Days after State Treasurer John Kennedy unfairly and falsely criticized former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne for purchasing and installing $1.1 million in public art at the newly-opened $1.1 billion University Medical Center in New Orleans, a program mandated by the state’s 27-year-old “Percent for Art” law, he posted a Facebook photograph of him posing next to the new $350,000 glass sculpture by the world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly as an example of government waste.
Presumably, the Treasurer believed that public art, however valuable and impressive, was nothing more than a colossal waste of public money, regardless of its prominent, showcase position in the complex and its accessibility to the general public and despite the fact that it was purchased, in compliance with and as mandated by state law, through capital funds as a part of a construction project and not with the general budget, which is where the state’s financial fiasco resides.
Put another way, there isn’t a single student in jeopardy of losing their TOPS scholarship or a single disabled child at risk of losing their NOW waiver because the state constructed a statue in front of a hospital. They come from two different pots of money, and it’s against the law to use one-time construction money- or capital money- to pay for recurring and operational expenses. “The government can afford to build practically anything,” a friend of mine who is an expert in the subject once explained, somewhat hyperbolically. “The problem is the government can barely afford to operate anything.” It’s a lesson Treasurer Kennedy should consider taking under advisement.
Two days ago, I filed a public record records request with the Louisiana State Museum and the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism. If Treasurer Kennedy truly believes that state-owned artwork is emblematic of reckless spending, regardless of whether he understands the ways in which these things are actually paid for, then it would stand to reason he wouldn’t take advantage of any program that allowed him the opportunity to prominently display such symbols of government profligacy in his office, the very office that has crusaded against investments in art at a time in which, in his words, “we’re broke.”
I wanted to know whether Treasurer Kennedy possessed any of our state’s collection of public art in an office he currently leases from one of his campaign donors for $294,000 a year more than he would spent in a publicly-owned building. Over the course of the last five years, by the way, that totals over $1.5 million in excess spending of public money.
Treasurer Kennedy’s office was advised to relocate into a state-owned facility on October 14, 2014 by Mark Moses, the Director of Facility Planning and Control. He waited a month, and having not heard back from Kennedy’s office, wrote again on November 19, 2014. Then, he wrote again on January 22, 2015, this time asking to survey the leased office space. Later that day, he was told the inquiry would be placed in “John’s reading folder.” The office of Facility Planning and Control spent months attempting to convince Treasurer Kennedy and his employees to complete forms that would better help them assess their needs. And finally, more than two years after the initial inquiry, Facility Planning and Control wrote Treasurer Kennedy once more, on November 30, 2015, informing him that a relocation would save taxpayers $293,858 a year. Kennedy did not respond officially until February 29, 2016, stating in a letter to Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne that he would move if it saved taxpayers money. “Even if we can only save $1, we’ll move,” he told The Advocate. Again, Treasurer Kennedy had known or should have been aware since October of 2014 that relocating his office was likely to save taxpayer money. It took him nearly a year and a half to respond, despite continual requests from Facility Planning and Control.
The owner of the building Treasurer Kennedy currently leases for his public office, One City Plaza, is Mike Wampold.
Milford “Mike” Wampold III, along with his almost obscenely voluminous list of registered partnerships and LLCs, is one of the most successful and prolific real estate developers in Baton Rouge and, arguably, the entire state of Louisiana.
And, acording to publicly available campaign finance reports, over the last decade or so, Wampold has given nearly $20,000 to the Treasurer’s state campaigns, nearly $5,000 for his previous campaigns for U.S. Senate, a combined $90,000 to David Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign and his related SuperPAC (including $50,000 donated only eight days before the election), $6,600 to Vitter’s U.S. Senate races, $22,100 for Bobby Jindal’s gubernatorial campaigns, $6,200 for Bobby Jindal’s presidential campaign, $25,000 to Bobby Jindal’s presidential SuperPAC, $28,500 for the Louisiana Republican Party, $58,900 to the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, and tens of thousands more to other candidates, some Democrats but overwhelmingly Republicans. (He even donated $5,000 to Gov. John Bel Edwards, more than a full month after he had been elected).
Wampold is obviously a prolific campaign donor, and many of the candidates to whom he donated were campaigning for office in and around the same time questions began arising about the costly lease agreement Wampold’s company had with Treasurer Kennedy. Kennedy, at the time, was running for his fifth term for Treasurer, with the expectation that he could be appointed U.S. Senator in the event that David Vitter was elected. Vitter, of course, was running for governor, and Bobby Jindal was running for the White House. Perhaps 2015 was not the best year for Kennedy and Jindal to terminate a $369,597 a year lease agreement with one of their most reliable big money campaign donors, even if it could save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time in which it needed the money the most.
