Friday, August 12, 2005

Benjamin, Fiber 411 and thoughts on "Why?" and "Why now?"

Lord, Eric Benjamin’s latest disjointed attack deserves several posts worth of responses, mostly along several versions of calling attention to the absurdity of the pot calling the kettle black.

Here's the gist of the story: Fiber 411 principals Bill LeBlanc and Neil Breakfield have filed ethics complaints against the city alleging that Durel and other LCG officials overstepped their bounds. It's the classic sore loser syndrome/sour grapes.
..some on the side that lost the referendum wonder whether, in fact, they were beaten fairly -- or even legally. The Fiber 411 folks have not seemed a happy lot and wonder if the good fight they fought wasn't, perhaps, undermined by some city, Lafayette Utilities System and Political Action Committee actions that overstepped legal boundaries.
(Full disclosure: some of the complaints appear to relate to activities of Lafayette Coming Together, of which both writers of this blog are members.)

And I expect that obvious response: the kettle coming back and calling the pot black, will now surely play out in due time. But my real question is why? And why now? These folks want to encourage ethics complaints? NOT wise. And why go to press with this now—or actually, why go to the press at all when doing so will make success less likely? The two questions, coupled with the extra that the charges seem silly or just demonstrably wrong, add up to: Why? This seems dumb.

Really: Raising charges and opening wounds is pretty demonstrably not in the Triumvirate’s best interest, and if they want to do it anyway this is not the rational moment to announce it to the press. And all that makes it seem dumb -- in all but one circumstance that I can think of.

Without even going into specific charges about campaign events of the sort that Benjamin carelessly assays, it seems odd to bring the claims that others have broken rules to an ethics commission whose own most basic rules you’ve demonstrated you can’t follow yourself. Fiber 411 spent a lot of time claiming first, that they didn’t have to become a PAC, then, under pressure, finally incorporated as a PAC. Unfortunately that incorporation occurred after they spent money (wrong order -- a very basic problem). Then that organization “filed” a letter by fax (which the Advertiser happily reported as if it were legitimate, but it appears not to have been and the letter still hasn’t appeared on the Ethics Commission website long after the 10 day grace period expired). Then Neil Breakfield talked to the press about the complaint, which I understand is itself illegal.Unless, of course, no complaint has actually been received…in which case the story is inaccurate. And all this is only about the clearly defined procedures of the Ethics Commission. Imagine the real mess guys so cavalier about their ethical responsibilities could get themselves into out in the messy real world. No, getting people started thinking about ethics violations is most definitely not in these guys’ best interests.

Ok, so it’s not a good idea, maybe they have their reasons (spite or nobility, you got your choices though I think going to the press with it probably tilts the scales in favor of spite ). But whatever their reasons, if they really want their ethics complaint to succeed, now is an excessively odd moment to pursue filing it. The final reports aren’t in yet and aren’t even due until late August. These are the reporst that cover all the interesting last days' stuff. A sensible person waits. After all, you don’t want to tip your hand and let people put together a credible defense by forewarning them, or so offend the ethics commission by talking out of turn (it's illegal to talk about your ethics complaint, recall) that they just refuse to take up your complaint. It would be much smarter to wait until all the paperwork was in and not to tell those who you are complaining about what you are up to. So, really, going to the commission at this moment doesn’t appear to make sense. And it certainly is foolish to talk to the press—on both legal and tactical grounds.

Even odder is that these charges just don’t hold water. Durel is supposed to have coerced people by having a town hall meeting? Really? A big sidebar to the story confidently attributes the billboards around town to “Lafayette Pro Fiber”—a blog, hey this blog, instead of to Lafayette Coming Together—a properly registered PAC (more of that famous research). And we get the claim that city buses were used, when the (actually submitted and posted) PAC report makes it clear that the only buses involved were rented from a private provider. This is awfully sloppy research and reporting. But I guess that’s the kind of reporting you get when you make the opponents of fiber your co-authors rather than treat them as potentially fallible sources.

