It has been an intriguing journey since legislative leaders quietly cut a special retirement deal for the powerful head of the Louisiana State Police.
Clearly the Jindal administration had hoped the story would lose traction after State Police Col. Michael Edmonson announced he wouldn’t take the extra $300,000 and wanted a legal remedy to ditch the increase that was approved without debate in the waning moments of the legislative session. Then, a press secretary for Gov. Bobby Jindal, who had signed the enhancement into law, said it was a mistake that should be corrected.
But what had been billed as a benign court proceeding for Tuesday, which would have quietly ended the whole affair, instead has turned into a full-blown, adversarial hearing: Subpoenas have been issued; testimony will be taken.
Upon learning of this on Thursday, an enraged Edmonson bolted from a meeting to publicly declare that he was not backing away from his original statement. He maintains, as he has since the beginning of the controversy, that he won’t accept the money and didn’t approve of what was done or how it was accomplished.
“I’ve never had a change of heart,” Edmonson said, his voice rising. “It’s not the way I would have done it. It’s not constitutional, period.”
The legal mulligan idea came about because the law is still the law even though Edmonson and Trooper Louis Boquet, the only other person included in Act 859, volunteered not to take the money and the Louisiana State Police Retirement System Board voted not to pay. It’s kind of like a driver saying he doesn’t agree with the posted speed limit and therefore doesn’t have to pay the fine.
A court needs to declare the law unconstitutional or the Louisiana Legislature has to rewrite it. The Legislature doesn’t assemble again until April, so Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor, acting as a Baton Rouge taxpayer, filed the lawsuit that would allow a judge to rule in the next few weeks.
The plan was, and in fact the retirement board voted on this, not to defend against Claitor’s claims and thereby allow the court to speedily declare the law unconstitutional.
Then an email from Thomas L. Enright Jr., Jindal’s executive counsel, started circulating among the parties. It was read by some as an indication that the administration was backing out, opting instead to, in Enright’s words, give the Legislature “an opportunity to fully debate this measure in the next legislative session.”
“I’m a little perplexed. I thought we had an agreement that the defendants all agree with the plaintiffs,” said state Treasurer John N. Kennedy, a member of the Louisiana State Police Retirement Board.
When asked just what he meant, Enright issued a prepared statement through Jindal’s press office saying the administration would not oppose or defend against Claitor’s lawsuit.
Where Enright wouldn’t tread, Claitor gave it a go.
Claitor said he wanted to create “an appropriate record” to ensure that whatever decision the trial court made would be supported with testimony and evidence.
Kennedy said fine, but as a defendant in Claitor’s lawsuit, he has a right to take testimony and find out exactly how, for instance, the wording came to be added to some bill that when passed, surprise, gave Edmonson the special “longevity benefit.”
Those inquiries, so far, have been met with a whole lot of “What?! Who, me?” that seems to have kept the controversy going.
After initially denying any knowledge, state Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, said he directed legislative staff to add the amendment. In testimony before the retirement board earlier this month, a clearly reluctant Charles Hall, State Police’s actuary, revealed that the initial inquiry came from Deputy Superintendent Charles Dupuy, Edmonson’s chief of staff.
Edmonson said the intention was to clean up language that created a hiccup in one of the retirement plans that occurred for some troopers who still were working. Once he realized what happened, Edmonson said he immediately refused to accept the pension enhancement, endorsed efforts to repeal the law and took responsibility.
Though many would just like this issue to go away, Claitor’s “trust but verify” stance may be prudent. Without a complete record, including testimony and evidence, an appellate court could open the door to bringing Edmonson’s enhancement back from the dead.
A reasoned decision after a thorough examination would mean the law is not only merely dead, but it’s really most sincerely dead.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.