As it turns out, yes, Treasurer Kennedy has amassed himself quite a collection of public art on loan from the Louisiana State Museum, though not in Mr. Wampold’s building. Currently fourteen pieces in total with a combined insured value of nearly $300,000 (though I only requested this year’s collection) are housed in Kennedy’s Capitol office.
If you want to see Clementine Hunter’s 1984 piece, “Picking Figs In The Summertime” (insured at $2,500, though it is certainly worth much more than that), you’ll need to head over to Treasurer Kennedy’s office at the Capitol. To be fair, all statewide public elected officials have the right to request art for their offices from the Louisiana State Museum.
Former Gov. Jindal would have been wise to take better advantage of the program, considering the bizarrely whitened portrait of himself that prominently welcomed guests to his office for over six years.
It is also worth nothing that the curators of the Louisiana State Museum take tremendous care of their collection, requiring them to spend large sums of money and a significant amount of time on transporting, staging, and guaranteeing the safety and security of each one of these works of art. These additional costs are not included in the itemized list, but I have filed a series of other records requests that should be filled within two weeks.
Here is the loan agreement Treasurer Kennedy has with the Louisiana State Museum:
Treasurer Kennedy apparently has no problem mining $300,000 worth of precious artwork from the public’s collection in order to decorate his private office, but when a newly-opened $1.1 billion state hospital that serves those most in need has the audacity to follow a state law that has been on the books for 27 years- a law that exists in 28 states- and install pieces of stunning public art work by world-renowned artists that can actually be seen and enjoyed by the public, well, that, to Kennedy, is nothing more than a wasteful contract.
Perhaps the Louisiana State Museum should have been charging him to lease the public’s art for his and his staff’s private enjoyment. And while we are at it, perhaps we should demand Treasurer Kennedy reimburse the state for the difference he paid renting Mr. Wampold’s building and what he would have paid had he simply located his offices in buildings the taxpayers were already paying for.
With the amount of money we would have saved, Louisiana could have invested in four of those funky glass sculptures, and if we had four of those, trust me, the state could charge admission for such an exhibit, and most ironically of all, Treasurer Kennedy could finally claim credit for locating a new source of revenue that no one ever could have imagined in those 21-year-old white papers with the 400 solutions he is so fond of referencing.
The Treasurer could purchase one of those sculptures, and- who knows?- he may even be able to convince his landlord, Mike Wampold, to purchase another one and donate it to the state on loan. One thing is for certain: A sculpture by Dale Chihuly offers a much more solid return on investment, typically over 100%, than most of the donations he has made to political candidates or the decisions Treasurer Kennedy oversaw as Chairman of the Board Commission.
Two birds, one stone. Plus, we would make a strong and powerful statement about our state’s commitment to the very thing that has made Louisiana so unique and vibrant and compelling for more than three hundred years: Our public celebrations of our unique and complicated heritage and our culture and unapologetic investments in the very things that give our heritage and culture a pulse and verve: art, jazz, blues, architecture, food, the natively-born funky and the foreign, which is what it means to be Creole.
If you fail to grasp that about Louisiana, if you truly believe that after eight years of a negligent governor, a pliant legislature, and a state treasurer who liked the sound of his own voice more than the work he was elected to do that the real problem- the problem that symbolizes all that is wrong and rotten and out of control about Louisiana- is a picture of a sculpture installed in front of a $1.1 billion hospital, you must have been sleeping under a rock during the two-terms of the wunderkind.
Treasurer Kennedy’s tirade about the astronomical number of state contracts definitely has merit. His problem isn’t merely that he is using the wrong contracts as examples of the problem, however. There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of hardworking Louisiana residents, both rich and poor, Republican and Democrat and everywhere else in between, who understand and value the public investment in art. In fact, the “Percent for Art” program was written by a Republican legislator and signed into law by a Republican governor, Mike Foster.
Over the last eight years, we disinvested in our schools and in art programs and in music and art festivals, and somehow, many of us seemed to forget that our investments in art and in culture are what have always made Louisiana a special and magical place to be– not the billions in unfulfilled promises to poultry plants or dirty energy facilities or television shows we literally pay to make our citizens look like caricatures of rednecks and swamp people. It’s humiliating. It’s anti-intellectual. And it is the cumulative result of eight consecutive years of lunging from one unavoidable crisis to another. It is what makes it possible for a man who is a serious candidate for United States Senate from Louisiana to believe that he could win votes by mocking a sculpture that most American cities would immediately put on every brochure and tourist guide they printed.
