1. IRVIN MAYFIELD INDICTED ON 19 FEDERAL CHARGES
Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, who once headed the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, was indicted last week on 19 federal counts of fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and obstruction of justice in connection with his alleged misuse of the charity's funds.
In May 2015, WWL-TV first reported the foundation — controlled by Mayfield — gave $666,000 in just one year to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO), a nonprofit founded and directed by Mayfield and longtime friend and keyboardist Ronald Markham. Mayfield and Markham also were paid six-figure salaries by NOJO. A series of WWL-TV reports showed Mayfield spent library foundation money on trips to New York and a $15,000 trumpet ostensibly for a school auction, but the whereabouts of the trumpet remain unknown. The indictment alleges, among other abuses, that Mayfield and Markham caused the library foundation to buy Mayfield a 24-karat gold-plated trumpet and to redirect more than $1.3 million in foundation funds to enrich themselves and cover NOJO operating expenses.
Since the scandal broke more than two years ago, Mayfield has curtailed his live performances, though he continued to record. This year he issued the album A Beautiful World, a collaboration with Kermit Ruffins, which rose to the top of the Billboard jazz charts. (For more on the Mayfield scandal, see Clancy DuBos' column, p.12.)
2. Quote of the week
"Good luck dude" — New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram, responding on Twitter to Lee Dragna, a Morgan City football fan who is suing the Saints for a refund of his season tickets.
Dragna claims that NFL players' protests during the performance of the national anthem have resulted in an unsafe environment for fans and has injected unnecessary politics into the game. Ingram replied that the Saints never "took a knee" during the anthem: "The one time we protested an anthem was an away game. After a team meeting, we decided to kneel as one before the anthem was played and stand united as one during the anthem!" (Photographs and contemporaneous media accounts, however, show 10 Saints did not stand during the anthem, including Ingram.)
3. City's surveillance camera plan gets pushback
Police watchdogs, community groups, bars, restaurants and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana are voicing concerns over a proposed measure to require businesses that sell alcohol to install street-facing surveillance cameras that feed to city, state and federal law enforcement. The ACLU "condemned" the New Orleans City Council's measure, which "would threaten privacy rights without effectively reducing crime" and "put the city's surveillance apparatus on steroids, subjecting New Orleanians to near-constant monitoring of their daily lives and stifling our vibrant public spaces — without meaningfully reducing crime," ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Jane Johnson said in a Dec. 13 statement.
The ACLU's concerns echo a letter earlier this month from the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, warning the City Council that the city's sweeping surveillance program is ripe for "mismanagement, poor information security, public records law compliance challenges and user abuse."
The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) also fears the ordinance will create "lasting damage to New Orleans culture and communities" — all under the direction of "a term-limited Councilperson, at the request of a lame duck Mayor, and voted on by an outgoing City Council that would largely avoid any political repercussions."
Hospitality workers also have circulated an online petition condemning the city's proposed "surveillance network which would allow the police (and other agencies) to monitor any citizen as they go about their day to day."
Several other portions of the ordinance have come under fire from its critics. Under the rules of the ordinance, a business that receives five or more written complaints — submitted individually or in petitions — from people living within a half-mile of the business would define the business as a "nuisance," subject to significant penalties from city agencies. MaCCNO fears developers moving into areas could lean on the ordinance rules to effectively push bars and venues out of neighborhoods.
The City Council is expected to debate the measure Jan. 11.
4. NOLA Media Group decamping to Warehouse District
NOLA Media Group (NMG), parent company of The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, will be moving out of its home at the top of One Canal Place and into its own street-level building in the Warehouse District in 2018.
The company moved into the high-rise building amid much fanfare in December 2012 under then-publisher Ricky Mathews, who had been chosen by Advance Media, owners of The Times-Picayune, to bring the paper into what was called the "digital transition." Mathews told The Wall Street Journal, "The owners wanted us to be in a space that could make a statement," and in a public meeting with New Orleans' tech community, he boasted the offices would have a "Google-Nike kind of vibe."
"It's a beautiful space with the best views in the city," NMG president Tim Williamson told Gambit, "but I think that it was a little disconnected from the community. There's a better way to foster collaboration, and I really want to make a better opportunity to connect to the community. I think a media company should be connected at ground level."
The decampment erases what may be the last physical vestige of Mathews' leadership since he stepped down and was replaced by Williamson last year.