You’ve got Benjamin uncritically reporting on a Fiber 411 complaint that “has made its way to” the Attorney General, but that he apparently isn't aware of (but Benjamin makes hay just alluding to it). Fiber 411 has an improperly filed expenditure report with the ethics commission that apparently wasn’t accepted and hence they don’t have any legal commitment to what it contained. (But the Advertiser reported it as if it were as valid as reports legally filed.)

I did a little research today down in Baton Rouge and on the web. The process Fiber 411 is involved in is one in which if you don’t “swear” to your complaint, the person who supposedly did something wrong is never even notified. And if your unsworn complaint is found to be without merit, no word is ever released to anyone who was accused or to the public, since no one is supposed to know that the complaint even existed. This is intended to protect folks from having the ethics procedures used to intimidate or smear them. But it works in just the opposite way if folks like Fiber411 go to the press and announce their complaints—which, to repeat, is illegal if you’ve already filed a legal, valid complaint (and it's not news, nor gist for Benjamin’s mill, if you haven’t actually filed such a complaint). Once the complaint is made public in the press, these procedures work to make sure you simply cannot be cleared publicly. The Ethics Commission is bound by law not to say a word. Even if their actual judgment is that the complaint was frivolous and spiteful, the only way you will ever get an inkling is by their silence. And looking at Benjamin’s diatribe, I don’t see anything that comes close to being true. So if the Commission does a little calling around, my guess is that the complaint will be dismissed. But Benjamin’s latest little essay will sit on the web semi-permanently and be useful one day as a last-minute full page ad…like the equally inaccurate one he wrote just before the referendum.

Inaccuracies and mistakes and sloppy reporting; they seem suspiciously prevalent. Each “mistake” is one more little knock against the fiber campaign or Joey Durel, accurate or not.

This whole endeavor seems just plain dumb and spiteful. The most generous possible interpretation is that thy boys think they’re being noble but are actually naïve and just don’t, poor things, understand the process they started. But this would be the sort of nobility that lets them feel free to level charges in the press -- not my brand of nobility. Frankly, I’m not buying the naive pose that the trio has so often trotted out. I’ve seen it too often. So what would make this not dumb? I’ve thought about it and thought about it, and I admit that spite does seem plausible. Sour grapes and all that. But there is another scenario that also makes a little sense.

First you have to be aware of how FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt—the consistent strategy of the incumbent coalition throughout the fight) works: it operates precisely by making unsubstantiated and unsustainable charges. You just say whatever you want and then when somebody bats that down, you go on to the next one. The idea is to create the impression that something is wrong, even if nobody can remember just what it was. But the doubt about the idea or person remains. Then you have to recall that for all that the gentlemen three have protested verbally that they don’t like BellSouth or Cox, their actions seem to speak differently. When someone local was needed to speak against fiber in the council, they were there. When the council voted yes and Cox started a “let the people vote campaign,” who started a petition drive? Supple, Breakfield, & Leblanc When the petition failed, even with BellSouth employees carrying petitions in their trucks, the noble three joined BellSouth and Cox in suing the City of Lafayette. When it actually came to a vote, who was the sole local, non-corporate opposition? You guessed it. Fiber 411.

Now the next hurdle for LUS is turning back the whacky regulations suggested by a consultant to the PSC. Things, I hear, look good, and the overwhelming vote of the people in favor of fiber is probably the best tool that LUS has had with the elected commission. When a little tarnish on the election victory might be good for BellSouth and Cox, who shows up to sling a little mud in Benjamin’s column? The boys from Fiber 411.

That particular explanation is the only one that accounts for why they want to see the ethics charges in the paper now, before the final ethics reports are filed. The dirt is needed now. BEFORE the PSC meeting.

So the reades can take their choices as to what is motivating all this: nobility, naiveté (aka dumbness), spite, or helping BellSouth and Cox. Not a one of them seems a reasonable explanation to me.


Anonymous said...

Wow I knew it would get ugly but this is kind of ridiculous! Who is this Benjamin and what does he stand to gain from all of this? I mean he must be gaining something from this because otherwise it has nothing to do with him at all.

Anonymous said...

I never expected that Neal Breakfield would involve himself with some nonsense like this. I think many people (even those who respected him on the pro-fiber side) will not think very highly of him after this.

Anonymous said...

Eric B. = LOSER

It is just that simple.