On a final note, let’s take stock in the real reason Louisiana is now saddled with all of those thousands and thousands of contracts. Governor Jindal famously and erroneously liked to brag that he cut the size of government by 26%. He boasted about eliminating 30,000 government jobs. And for whatever reason, too many of us were under the mistaken belief that the government services he eliminated and the jobs he cut all miraculously vanished because, as he led us to believe, they weren’t necessary in the first place.
True, many of those services and jobs did disappear, and some were unnecessary. But a great deal of them resulted in real-life catastrophes for hardworking people, and a significant number of them merely became government contracts. When the state privatized two prisons, those employees were no longer on the state’s payroll, hence a reduction in state jobs, but we are still left footing the bill for their salaries through the contracts the state has with these private prison operators. The same can be said about the state’s health care system. It is, in large part, a gimmick designed to create the illusion that the size of government is shrinking, when, in actuality, the public is merely being asked to pay more for less with the expectation that services will improve. They haven’t.
And that really is the central hypocrisy of Treasurer Kennedy’s crusade against out-of-control contracts. He and his party spent eight years privatizing state government through the execution and implementation of thousands and thousands of contracts, big and small. Now that we face the largest budget fiasco in our state’s history, they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that the root cause of this fiasco is the fire sale they marketed for eight years. Again, even the Treasurer himself preferred renting a privately-owned office building at $290,000 more a year than he would have spent in a publicly-owned building, and he is not the only one. We have given away enormous fortunes in exemptions to oil and gas companies, many of which they never needed, and as a result, we are now forcing the very people who can afford it the least to bail the state out from the profligate pilfering conducting by those who earned huge fortunes by brazenly manipulating the law to their maximum advantage.
The Louisiana coastline continues to be destroyed by the relentless and unaccountable dredging of canals and bayous that are, in some cases, sold to the public as water quality projects but are, in fact, nothing more than taxpayer-funded giveaways to the wealthiest industry on the planet, an industry that- any time it is threatened in Louisiana- cries wolf and tells the men and women they help install in the legislature that additional regulation or additional taxes or the elimination of exemptions and subsidies would force them to lay off thousands, close up shop, and move elsewhere. And year after year, no one is willing to call their bluff and state the obvious: If the Louisiana oil and gas industry picks up its tools and moves to another sandbox, they would be federally liable for billions, if not trillions, in environmental remediation costs. It’s simply too expensive to leave; plus, the oil is here, and our oil and gas industry isn’t dependent on the giveaways the state provides. It is dependent on the vicissitudes of a volatile global market, over which lawmakers in Baton Rouge have absolutely no control.
Smart people understand this, including the leaders of these oil and gas companies. But when Louisiana levee boards and parishes had the gall to demand that these companies pay for the damage they’ve inflicted on the state’s coast, these companies executives didn’t even need to hire lawyers to defend themselves. They already had assembled the best legal team for this particular case they possibly could have: Former Gov. Bobby Jindal and his Republican allies in the Louisiana legislature. Today, even though Jindal is no longer in charge, Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, a man with an obnoxious and pathetically desperate penchant of referring to himself as “General” in all of his press releases, recently announced his intention to intervene in 39 different cases against oil and gas companies, not on behalf of the people of Louisiana, as he speciously claims, but in the service of the industry. Attorney General Landry, shortly after his election, determined that the framers of the Louisiana State Constitution had intended him to usurp the governor’s executive power, dismiss his obligation to the governor as his client, and attempt to implement his own public policy agenda under the pretense of enforcing the law.
We are at a crossroads in this state, and right now, we have a real opportunity to reverse course and to undo the damage inflicted on this state by eight years of an absentee governor and a vocal group of legislators who love the sport of partisan politics more than the hard work of policymaking.
With the exception of the newly-elected governor and the majority of the Democrats in the legislature, most of our leaders are absolutely mortified to tell the truth about the condition we find ourselves. When Gov. Edwards raised the mere possibility of college football being in jeopardy due to severe cuts to higher education, the Republican response, particularly by Treasurer Kennedy, was not to “tell it like it is;” it was to mock the governor as a scare-monger, vow that he would never allow the sacred institution of college football to ever be threatened, and then declare, without a trace of irony, that Louisiana’s problem was due to spending too much. It is worse than a lie; it’s delusional; and as we now know, it reeks of hypocrisy.
I was born and raised in this state, and I have returned twice, once after I finished my undergraduate degree and again after law school. Both times, I came back because I earnestly want to work to make this place what I know it can become, what it deserves to be. I came back to help others like me, people from all corners of Louisiana, of all ages and races, men and women, gay and straight and transgender, people who believe in religion and people whose faith resides in humanity itself.
