Bill Cassidy, LSU, and the Louisiana Media’s Abdication of Duty

Last week, a prominent national reporter spoke with me about a paper I’m working on for one of my law school classes. I’d asked for his help because I knew he was an expert in the subject, and thankfully, he took the time to answer my questions. At the tail end of our conversation, he asked me about the story I’d helped to break about Bill Cassidy’s work with LSU. He was curious, he said, because he’d actually seen the same documents that I posted a few weeks before I had. He thought it was an important story, but he couldn’t find anyone interested in publishing it, which, he said, was frustrating.

I’d heard this before from other reporters: CNN and NBC News had allegedly passed on it, and so did The Advocate. Yet once Jason Brad Berry and I put the story and the documents online, the very publications that had once dismissed it as a non-issue were suddenly interested. It became a major part of the final two weeks of the Senate campaign between Cassidy and Mary Landrieu. Ethics complaints were filed locally and nationally. LSU was forced to launch its own internal investigation. And it even earned me a profile in my hometown newspaper, The Town Talk, and a handful of interviews on the radio.

I’ve been an outspoken critic of the legacy media for several years, and while I do not entirely fault the national press for not prioritizing the story of a Congressman’s missing time sheets, I thought that the Louisiana state media’s refusal to even report on the issue was negligent, offensive, and a complete abdication of duty. Of course, I am proud of my work on this story and humbled and honored by all of those from Louisiana and elsewhere who have reached out to express their appreciation. It was and it still is an important story.

A few hours after I spoke with the national journalist, I met up with another reporter, a friend of mine, at a bar in the Marigny in New Orleans. “What do you think the LSU audit is going to say about Bill Cassidy?” he asked.

“It’s going to exonerate him,” I said. “It’s not in LSU’s best interest to implicate a sitting United States Senator. They need all the help they can get, and they don’t want to pick a fight with anyone in power.”

He agreed. Jason Brad Berry had been telling me the same thing for months. In fact, I’d wager that almost anyone who pays attention to Louisiana politics would have made the same exact prediction. It was, in many ways, a foregone conclusion: A public university that had been paying a United States Congressman, now a Senator, for work it never sufficiently documented had absolutely no reason or obligation to admit wrongdoing. Besides, LSU didn’t hire an outsider to investigate; they investigated themselves.

On Wednesday, when LSU released its internal audit, the Louisiana media failed once again. Here is a sampling of the headlines that appeared on some of the state’s biggest news websites:

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Yesterday, conservative columnist Jim Varney of The Times-Picayune led with this headline:

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Not only are these headlines absolutely incorrect, the stories themselves reveal a fundamental and perhaps dangerously ignorant misapprehension of the controversy at issue and reveal an almost comically misleading editorial or political agenda. It was, as if, no one had actually read or re-read the stories posted here and elsewhere that truly, seriously explored the multiple problems with Dr. Cassidy’s job responsibilities with LSU. First and most importantly, there never was a work agreement, no contract.

Not a single newspaper or news organization asked why or how Congressman Cassidy, on at least 21 occasions, claimed to be spending time in Baton Rouge while he worked in the US Congress. No one addressed Congress’s central requirement: That Dr. Cassidy teach a class for credit, and clearly, that never happened. In fact, the only evidence that Cassidy even showed up for clinics two days a month was hearsay from an employee who claimed Cassidy left his calling card by cluttering up white boards during his lectures.

Why were time sheets missing? Well, according to one of Cassidy’s colleagues, time sheets simply weren’t filled out whenever he wasn’t physically present. But others offered contradictory testimony: No one seemed to know if they should only submit bills for work in LSU or if other work was sufficient. The audit also weakly attempts to argue that similarly-situated physicians are not required to document their work, but that is a specious argument: Cassidy was.

But Bill Cassidy was at least copied into at least 160 e-mails, none of which were released to the public and which were apparently used to justify at least some of his salary.

Put simply, Bill Cassidy was rarely present, sometimes gone for months at a time; LSU never had a written agreement with him, and due to the significant lack of documentation, LSU wasn’t even clear on the work for which he was responsible.

The audit concluded with two major findings: Cassidy needed a contract, and he needed to document his work, the same things about which he had been advised years ago. Notwithstanding those, the audit completely ignored Cassidy’s temporal superpowers, being in DC and Baton Rouge at the same time. The report also revealed that, despite Cassidy’s unequivocal statement in the first and final debate of the runoff, when he claimed to have signed all of his time sheets, he signed almost none of them.

I know I can be accused of beating a dead horse; some will say the story is over. Others have argued that my reporting has been exposed as “B.S.” For many, particularly for conservatives, it’s easy and convenient to dismiss my reporting as nothing more than a liberal hit piece. I understand that it’s often how the game is played. But this audit was bogus and result-driven, and even more offensive and bogus were the ways in which the mainstream media reported the story: Cassidy was not “vindicated;” the report recommends immediate corrective actions. That is not language anyone would use to convey vindication. It’s not language that anyone wants to hear from their auditor.

From the very beginning- the moment that public records surfaced revealing that Bill Cassidy claimed to be working in Baton Rouge on the same days he was voting in DC and that he failed to submit 75% of his time sheets (despite the explicit demand that he account for all of his work)- the Louisiana media has been absolutely, shamefully, epically derelict in its duties. They refused to ask the tough questions. They refused to hold him or LSU accountable. Two days ago, LSU released a report that it conducted itself; they called it an audit, and they implied it cleared Dr. Cassidy.

It absolutely did not. It answered nothing. If anything, it suggested that he was valuable to LSU because, well, he’s Bill Cassidy. Which is precisely the problem with a university putting an elected official on its payroll.

As sloppy and problematic as the audit itself is, the mainstream media’s abject failure in reporting the story is even more offensive: LSU paid a Congressman that had never signed an agreement for work he rarely documented, and the Louisiana media heralded him as being vindicated.

And it infuriates me, to no end, that Jason Brad Berry and I are, so far, the only journalists in the entire state of Louisiana that have called this report out for what it is: A pathetic, thinly-sourced attempt at damage control.

Until we demand that our public institutions, our elected officials, and our media are held accountable, our politics will continue to be better known, deservedly, for corruption than for innovation. The mainstream coverage of LSU’s audit was just about the worst and sloppiest journalism I’ve ever read.

I was, literally, the first and only person to even bother to ask Sen. Landrieu about what she thought about the audit. (Remember, this was, after all, a big part of the waning weeks of her campaign). She hadn’t yet read it, so I had to send it to her. And this was hours after the AP, the Times-Picayune, and every other major news publication in the state had already filed their stories.

No one even considered the real possibility that there may be another and more compelling side to the story. That, I’m afraid, takes too much time, too much money, and a couple of ounces of integrity.