If you’ve read our coverage of the burgeoning disaster that is the Edwards administration’s flood recovery program, and specifically the debacle surrounding the Office of Community Development’s potential attempts at bid-rigging of a contract worth at least $250 million in favor of Edwards’ allies, you know that a key piece to the mess surrounds the presence of Larry Bankston in its midst.
To recap, Bankston is a former Democrat state senator who went to federal prison for some 41 months on a bribery beef – specifically that a video poker operator “rented” a condominium on the Alabama gulf coast that Bankston owned for $1500 per month for two years (without ever staying at that condominium) in advance of Bankston moving legislation favorable to that video poker operator. With his conviction Bankston was also disbarred, but the state Supreme Court reinstated him and as he returned to his legal practice Bankston actually ended up getting contracts to serve as legal counsel to a number of state boards and commissions – among them the Amite River Basin Commission and the Louisiana Auctioneers’ Board.
And then last year, Bankston was named by the Louisiana State Board of Licensing for contractors as its executive counsel. He replaced Murphy Foster in that role; Foster was a prominent Republican, and therefore he had to go as the John Bel Edwards crowd was taking over.
Bankston’s contract was approved on an interim basis by Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office amid the crush of the latter staffing up his own offices. But later, as the interim contract came up for permanent approval Landry balked at it, on the basis that felons convicted on bribery charges make for singularly problematic legal counsels to licensing boards.
Landry later relented, and here is a major reason why…
Bankston was a convicted felon who went to federal prison for bribery, but his Martindale-Hubbell rating was aces. That isn’t a joke, it’s an official document from a state agency.
In case you don’t know anything about Martindale-Hubbell ratings, they’re essentially the same thing as Who’s Who ratings – you pay to use their services and then you automatically get their highest rating until complaints drive it down. Martindale-Hubbell ratings are completely meaningless as a qualification for government appointments, particularly when weighed against federal convictions.
And as sure as you please, when bids went out on the flood recovery contract let by the Office of Community Development, Bankston issued a legal opinion on behalf of the LSLBC that the top two bidders should be thrown out on the basis that they didn’t have proper construction licenses – never mind the fact that all five of the bidders for the contract were joint ventures which included multiple licensed contractors. The third place bidder was a company named Sullivan Land Services out of Texas, and Bankston’s son is the regional manager based in Baton Rouge for one of SLS’ subsidiary companies. Tossing the top two bidders would have resulted in SLS getting the contract at $350 million – $100 million more than the winning bid. OCD decided to re-bid the contract after a public furor erupted, and now the winning initial bidder, IEM, is going to court over the bid rejection.
As it turns out, Edwards’ close confidant and personal friend Alton Ashy, a high-priced contract lobbyist at the state capitol whose clients include hospitals, gaming interests, unions and a smorgasbord of other entities either with government contracts or in highly-regulated industries, was hired by that SLS subsidiary Bankston’s son works for in December.
Landry was right to object to Bankston’s appointment, and he was wrong to relent on it after the licensing board pressured him. But another reason he relented was that several outlets among the state’s media, chief among them the Baton Rouge Advocate, cast Landry’s opposition to Bankston as part and parcel of a petty political fight between Landry and Edwards.
In an escalating feud, state Attorney General Jeff Landry asked Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration to justify why a felon should serve as legal counsel for the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors.
Landry, who was recently involved in controversy over hiring a felon in his own office, said in a letter to the board’s executive director that an explanation is needed for retaining Larry Bankston, a former Democrat state senator from Baton Rouge who served 41 months in prison for a 1997 conviction on a video-poker related bribery scheme.
Matthew Block, executive counsel for Edwards, said Landry has only a ministerial role in attorneys hired by boards and commissions, including whether they have adequate experience.
Block said the attorney general’s letter “makes us obviously concerned that the attorney general is trying to play politics” with the issue.
Matthew Block has twice gotten his ass kicked in court by Landry’s office over the question of the AG’s role in approving legal contracts let by the state, but he’s appealing the district judge’s finding on that question. The Advocate never reported the Bankston controversy as substantive until the fracas over the Office of Community Development’s flood recovery bid blew up.
And meanwhile, they’re up in Washington wondering if Louisiana has any hope of effectively spending the $1.6 billion given to the state to spearhead recovery efforts. So far the evidence points to “not a hope in hell.”