NMG had "I think, about seven years left" on its One Canal Place lease, Williamson said. The space will be taken over by the tech company Lucid. (The company also is opening a new hub in Covington in a few weeks to consolidate its Northshore coverage.)
While some at NOLA.com say their current space is now a bit too large for the staff on hand, the new NMG headquarters at 864 S. Peters St. is substantially smaller; it will encompass less than one-third of the space at One Canal Place. The size of the new newsroom has some NOLA.com employees concerned that another downsizing may be on the horizon in 2018 — as did a letter last month from Advance Local CEO Randy Siegel, which said, in part, "We will respond better and more nimbly to needs in the markets. We'll look for more and different ways to generate revenue, as well as operational efficiencies."
Like many papers around the country, as well as news websites, The Times-Picayune has seen buyouts and layoffs in recent years — around 200 people famously were let go in 2012 under Mathews' "digital transition." In 2015, 28 full-time staffers and nine part-timers also were fired, a move the company called "restructuring its news operation to reinforce its core journalistic mission."
There are "over 100" employees currently in the One Canal Place newsroom, Williamson said. What about the possibility of layoffs or buyouts? "Nothing is planned. We have no plans at this point [for layoffs]," Williamson said. "This move was more strategic — a unique opportunity to connect with the community."
In recent months, several high-profile NOLA.com reporters have left the company. Ken Daley, NOLA.com's criminal justice reporter, left to be a spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office, and Jed Lipinski, who covered public health and criminal justice, now is pursuing a freelance career as head investigative reporter on a TV documentary about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.
Danielle Dreilinger, who covered schools (as well as livetweeting the meeting of Rex and Comus each Mardi Gras), is on a yearlong sabbatical under the Knight-Wallace Fellowship program at the University of Michigan.
Longtime metro and politics reporter Richard Rainey also has departed NOLA.com.
5. Blanco: 'I am in a fight for my life, one that will be difficult to win'
Former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco announced that an eye cancer she began receiving treatment for in 2011 has metastasized in her liver and that no cure has been identified. "I am in a fight for my own life, one that will be difficult to win," Blanco wrote in a letter published across news outlets in Louisiana Dec. 10. "I knew from the start of my cancer journey this could happen, but with each passing year I hoped this cup would pass me by. It did not."
In a statement, Gov. John Bel Edwards asked Louisianans "to join their prayers to ours that she, aided by the Great Physician as well as her medical team, wins a great victory over her cancer and is restored to full health." Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who served as Blanco's lieutenant governor, called on residents to "lift Gov. Blanco up with our loving support and ask for God's healing mercy to grant her strength during this fight."
Blanco served as governor from 2004 to 2008, navigating the state's response and recovery following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. She previously served in the state House of Representatives, on the Public Service Commission and as lieutenant governor under former Gov. Mike Foster.
6. The top state in corporate subsidies? You're living in it
Louisiana gives more in corporate subsidies per capita than any other state in the U.S., according to Together Louisiana and the Louisiana Budget Project, which estimates New Orleans lost out on more than $10 million in tax revenue from the state's industrial tax exemption program (ITEP) in 2017.
The groups are pitching local legislative bodies across the state to follow the lead of Gov. John Bel Edwards, who issued an executive order in 2016 making job creation a requirement for receiving an exemption. His order also gives local governments some decision-making authority over whether exemptions are approved — and on what terms. "Empowering local officials to make decisions about their own taxes, rather than allowing a distant, state-level board to make their decisions for them, might lead to different outcomes. Or it might not," Together Louisiana wrote in its 2017 report. "It depends on whether those local officials approach their responsibility at all differently from decades of Commerce and Industry Board appointees who have approved ITEP applications at a rate of 99.95 [percent] over the last  years."
The groups asked members of the New Orleans City Council Dec. 12 to adopt a resolution to ensure local companies that rely on the exemptions meet their obligations, including local hiring benchmarks — and for the city to revoke exemptions if companies fail to meet those benchmarks.
7. Ferry terminal design presented to public
At a two-part meeting last week, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) presented a futuristic design for its new Canal Street ferry terminal and began gathering public comment for a nearby pedestrian bridge intended to help ferry riders cross the nearby New Orleans Public Belt Railroad tracks. The meeting seemed designed to counteract blowback RTA incurred earlier this year, when citizens criticized the organization for what they said was a failure to incorporate input from riders and residents in the terminal planning process.
