Meeting with Strain yields a few strains

The watchdog group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany continues to flex its political muscles, holding a meeting last week with a frequent target of its criticism, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain.

Strain, who is running for his fifth term, sought the meeting with the group and came to it with his chief deputy, Fred Oswald, and public information officer, George Bonnett.

In a mostly low-key session that lasted a little under two hours, members asked Strain to support portions of their agenda, including term limits. Strain, a 20-year incumbent, said he supports allowing the public to vote on whether to limit the number of terms officials can serve.

Terry King told Strain that the group has concerns with how his Internal Affairs Department handles complaints, saying that those who bring up complaints are sometimes shut down. King also said he has heard complaints from former inmates who participated in work-release programs that they worked far more hours than they were paid for.

Strain, who shut down the Covington work-release program last year in the wake of escapes and critical media coverage, said there have been no negative findings about it. He pointed to a recent story in The New Orleans Advocate that quoted state Inspector General Stephen Street as saying his office’s probe into the program is still ongoing.

“A year and a half and they’re still investigating? Really?’’ Strain said incredulously.

But the most tense moments in the meeting came when King said there is a widespread perception that deputies are pressured to support Strain’s candidacy. He cited the example of Clint Mathews, who sued the Sheriff’s Office in federal court in late 2012, claiming he was coerced into buying a $250 ticket to a 2011 gala for Strain and then subjected to reprisals, including demotion and ultimately termination. The Sheriff’s Office settled the suit.

Strain got testy, noting several times that Mathews had been reimbursed for the ticket. He asked King whether he knew Mathews had been offered a different position in the Sheriff’s Office but refused it because he preferred to pursue a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

At one point, King asked the sheriff if he wanted to “go tit for tat,’’ but Carl Ernst, on the group’s advisory board, said, “We’re not going to do that.’’

The meeting ended on a more cordial note, with Strain asking the group to choose a point person who will bring concerns directly to him and his top aides. The group agreed and promised not to bring up matters that it had not vetted to ensure they are credible.

Jeff business leaders blast Jindal order

It was no great surprise last week when New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu — chief executive of what is probably Louisiana’s most gay-friendly town — sought to undercut an executive order on “religious freedom” issued by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

But on Friday, the Jefferson Chamber — a more conservative outfit in a more conservative parish, though one that has been trying to woo young professionals — joined in the chorus of voices opposing Jindal’s order, saying it could prove bad for business if it is perceived as discriminatory.

Headlined “Jefferson Chamber Takes Exception to Governor’s Executive Order,” the group’s news release said bluntly that Jindal’s order “will essentially result in a destructive financial impact for our region and state.”

Elsewhere, it said: “We believe in a business community that supports equality, regardless of sexual orientation, race, cultural background, gender, etc.”

Jindal has sought to portray opposition to his order, and similarly intended legislation, as being the work of the “radical left wing” and “corporate America.”

In a speech Friday before the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City, he said those odd bedfellows had teamed up to “bully” conservative governors pushing agendas similar to his own.

“The left teamed up with corporate America to bully leaders in Indiana and Arkansas when they debated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” he said, according to The Hill. “My warning to those corporate leaders is: If you think you are going to come to Louisiana and bully the governor of Louisiana, don’t waste your breath.”

Jindal’s order came after a state House committee killed by a 10-2 vote a Jindal-supported bill that would have carved out protections for people who oppose same-sex marriage. He said his order would preserve the intent of the bill by applying its protections to executive branch employees of state government.

While the defeated bill was popular among many conservative religious groups and voters, it drew criticism from liberals and gays as well as business leaders, who said they feared it would harm the state’s economy.

The day after the order was signed, two New York lawmakers floated the idea of banning all nonessential state-funded travel to Louisiana.

Indiana and Arkansas were threatened with similar boycotts after those states pursued measures similar to Louisiana’s religious freedom bill. Governors in those states eventually supported changes to the bills that mollified critics.

Landrieu’s executive order said it was designed to “confirm for the residents of the city of New Orleans, its businesses and visitors that religious beliefs are protected from unjustified governmental burden, but that there is no tolerance in the city for discrimination on the basis of race, creed, national origin or ancestry, color, religion, gender or sex, sexual orientation, gender identification, marital or domestic partner status, age, physical condition or disability.”

The dueling executive orders signed by Jindal and Landrieu have both been described as mostly symbolic by legal experts.

Compiled by Sara Pagones and Gordon Russell