Saturday, October 29, 2011

Louisiana's Lost Broadband Grant: Legislators Complain; Questions Raised

Hat's off to Michelle Millhollon, on the Advocate's legislative beat, who has an exemplary article up today on the loss of the delta region's $80 million broadband grant. She's got the story almost exactly right, something rare in so arcane a topic. It still pays to have real beat reporters.

Francis Thompson, Delhi
She lays out the national political backdrop succinctly and accurately, moving on to State Senator Francis Thompson's anguished pleas for an appeal. Thompson's from Delhi, deep in the heart of Louisiana's most impoverished rural area and his distress, and the distress of his constituents is understandable.

Here's the heart of the story:
Initially, the Board of Regents oversaw the project. The state Division of Administration, which handles the daily operations of state government, later took control and modified the project.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said earlier this week that the state requested alterations without demonstrating that the project could be finished on time and achieve the goals of the original application.
She accused state government of fumbling the ball.
Rainwater told members of the Louisiana Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Friday that the Board of Regents' initial approach to the project would have pitted the public sector against the private sector by focusing too much on government involvement.

That's what you need to know: Jindal's Division of Administration under Rainwater took control of the grant process, submitted new plans which violated the terms of the grant, and when challenged, responded by point blank telling first the feds and then the state's legislators that nothing that didn't protect certain business interests was acceptable to the Jindal administration.

¿¿¿¿The Question????
The unanswered question here is: Just whose business interests were at stake and why did their influence warrant sabotaging a plan that had previously passed state muster and had then won a highly competitive grant process at the national level?

Ed Antie's
Board of Regent's Portrait
Mullhollon was surely part of the team that followed the controversy around Jindal's Board of Regent's appointee and telecommunications businessman Ed Antie. (Yes, the same Board of Regent's whose grant project was later reshaped by Rainwater.)  Antie's performance in his confirmation hearing was so shot through with denials of and contradictions about a $531,000 dollar contract one of  his businesses had leasing fiber optics to the Board of Regent's LONI research network that he withdrew his name. But the unusually sharp questioning in that hearing followed and was inspired by his lobbying his new colleagues on the board and the state's education commissioner in the interval between his appointment and his confirmation hearings:
Records submitted to the committee reveal that Antie took an active interest in telecommunications issues during his short time on the board, frequently emailing fellow board members and Higher Education Commissioner Jim Purcell about LONI and urging more involvement by the private sector.
Now this degree of open self-dealing is unacceptable by even Louisiana's famously lax standards. But there's more: even if some members of the Board of Regents were uncomfortable with Antie's antics the board as a whole had come under critical scrutiny. WAFB reported that eight of the nine members Jindal appointed to the Board of Regents donated to his campaign, many within weeks of being appointed. As it turns out Antie had donated $3,000 dollars to Jindal's reelection coffers. But, even sweeter, executives in various businesses associated with his fiber leases to the Board's LONI network had contributed another $16,000 dollars.

It all stinks.

And that's before we even bring up partisan politics and Mary Landrieu's role in securing the grant, the Jindal administration's ragged record on privatization ranging from the prisons to the Office of Group Benefits, or the naked ideology visible in the recent failure to complete application for a $60 million dollars in "race to the top" money for Louisiana's award-winning early childhood programs.

It all stinks.

—Stay tuned; more details and a fuller exploration to come.

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