Over the last twelve years, Blake Chatelain and his wife Belle have donated at least $28,000 in cash and an additional $2,000 in-kind to Bobby Jindal. They sent the majority of their donations from their former, relatively modest house on Whitechapel Boulevard in Alexandria, two blocks away from my own childhood home and on a street named after my great-grandfather’s small church in rural Rapides Parish. Less than four years after he launched Red River Bank, Chatelain sent Jindal, then only 33 years old, two different checks on the same day for $5,000, according to records maintained by the Louisiana Ethics Administration.
$5,000, it is worth noting, is the maximum amount allowed under the law from an individual donor, and therefore, Chatelain’s single-day $10,000 contribution, if true, is actually illegal and subject to penalties. Jindal, of course, lost his campaign in 2003, but Chatelain, it turns out, had made a wise investment. He and his wife continued to pour thousands of dollars into Jindal’s campaign fund. Two years ago, despite the fact that Bobby Jindal is now term-limited from running again for governor, Chatelain donated an additional $2,000 in cash to Jindal’s gubernatorial campaign fund. His superfluous donation to an essentially defunct campaign fund only makes sense if you also consider this: Since 2009, Blake Chatelain has served as one of Bobby Jindal’s appointees on the powerful LSU Board of Supervisors, a role that provides him with oversight and authority over hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts and carries enormous influence. Last year, Chatelain spearheaded the controversial search for a new university president, a process that was shrouded in secrecy and muddied by lawsuits from newspapers seeking access to public records.
Chatelain, however, should not be faulted for his ambition or for his earnest desire to serve his alma mater. He is a successful banker and entrepreneur, and in less than 20 years, he has single-handedly made Red River Bank into a pillar of the Central Louisiana community. But nonetheless, it is difficult to overlook the long-standing financial relationship between appointees like him and Bobby Jindal’s political operation.
Today, now more than ever before, LSU’s solvency depends on leaders who are more loyal to the institution itself than to any individual politician.
Two years ago, in a remarkably insightful investigative report, The Times-Picayune plunged, head-first, into the symbiosis between the Jindal campaign machine and state appointees. Quoting (bold mine):
There are two things that tend to be true of the people Gov. Bobby Jindal appoints to the dozens of boards and commissions in Louisiana: They agree with the governor’s agenda. And they have contributed, often generously, to his campaign fund.
At least 317 appointees, their families and their companies gave the governor’s campaign more than $1.8 million in contributions in a four-year period that ended in 2012, according to a joint examination of campaign finance records….
Americans, historically, have always been willing to provide elected executive officials with latitude over whom they hire: Mayors appoint their own assistants; governors select their own division leaders, and presidents get to pick their cabinet members. But usually, despite our tradition of deference to the executive on matters like these, the other branch of government is still there to provide a check. The Senate has to approve Cabinet nominees, and the legislature approves appointments to lead state agencies. When I was in my mid-twenties and worked for the mayor of my hometown, our city council spent nearly an hour debating my job. Ultimately, it was approved. I did not buy my job by donating to anyone’s campaign: At first, I volunteered; I put in long hours, and I worked hard. I didn’t jump into public service because I thought it’d be a quick and easy way to accumulate influence and riches (because it is not); I just wanted to serve the public. I thought it would be worthwhile and fulfilling (and it was).
What is happening now in Louisiana, particularly in higher education, does not resemble the promise of American representative democracy. It is offensive; it is definitively plutocratic, and it only persists because of our collective apathy. Blake Chatelain may be a good man who only desires to serve his alma mater, but like many of his colleagues, his large cash donations to a single politician reinforce the narrative that Louisiana is not a meritocracy; it is “pay to play.”
Because of that, our public institutions are not always guided by leaders who seek to serve their communities; they are, instead, made up of people who are transparently and cynically motivated by the opportunity to accumulate personal fortunes. Consider, again, LSU:
51.1% of the state’s population are women. Currently, there are fifteen men and one woman serving on the Board of Supervisors for the state’s flagship public university.
32.4% of the state’s population are African-American. Currently, there are fifteen whites and one African-American serving on the Board of Supervisors for the state’s flagship public university.
Ann Duplessis is not just the only woman on the LSU Board of Supervisors; she’s also the only African-American. And these aren’t the only things that set her apart from her colleagues.
Unlike most of them, Duplessis has never given a dime to Bobby Jindal. All told, current board members, along with their immediate family members and associated businesses, have contributed nearly $400,000 to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s political campaign.
The current board not only includes some of Bobby Jindal’s most generous campaign donors; it also includes his former employee, Scott Angelle (who is now running for governor), his first-ever boss, former Congressman Jim McCrery (who has given his former summer intern thousands from his own campaign fund), and Rolfe McCollister, the treasurer of the Jindal-related political action committee Believe Again.
