviews with the media, Cassidy acted as if he was somehow being victimized for earning more than $100,000 from LSU-HSC since he was elected. “Cassidy said he regrets that his work at LSU — which he contends has helped many patients, some of whom ‘travel from Lake Charles and other communities to get treatment from me’ — is being made into a campaign issue,” The Times-Picayune reported. Given the hours he submitted in his time sheets to LSU-HSC, it is highly unlikely that Cassidy, while a member of Congress, actually “helped many patients” who traveled from all over the state to “get treatment” from him. But that’s not even the real issue: He was specifically and explicitly prohibited by the House Committee from earning a salary in the practice of medicine.

While attempting to justify the time sheets indicating that he worked for LSU-HSC on the same days he cast votes and attended committee meetings in Washington, D.C., Cassidy retreaded a story with The Times-Picayune he’s been fond of telling on the campaign trail. “He repeated a story he has told often about ‘doing a liver biopsy’ in Baton Rouge, and then rushing to the airport to catch the flight to Washington where he quickly changed into a tuxedo to attend a White House Christmas party hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.” It makes for a great story, and it’s refreshing to know that Cassidy, unlike his former Republican colleague Jeff Landry, is willing to be seen with the President. But if he was attempting to illustrate that he abided by the legal and ethical prohibitions against earning a salary for the practice of medicine, this probably wasn’t the best example he could have used.

The medical profession is a noble one, but let’s not be deluded into thinking that a doctor who works for a charitable hospital is working for free. Before he was elected to Congress, Cassidy made more than $300,000 a year working “for charity.” He made the decision to relinquish his career as a physician in order to seek a full-time job in Washington, D.C. in the United States Congress. However, instead of giving up the perks of his former job with LSU-HSC, Cassidy remained on the payroll. LSU continued to pay him a salary, albeit reduced significantly; it continued to pay for his medical malpractice insurance, his licensing fees, and his continuing medical education classes.

Being a physician is obviously a point of pride for Rep. Cassidy, and he’s not to be faulted for that. But as both the record and his statements make clear, he never quite figured out how to justify his ongoing role with LSU-HSC. When he and his campaign spokeswoman were interviewed about the subject in July, they suggested that he was only working for his insurance coverage. Quoting from E&E Daily (bold mine):

Based on his some of his TV ads, Cassidy clearly sees his medical work as a political asset as he aims to oust Landrieu, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who has served three terms in the Senate and whose political career stretches back to 1979, when she was just 23 years old.

While the American Medical Association’s political action committee tabulates 20 physicians currently serving in Congress — with 17 of them in the House — a review of recently released financial disclosure records suggests Cassidy is among a small subset of lawmakers who continue to see patients in between pushing legislation on Capitol Hill.

Cassidy’s most recent financial disclosure report reveals he earned $20,000 for his work in 2013, the same salary he has claimed in each of his financial disclosure reports since 2009.

In his newest report, Cassidy notes that the salary — which he detailed in a previous report as payments of $1,666.70 per month — “merely covers his expenses” for working at the Baton Rouge-based facility. In his 2008 report, prior to starting his House term, Cassidy reported receiving a $305,000 salary.

“Dr. Cassidy’s expenses are for medical liability insurance. As you may know, Medical teaching is often taught bedside — through procedure demonstration, clinic supervision and advising on particular patient issues,” Cassidy spokeswoman Jillian Rogers told E&E Daily in an email.

That’s a nice spin, but none of it is true, at least if Cassidy’s time sheets and his statements to the House Committee are to be taken as factual. He wasn’t being compensated for his own out-of-pocket insurance expenses; LSU already covered those, something he later acknowledged to The Times-Picayune. The distinction here is important, because if Cassidy was merely being reimbursed for his out-of-pocket insurance costs, as his spokeswoman asserted, he would never need to account for the hours he spent teaching. At the same time, however, his spokeswoman attempts to cleverly include Cassidy’s bedside consultations, surgeries and operations on patients (which she recasts as “procedure demonstration”), “clinic supervision and advising on particular patient issues,” all under the rubric of “teaching;” indeed, everything Cassidy did would be considered teaching.

According to The Hill, Cassidy, who claimed to have been the only liver doctor in the system, had once asked to be fired if he failed to bring value. Cassidy was later granted a leave of absence in April. Quoting (bold mine): 

A source close to the Landrieu campaign argued to The Hill that the congressman knowingly maintained his tenured status even though he didn’t meet the minimum level of requirements. Cassidy said it’s LSU’s decision to terminate tenure, and that “it’s not absolute” based on whether he’s meeting minimum requirements.

Cassidy took a leave of absence from LSU in April and hasn’t received any paychecks since then, but he still goes into the clinic and performs pro-bono work for the school by working with students on residency in Washington.

Cassidy offered a somewhat different explanation to The Advocate (bold mine): 

“I emphasized (to LSU), ‘If ever you think I do not bring value please terminate me’, and they say, ‘No, you bring value.’ And demonstrably I do,” Cassidy said.

Emails acquired by The Advocate indicated that LSU officials worried the situation could get audited and cautioned medical school officials to carefully detail the work Cassidy did.

Cassidy described the terms much more casually and called the monthly $1,666.70 a “stipend,” rather than a strict set pay for set hours arrangement.

Though some of the emails mention a contract, no actual contract has been released.

In an October 2009 letter written by Dr. George Karam, who is the head of internal medicine and Cassidy’s direct boss, wrote of the congressman’s stipend: “The payment is for services on an ongoing basis, not for individual presentations or lectures.”

Karam has not responded to calls or emails seeking comment.

The work, we now know was never sufficiently detailed. Believe it or not, despite Cassidy’s tenured position, he claimed yesterday to The Times-Picayune (bold mine):

As for tenure, Cassidy said he wasn’t even aware he had been kept in a tenured position.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Cassidy said. “Who cares? If they aren’t’ satisfied with me and want to get rid of me, that’s fine. They’ve gotten rid of lots of tenured people in recent years.”

This seems remarkable. Cassidy didn’t know his job title; he didn’t know how often he worked; he didn’t even seem to understand his approved and prohibited job responsibilities.

In situations such as these, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Here, it appears that Cassidy was more concerned with maintaining his medical malpractice insurance and payments for his continuing medical classes than he was in actually teaching courses as a professor, and in order to do that, he would need to intermittently submit hasty and incomplete time sheets documenting the bare modicum of work needed to pass muster.

Perhaps he hoped that would have worked for his purposes, at least until December 6th, but it doesn’t even come close to answering the real and legitimate questions raised by these reports.

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