I may be stupidly idealistic, but I believe in my generation and I know, first-hand, the transformative power of the Internet to inform people of the truth in real-time, to expose hypocrisy, to organize communities around shared goals, and to engage in meaningful dialogue about the biggest problems that face a state I believe to be the best in the nation, if only we would merely begin taking the narrative away from these politicians who have used racial, religious, and cultural divisions to win elections. And when you win elections, you can control the narrative.
Bobby Jindal was never a health care guru. He was a kid who was gifted with a big title that shielded him, early on, from scrutiny. He wasn’t an effective Congressman. He won elections by first pretending to be someone he wasn’t and then gradually becoming the actor he had played. He wasn’t a good steward of the state’s budget. His party likes to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility, and under his leadership, they damn near bankrupted this state.
David Vitter was the least effective member of the United States Senate who won elections based on appealing to racial divisions, paranoia about immigration, and dirty politics. We have another Senator who was paid a fortune from LSU while a member of Congress but somehow forgot to complete the vast majority of his time sheets.
Our Republicans in the Congress are not much better. John Fleming was once duped into believing a satirical story on The Onion about Planned Parenthood opening up an $8 billion “abortionplex.” He subsequently blamed one of his staffers, but if you follow Congressman Fleming on Facebook, it is fairly obvious that he falls for just about anything that comports with his distorted, conspiratorial, and radical right-wing views. Congressman Steve Scalise, of course, couldn’t tell the difference between an international hate conference of white supremacists and a neighborhood meeting in Metairie.
Republicans in the state legislature, on the other hand, have outsourced their jobs to national organizations like ALEC, lobbying groups like LABI, the Louisiana Family Forum, and LOGA, and signed pledges by people like Grover Norquist. These are not leaders who are serious about doing their jobs. They’re more worried about their rankings on some right-wing organization’s scorecard than doing the business of the people. And if the disarray we all witnessed during the Special Session is any indication, they suffer from institutional incompetence borne out of laziness and a misplaced sense of pride. But they have very little to be proud of. If anything, they should be ashamed.
Attorney General Jeff Landry coronated himself General and immediately set out to establish a type of government-in-waiting. It’s comical, if only because he is unwittingly setting himself up for a second-round of national embarrassment (the first one being the time he violated decorum at a State of the Union address as a Congressman and then refused an invitation to meet with the President at the White House, which had the advantage of making him look churlish, unprofessional, and like a man pandering to a narrow-minded group of white racists).
And Treasurer John Kennedy has spent an entire lifetime in politics and has almost nothing of policy substance to show for it. For whatever reason, he believes he was elected to be the least cooperative person in state government, as if we vote for Class Clown, and thus far, in a state frustrated by government inaction and incompetence, he has managed to capitalize quite nicely by criticizing others while taking no responsibility for himself or his role.
When you and your political party squander a $1 billion surplus, stubbornly deny billions in stimulus money to repair our crumbling infrastructure, millions for broadband roll-out in rural parishes, and millions more for a commuter rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge; idiotically oppose accepting billions more to provide insurance for more than a quarter of a million people; squander a vast fortune on unnecessary tax breaks and corporate giveaways that never materialize; collude with an industry that has already admitted fault in destroying the state’s coast and protect that industry against legitimate lawsuits; convince thousands of school children to leave public schools and provide them with vouchers to schools that perform significantly worse; and when, year after year, you and your party balance the budget through a series of accounting gimmicks that merely kicks the can down the road and ensures we will all be paying more later, you no longer ever get to call yourself “fiscally responsible.”
Fiscally responsible does not mean “opposing each and every tax.” Fiscally responsible does not mean rejecting federal money for infrastructure or health care because the check is signed by a black man, a Democrat, who won the presidency twice in landslides, particularly when you represent a state that already receives more federal taxes back than it pays in.
There is nothing responsible about that; it’s just cowardly. It’s not leadership. It earns you nothing more than a few free dinners and a few thousand dollars from political action committees that could care less about the people for whom you were actually elected to represent.
I think the Chihuly sculpture, whether you respond to it or not as a piece of art, that Treasurer Kennedy mocked as a sign of wasteful spending symbolizes something completely different: I think it signifies, in a small way, the fact that some people in this state dare to think Louisiana deserves to have beautiful, nice, world-class artwork in front of a $1.1 billion hospital that will save and repair the lives of generations of Louisiana citizens.
Once upon a time, Louisiana celebrated and cherished things like that.
Today, we mock it as profligate spending, while praising a man with his own $300,000 collection of public art and leasing another building, owned by one of his campaign donors, that has cost taxpayers $1.5 million more than they needed to spend as if he is a true “fiscal conservative.”
That, to me, is a perfect metaphor for everything wrong with our politics in Louisiana.