McCollister is a successful publisher, a sharp and opinionated writer, and an exuberant (and occasionally shrill) advocate for conservative politics. Universities thrive with people like McCollister, because both the premise and the promise of the academy is about fostering the open exchange of ideas. Yet McCollister has continually and embarrassingly demonstrated a very basic lack of understanding about his role as a member of the Board of Supervisors. Like most other members, he too has donated thousands to Bobby Jindal.
The connections between donations and appointments are troubling, but they are not necessarily disqualifying. Perhaps a future governor would consider prohibiting donations from anyone who seeks to be considered as an appointee for the Board of Supervisors, or, at the very least, requiring appointees to cease any outside campaign-related advocacy in which they are involved. These folks are supposed to be serving the public higher education system. That’s a real job, not a reward you receive in appreciation for your generous donation to a politician.
As McCollister proves, it also would help if future appointees understood the mission and respected the integrity of a university. Earlier this year, Gov. Jindal hosted a controversial prayer rally on the LSU campus, and as public records prove, McCollister was influential in helping Jindal secure the venue. I willingly concede that the rallies like these can pose some provocative questions about the ways in which a university should accommodate free speech and free assembly, but we never even needed to get to those questions at this event.
This was a campaign rally that dressed itself up as both a public event (Jindal invited people on his official state letterhead) and a religious revival. I was there. Bobby Jindal and Rolfe McCollister invited a recognized hate group to plan a day-long campaign rally on a public university campus. McCollister should have never been involved in any of the discussions between Jindal and the university in the first place, but instead of stepping down, he doubled down, writing in his news publication, rather bizarrely, that the event was a victory for free speech, including those who showed up to champion LGBT rights.
McCollister’s narcissism, hypocrisy, and delusion are staggering. He worked, for months, to help Bobby Jindal stage an event modeled directly after Rick Perry’s prayer rally in Reliant Stadium in 2011. He used his position as a public servant to help a political candidate put on a campaign event on a college campus, organized by a group that once claimed homosexuality caused Hurricane Katrina, and then, after his duplicity was revealed by the media and the event attracted almost universally negative attention, he attempted to convince his readers that this was merely an exercise in academic freedom. Again, I was there. This was not a roundtable discussion. McCollister worked with the Jindal campaign to bring a hate group to LSU in order to promote Bobby Jindal, not to foster a discussion. The protesters didn’t show up that morning because they were invited to have a dialogue; they showed up to express their outrage that their governor and a member of their own Board of Supervisors were willing to exploit their beloved institution in order to promote bigotry for political expediency.
If the men and the woman appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal to serve LSU truly care about the survival of the institution, they should all consider stepping aside. Even if the gesture is entirely symbolic, it would still send a powerful message about their seriousness of purpose. Right now, that is important, because even with massive cuts looming in the horizon, it’s almost impossible to find someone in power who is willing to take things seriously.
I’m not the first person to suggest this, actually. LSU Professor Bob Mann recently made a similar recommendation in the pages of The Times-Picayune, and after he did, Rolfe McCollister wrote yet another bizarre column arguing that Mann’s criticism of his employer, LSU, could potentially be journalistically unethical. McCollister, without even a hint of irony, said he was basing his assessment on the opinions of an anonymous source who he claimed to be an expert in journalistic ethics. He also suggested that Mann harbored “hatred,” which he believed to be the result of him being a liberal.
It’s so stupid that it hurts. I’ll save my full-throated defense of why a public university professor, particularly one who teaches political communication, should be able to publicly criticize public officials for another day. But suffice it to say, if Rolfe McCollister is an accurate representative of the intellectual firepower that is currently helping to steer Louisiana’s flagship university, we should probably be even more worried than we are now.
This may come across as mean, even angry. It’s not. I don’t know Rolfe McCollister, but I occasionally read his publication. I don’t “hate” him at all; I’m told he is a nice guy in person, even to those with whom he disagrees. I just believe, strongly, that over the course of the last several months, he has proven himself to be intellectually dishonest, completely divorced from the consequences of his own actions, and, frankly, a really terrible member of the Board of Supervisors. He is not the only one, of course.
Right now, those positions are all important, and we cannot afford to waste time, energy, and space with someone preoccupied by their friend’s delusions of grandeur.
When Bobby Jindal was first elected in 2007, he vowed he would reform the state’s ethics laws, kick out the “crony crowd,” and make Louisiana into a national example of the benefits of transparency in government. Instead, we are now, just as much as we ever have been, a country club that admits white men, almost exclusively. We are a plutocracy. We are the world’s prison capital and the nation’s energy junkyard. Our coast is evaporating. Our emergency rooms are closing. Our bridges are failing. Our public universities are going bankrupt, and the state is itself beyond broke. But somehow, Bobby Jindal keeps getting cash from folks who want an appointment.
No, really, go figure. No one else is.