Jim Beam column:Petty politics at work again

Published 7:00 am Monday, May 23, 2022

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By Jim Beam

American Press

To say that the speaker of the Louisiana House and the commissioner of administration who handles daily operations of state government aren’t getting along these days would definitely be an understatement. The two officials went public with their disagreement after The Advocate newspaper reported Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, hired his stepsons to remodel state apartments.

Commissioner Jay Dardenne wouldn’t pay the stepsons because their company isn’t on the state’s procurement system. Dardenne also said DAPA Enterprises, their company, isn’t licensed by the state Licensing Board for Contractors.

The dispute centers around damage to the Pentagon Barracks. A three-day freeze in mid-February 2021 ruptured a pipe in the attic. Cascading water flooded a second floor apartment and Schexnayder’s two first-floor apartments.

The newspaper said Schexnayder pays $500 per month for the two side-by-side units that face the Pentagon courtyard. A select group of legislators picked by the speaker and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, get apartments, paying $200 to $400 a month. Many lawmakers have roommates.

The state hired Nerams Construction to do the repairs and the company started working on Schexnayder’s two apartments on March 3, 2021, less than 10 days after the freeze. However, Schexnayder and his wife began changing plans.

The Advocate said emails showed they wanted expensive countertops, a $2,600 KitchenAid ice maker, an $8,500 range, and a $2,500 wall hood. The top-of-the-line appliances were going to come from a company where Schexnayder’s wife works as a bookkeeper.

State officials said Nerams did its best to handle the changes sought by the couple. But before the company could complete the project, Schexnayder wouldn’t allow company workers into the apartment to finish the job.

Notes to a state official said the “Speaker would not allow Nerams into the apartment to complete punch list items because reconstruction work was not up to his standards.” And that is when Schexnayder brought in his stepsons to finish the job.

The owner of Nerams said, “We didn’t even have a chance to pick up our tools.” He estimated it was a loss of about $1,500.

The stepsons billed the state for $48,462. The state was getting ready to pay them when it learned the company wasn’t listed in the state’s procurement system.

Schexnayder said in a statement he waited too long for the state to finish the work and eventually “made the decision to get it done myself.” He said he paid the bill when the Division of Administration wouldn’t do it.

The newspaper said Schexnayder’s hiring of his stepsons doesn’t appear to be illegal, even if he paid them using state funds. The Louisiana Board of Ethics has ruled that stepsons are not considered “immediate family.”
Now we have a better idea of why Schexnayder offered House Bill 756 to his colleagues. It turns maintenance of the Pentagon Barracks, the state Capitol, Capitol Annex, and the Old Arsenal Museum over to the lieutenant governor’s office.

The bill passed the House 90-3 and is awaiting action in the Senate. It is expected to sail through there as well. Legislators never like to buck the two most powerful lawmakers in both chambers.

Schexnayder, who is term-limited, has been mentioned often as a candidate for lieutenant governor. Under his bill, the lieutenant governor would have responsibility for those buildings subject to the authority and direction of the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate.

Dardenne last week accused Schexnayder of cutting his agency’s budget by $3.3 million and giving that amount to the lieutenant governor’s budget because he wouldn’t pay those two stepsons. Cortez, the Senate president, said his chamber made the budget cut at Schexnayder’s request.

Switching care for those buildings is going to cost the state millions of dollars extra, Dardenne said. His division saves money by keeping  state building maintenance across the state under one roof.

What public officials like Schexnayder seem to forget is they are playing footloose and fancy free with money that belongs to the state’s taxpayers. It isn’t supposed to be used to enrich the lifestyles of the men and women we elect to public office.

You would think Louisiana has had enough of petty politics dating back too many years. Daryl Purpera, the legislative auditor who held that job from 2009 to 2021, told the newspaper that Schexnayder giving work to his stepsons doesn’t look good.

“Whenever you start doing things with family, you need to ensure it’s an arm’s length relationship,” he said. “These issues need to be done very carefully.”

As the saying goes, this one “stinks to high heaven.”