Sunday, December 02, 2007

Appalling: Jindal Picks BellSouth Lobbyist

Here's an appalling bit of news: Governor-elect Bobby Jindal has chosen Tommy Williams, a recently retired BellSouth lobbyist, to be his top legislative lobbyist.

Really.

Jindal--who ran emphasizing an ethics platform—is putting a lobbyist in as his legislative director. And not just any lobbyist: The former chief lobbyist of the most legislatively powerful corporation in the state. That's gotta be a funny man to put in charge of what Jindal has said was his first priority in the legislature: Ethics reform. My guess is that no legislator will misunderstand the obvious meaning: Ethics reform is not aimed at stopping corporations from buying our legislature. Since that is the most serious form of corruption in this state ethics reform a la Jindal must be about something else. Appointing a major lobbyist to this position is hugely symbolic: it is akin to putting the fox in charge of hen house. No doubt the Louisiana legislature breathed a collective sigh of relief. They've seen this game played out before. Lots of rhetoric but with the "right" people in charge nobody really has to worry.

An AP wire brief reports on Wednesday's announcement. The bare bones report out of Baton Rouge is simple and does no more than highlight his former position. We here in Lafayette, however, have a rich history to draw on with Tommy Williams and his family.

Tommy Williams, seasoned readers may recall, is the father of the BellSouth legacy that ran BS' operations in Lafayette during the fiber fight. John Williams was a loyal son of the company who toed the company line on both how unnecessary fiber was and on how "someday real soon" BellSouth was going to run fiber. (Contradictions never faze such folks.) Williams was the man in charge when Fiber 411's anti-fiber petition went out on company trucks. And he was the fellow who backed down when employee resistance and popular resentment made it clear that was a bad move. He was the fella whose designed-to mislead remarks about "functional equivalence" inspired the "Slick Sam Spade" video. He had to crawfish about his company's lying about their role in the season's ugliest moment: the push poll that ignited a firestorm of derision.

A paragon of ethics. But the senior Williams, Tommy Williams, was the guy who carried on the battle against Lafayette at the state level with an even more impressive lack of character. Tommy was prime mover in pushing through the (Un)Fair Competition Act--the law that tried to outlaw the project, did provide avenues for delaying it for years, and which remains a knife pointed at its heart. Tommy followed up on the legislative and legal tactics by taking the battle to the Public Service Commission (PSC) and trying to convince it to institute all sorts of anti-Lafayette rules. He mostly failed but having failed he persisted in trying to at least delay the bond issue. BellSouth's lawsuits failed--but added to the delay. That didn't work either but it wasn't for lack of trying. We will probably never know who funded the Naquin lawsuits that were the last to stretch out the delay—but we do know they used material from BellSouth lawsuits that weren't yet publicly available.

Tommy Williams (with his son) has been a consistent and relentless foe of Lafayette's aspirations. Williams balked at nothing to oppose what the people of Lafayette voted for. He was in the line of command on all the questionable tactics and had a visible hand in much of it. None of it was ethical unless you subscribe to the anything-goes-for-a-bit-of-profit school of ethics. I, and I think most Lousiana's subscribe to that older standard that has to do with honor and character. An honorable man doesn't do dishonorable things at anyone's bidding.

This is the man who will be in charge of shepherding our new governor's ethics package through the legislature. I'd watch closely.

Terry Huval of LUS, qouted in a recent IND blog item is more forgiving than I can convince myself to be. He says:
“Unless we see something otherwise,” Huval continues, “I’m going to trust that Tommy’s going to follow what the governor wants to do, and my hopes are that the governor wants to do the right things.”
That's trusting that the man is the sort that can put aside a lifetime of carrying water for his bosses and invests a lot of hope in the idea that he is only a loyal agent of his new master. I'm afraid I can't be so trusting. In my experience people who've spent most of their lives justifying something are committed to it—especially if they were required to convince others of the righteousness of that position. But even if you trust that Tommy Williams can be honestly bought he's still got a lifetime of habits in thinking about a set of issues that matter very much to Lafayette.

Who is talking to Jindal? Who in Lafayette has a pipeline to the new governor that can act as a counter-balance to the natural inclinations the man he is relying on to pass every other element of his agenda?

I hope someone is thinking about it and developing that pipeline.

It's not a pretty sight.

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