During a memorable 2011 League of Women Voters forum between two candidates for lieutenant governor, incumbent Jay Dardenne, a tourism policy wonk, hammered challenger Billy Nungesser on his knowledge — or lack thereof — of the job he was seeking.
As Nungesser cast himself as a plain-talking outsider who follows his gut, stands up for Louisiana and “thinks outside the box,” Dardenne tripped him up with questions over the office’s nuts and bolts, such as how the state’s tourism budget is funded and which agencies are overseen by the lieutenant governor.
You’d think Nungesser might have studied up a bit in the years since, after he lost to Dardenne but made plans for his second, successful bid in 2015. And indeed, during the more recent campaign, it seemed as if he had.
In his first big move since assuming his long-coveted office in January, Nungesser proved he’s thinking much further outside the box than anyone could have imagined, according to an astonishing weekend report by The Advocate’s Rebekah Allen and Richard Thompson.
Rather than simply sit down and figure out how to promote culture, recreation and tourism, Nungesser, working in cahoots with Louisiana’s longtime Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere, went way rogue, taking upon himself an attempt to land a budget-saving, 30,000-job, $1 billion deal that relies upon — get this — an exclusive agreement with the government of Iraq.
All without bothering to mention the grand plan to the man who’s really in charge, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat elected separately from the Republican Nungesser. And ignoring the fact that Nungesser has no authority over economic development, no right to speak for the governor and no place contacting the U.S. government, a national news organization or a foreign head of state on Edwards’ alleged behalf. And glossing over a pile of hints suggesting the whole project, which thankfully wouldn’t have put Louisiana taxpayers on the hook for any incentives, was at best farfetched.
To promote the scheme, Nungesser’s office issued a news release in March that went only to the Washington Post, announcing what it touted as a very big deal indeed.
It purported to involve a Delaware company called Alexandros Inc., which has a background in medical technology, according to its website, and which would become the exclusive shipping agent for Iraq’s state oil export agency; the defunct Avondale shipyard in suburban New Orleans, which would build some 40 supertankers to transport the oil; and Lake Charles-based Pelican Refining Co., which would process it.
Alexandros’ CEO, whom Nungesser has never met and who backed out of a call with Edwards’ office last week, would in turn invest 100 percent of his profits from the joint venture into Louisiana’s motion picture industry, according to the proposal. He subsequently pledged to invest his share of the film profits into a new charitable foundation that would offer education, health care and housing assistance to “minorities in Louisiana.”
If all this didn’t sound fishy enough, the head of the Iraq export agency told a Post reporter that the deal is “100 percent not real.”
Nungesser subsequently said he knew little of the arrangement.
But that didn’t stop him from signing a letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claiming that he was taking on the project at Edwards’ behest, and other missives to the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seeking official support.
Well, give Nungesser this much. When interviewed about the project, he basically fessed up to having had no idea what he was doing. He said that he hadn’t read the letters he signed and that he believed he was simply signaling support for a Louisiana business venture on behalf of Villere, a longtime friend. He also said he expressed his remorse to Edwards for cutting him out of the loop.
“It’s something that is embarrassing, but it happened, and we’ll move forward,” Nungesser said. “Hopefully, nothing will come of it. But I apologized to the governor, and that’s all I can do.”
Actually, there is one more thing. He could always pick up the phone and call Dardenne, who lost his 2015 bid for governor but later signed on as Edwards’ commissioner of administration. I’m guessing he’d be perfectly happy to, once again, school Nungesser on what the day job entails — and what it doesn’t.