"We want to hear what your vision is, what your hopes are, what your desires are," Bright Moments CEO Bill Rouselle, who is handling the project's public relations, said at the meeting. "This is the beginning of that conversation. ... We're not going to satisfy everybody, but we're going to hear from everybody."
In front of a crowd of about 40 people, Royal Engineers and Consultants project manager Brian O'Reilly laid out final designs for a terminal with more than 10,000-square-feet of covered shelter, half of which is enclosed. The final design features "360 degree" ADA-compliant access throughout the facility and at connection points to the surrounding wharves, plus new canopies to provide more rain cover for gangways that are 11 to 12 feet wide. At the site, ferries will berth along a floating dock so passengers can disembark and board simultaneously.
RTA will open bids from contractors soon and should begin construction just before Mardi Gras, O'Reilly said. Completion is expected in 12 to 14 months, and ferry service should run continuously from a temporary floating platform during construction.
Reaction to the design was muted to mixed, with some participants continuing to question the input process. "The riders never seem to be included as stakeholders. ... We're the ones riding the boats," Connie Burks, an Algiers resident, said. A degree of skepticism persisted as the meeting turned from the terminal unveiling to the pedestrian bridge, which has been a bone of contention throughout the project's planning process.
As the project progresses, construction will be managed by the Audubon Nature Institute. Audubon President and CEO Ron Forman attended the meeting to emphasize that architects and planners will draw heavily on feedback from the series of meetings. "It's the foot of Canal Street; it's the historic entrance to our riverway," Forman said. "Doing it right is pretty important."
8. Jeff Parish finance authority roasted by parish inspector general
Jefferson Parish government was thoroughly roasted by an inspector general's report finding a "break-down at the highest level of local government with numerous failings and deficiencies" at its Jefferson Parish Finance Authority (JPFA). The independent agency, which operates as a public trust under the Parish Council, provides financial assistance through down payments for homeowners in the parish and has been praised for helping first-time homebuyers get into the housing market. The audit, however, showed the agency's assets declining by $100 million over the last five years and questioned some $2.7 million in expenditures. "While the authority disagrees with some of the findings, the authority will work with the administration to make sure it works with the utmost integrity," JPFA Executive Director Valerie Brolin said in a statement to WWL-TV.
9. Demand for City Council to commit to human rights platform
Eleven months after demanding City Hall's commitment to a human rights platform in the wake of President Donald Trump's sweeping executive orders on immigration, and after getting some initial positive response from city officials, the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee (NOPSC) has drafted its own resolution calling on the city to end business with companies that "may be culpable or complicit" in human rights abuses and war crimes.
The resolution is the group's latest effort to get its ideas on the New Orleans City Council's radar following Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The group criticized a lack of momentum among city leaders following the January immigration ban, and delivered copies of a proposed resolution to the City Council Dec. 12.
The resolution orders the city's Human Relations Commission to adopt the Socially Responsible Investments Committee to evaluate the city's corporate interests and contracts and those companies' records on environmental health, abusive labor practices and impacts on human rights, among other benchmarks. Representatives from all five City Council districts and the two at-large offices received copies.
10. 'Unrig the System' in February at Tulane
Got $300 and the desire to hang with celebs while you plot to "unrig the system"? The group Represent.US is holding a summit called Unrig the System Feb. 2-4 at Tulane University's Lavin-Bernick Center. The program promises attendees a chance to "mingle with top advocacy leaders, academics, comedians, musicians, celebrities, activists, philanthropists and journalists." A press release announced speeches, workshops and discussions with "thought-leaders, A-list celebrities and grassroots activists from the left and the right."
Those would include activist celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kerry Washington, along with producer/director Adam McKay, former Gov. Buddy Roemer, Fox News host Steve Hilton and The Young Turks' Cenk Uygur. Gambit Political Editor Clancy DuBos also is on the still-in-progress program, which includes topics like "Frenemies with Benefits: How to Work Across the Aisle," "Iron Chef for Activists" and "Citizen Lobbying 101."
Potential attendees, however, are casting a side-eye on social media at the event's ticket prices, which start at $300 for an individual, with a $130 ticket available for students, seniors and low-income people. ("Once again, politics is only for those who can afford it," groused one man on the event's Facebook page.)
You can get more information on "Unrig the System" at www.unrigsummit.com.