An ugly feud between two of Louisiana's most prominent elected leaders tasked with the state's flood recovery reached a fever pitch Thursday, with both camps expressing utter exasperation and accusing each other of hurting the victims of 2016's historic floods.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican representing the heart of the disaster area, called Gov. John Bel Edwards a "liar" whose bumbling leadership has slowed the process of getting federal assistance to needy flood victims. Top Edwards officials responded that Graves' fixation with trashing the governor, a Democrat, may jeopardize the state's ability to receive a desperately needed additional $2 billion from Congress. They also touted a letter from President Donald Trump's administration that lauded the state's "historically fast" pace in navigating the federal grant process.
"The governor needs to stop lying and he needs to get personally involved and understand what's going on and show some urgency," Graves said, his frustration palpable, in an hour-long meeting with The Advocate's editorial board. "Give us a trajectory of when you're going to start cutting checks. That's all I'm asking for. Look at this through the eyes of a flood victim and do what's in their best interest."
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Graves said that beginning in August, in the immediate aftermath of the floods, he was privately urging the governor to begin the process to hire a disaster management firm with a contingency contract and to begin registering a list of flood victims and their needs, so that when the federal money was available the state would be ready to pull the trigger. He noted that it's been 10 days since the governor announced a $1.6 billion congressional appropriation was made available to the state, and the state has yet to sign off on its contract with IEM, the company selected to oversee the recovery plan.
"You should be doing back flips and busting your ass to get this money out the door and into people's hands," he said.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development informed the state in an April 10 email that the federal assistance was available for the state to begin drawing down. Three days later, the governor's office announced it had selected IEM, a North Carolina-based disaster recovery company, to manage the flood program.
State officials are currently in the process conducting environmental reviews and registering flood victims to determine eligibility.
It's true that, legally speaking, the state could have started hiring a flood management contractor last year, said Matthew Block, Edwards' executive counsel. But Block said without the federal dollars in hand, the cash-strapped state had no money to pay the contractor. The governor's office projects a $440 million budget shortfall for the 2017 fiscal year that begins July 1.
Block said asking a contractor to work for the state on contingencies of payments and before HUD had approved its action plans would have allowed a private company to strong-arm the state into an irresponsible financial arrangement that could have been costly in the long run for taxpayers.
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Richard Carbo, an Edwards spokesman, stressed that Louisiana is ahead of the federal government's own projected timeline, which initially projected the federal aid would be available in May. And he pointed out that even the Republican administration had applauded Louisiana, in writing.
"The Department would like to commend the State for its commitment to increasing the speed of recovery," the letter said, signed by Clifford Taffet, General Deputy Assistant Secretary for HUD. "This is evidenced by the historically fast Action Plan submission, whereby the State submitted the Action Plan for HUD review 45 days in advance of the 90-day deadline set forth in the notice."
Kevin Roig, Graves' spokesman, dismissed the letter calling it, "bureaucrat back-slapping."
Julie Baxter Payer, deputy chief of staff for Edwards, said the barrage of barbs from Graves is both inaccurate and damaging to the state. The administration is hopeful an extra $2 billion will be included in a federal spending measure next week, and she fears that Graves is giving members of Congress reason to lose confidence.
"If you're reading Louisiana news, you see what Louisiana's own congressman has to say," she said. "It's inaccurate and it's hurting us."
She said Graves should be assisting the state legislatively, by sponsoring bills that would cut red tape. For example, she said, the Edwards administration has asked the delegation to sponsor bills that would allow them to skip costly environmental reviews, some of which are now being conducted.
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Graves responded that the environmental review waivers are not a legislative issue. He said that he'd like to remind the governor that the "billions of dollars that they have been provided for flood recovery to date are all federal funds that the congressional delegation has worked tirelessly to get."
"All of this is federal funds. He is the one that has zero skin in the game. Nice try," Graves said.
The spat between the two popular politicians escalated earlier this month, when Edwards traveled to Capitol Hill and was dressed down by Republican congressmen over Louisiana's flood response and called "clueless" on a national stage.
Graves said Thursday that he spoke with both Block and Edwards' chief of staff, Mark Cooper, ahead of the hearing to warn the governor not to attend because he was going to be attacked by what he called the most partisan committee in Washington.
"I did not plant questions," Graves said. "I did not sandbag him on this. Why would I have told him not to come?"
But Block said he did not talk to Graves before the April hearing, and Cooper said he met with Graves at church, but received no such warning.
Carbo said the governor would have gone anyway, because he wanted to be held accountable as he asked Congress for $2 billion. But Carbo and Payer both said they're convinced that Graves orchestrated the attack, noting Graves' own questioning during the hearing added fuel to the fire.
In recent weeks, Graves has doubled down as Edwards' office has pushed back, promising to resign if he's determined to be a liar. He said Thursday that he'd hope the governor would make the same commitment.
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Graves challenged the governor to a debate of sorts, saying he'd like to be able to face Edwards and his staff to address their disagreements point by point.
Carbo was dismissive of a debate, but said Edwards is ultimately willing to bury the hatchet. And there may be hope for a resolution, as the two agreed late Thursday afternoon – after a day of blustering to the media about one another – to meet in person at the State Capitol on Monday.
"The past is in the past, and they can agree to disagree about that," he said. "But the governor would like to look forward."