Daily Report

This Afternoon's Headlines / Thu, October 30, 2014

Details remain scant on committee to vet parish attorney applicants

While some Metro Council members say details on a proposed committee to vet applicants for the vacant parish attorney position haven't been ironed out, others say they haven't been included in discussions with Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe, who first sponsored an item to create the commitee on Sept. 24. The item has been deferred twice since then.

"I don't have a clue" why the item has been deferred so many times, Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis says. "Maybe they don't have those details worked out yet."

A number of council members say their questions about who and how many people will make up the committee, what their goal will be or if the committee will have final say on who will fill the position have gone unanswered. Loupe did not return repeated requests for comment as of this afternoon's deadline.

"The problem we have is, we can't all get together and talk because of public meeting laws," Councilman Buddy Amoroso says, adding that he intends to push for the item to be discussed in more detail when it comes up again in late November.

Councilman Joel BoÚ asked for the item to be deferred at the meeting Oct. 8 because of unanswered questions, he says.

"What's their goals? What's the mission? What are we going to get them to go do?" are among the questions BoÚ still has. "We need to make sure that we as a council, if we assign a committee, that they know what they are charged with. I've asked [Loupe] a couple of questions about it, and we haven't gotten to the point we have gotten it resolved."

Council Administrator Casey Cashio says a committee of this kind hasn't been used to vet previous parish attorneys. In the past, officials within the parish attorney's office and the council administrator would present the council with all applicants who met the minimum qualifications. The council would then conduct interviews, Cashio says. —Kelly Connelly Read the full story here.

State tax amnesty program on target at halfway point

Midway through the state's 30-day tax amnesty period, officials with the Louisiana Department of Revenue say they're pleased with the response they have received so far. Though the department does not yet have any data on how much of the potential $1.9 billion in unpaid state taxes it stands to eventually recover, spokesperson Kizzy Payton says response so far has been "on target" with what was expected.

"We have received a positive response to the program since we launched it earlier this month," Payton says. "The amnesty website is working well, and there has been a high level of interest in the installment plan option that is being offered this year."

Though the department has said its goal for this amnesty period is to collect just $100 million of the potential $1.9 billion, last year it collected more than $450 million during a similar program. This is the second of three annual amnesty periods created by the state Legislature. During the periods, 100% of penalties owed and 50% of interest on unpaid state taxes are waived.

This year is the first time there is an installment payment option, though it is only available to delinquent taxpayers—not those who are disputing, and therefore not paying, their bills. Delinquent taxpayers, mostly individuals and small businesses, collectively owe just $800 million of the $1.9 billion in unpaid state taxes. The remaining $1.1 billion is owed by mostly large corporations, who dispute their tax bills.

The amnesty period runs through Nov. 15. A third amnesty period will be held next fall, then there will not be another one until 2025. —Stephanie Riegel

Entrepreneur: Brian Medlin

All Star Catering has roots in Louis DeAngelo's very first restaurant, in Hammond Aire Plaza. As Business Report details in its new Entrepreneur feature on All Star Catering owner and chef Brian Medlin, it was in the mid-1990s that he worked side by side with DeAngelo as the latter built his restaurant brand.

"I got to see everything he did from the very beginning," says Medlin, who was still in high school at the time. "That was priceless over the years."

Medlin rose through the ranks from cook to kitchen manager, eventually training DeAngelo's franchisees. Meanwhile, the Greenwell Springs native worked his way through Baton Rouge Community College and LSU, earning degrees in marketing and business administration. He opened Opie's Cajun CafÚ a year after graduating, calling the move inevitable: "For 10 years I'd saved up that money and prepared to take that leap."

Medlin sold Opie's in 2009 to launch All Star Catering. And from the start he's set his sights on big fish.

"I've focused 100% on contract meals and meal plans," he says. "That's college meal plans, disaster relief, police and emergency response meals, National Guard, and corporate meals." Read the full feature. Send your comments to [email protected].

Surplus dispute creates standoff over building projects

A standoff between Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration and Treasurer John Kennedy about whether to borrow $200 million has created an atmosphere of uncertainty about whether construction projects from Poverty Point World Heritage Site to the Audubon Nature Institute will proceed, The Advertiser reports.

Kennedy insists none of Louisiana's approved construction projects are in jeopardy. But Kristy Nichols, Jindal's commissioner of administration, says the treasurer's refusal to sign documents that would allow the state to move forward with borrowing does put projects at risk, and she said Friday is the deadline for agreeing to a bond sale.

"I'm not going to sign off on documents that lie," Kennedy says. "I believe in full disclosure. If you don't tell the truth on these matters the [U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission] will come in on you. It's a crime."

Besides, Kennedy says, the administration has access to $409 million cash in the capital outlay escrow fund and access to another $200 million through interfund borrowing that would keep the projects on track.

"If they want to they can write checks [for the projects] today," Kennedy says. "The money is available."

Nichols says the administration isn't opposed to interfund borrowing, but adds there is only $200 million available for unrestricted use.

"The bottom line is the facility planning account [from which construction projects are funded] runs out of money in January," Nichols says.

At issue is whether the state ended the fiscal year in June with a $179 million surplus, as the administration contends, or a $141 million deficit, which Kennedy believes. Read the full story.

Schedler says Jindal administration may have improperly destroyed health records

Secretary of State Tom Schedler says Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration may have improperly destroyed records in the state employee health insurance program, which is in the middle of a heavily criticized rewrite of benefit plans.

The Associated Press reports Schedler, who oversees the archiving of state records, says the Office of Group Benefits appears to have destroyed items without the approvals required under state law. The accusations are outlined in a series of letters from Schedler to the insurance program office, urging compliance with the law.

"This Office has reason to believe that some original claim records may have been destroyed without prior approval," Schedler wrote earlier this month to Susan West, director of the Office of Group Benefits. He describes that as a "direct violation" of state law.

The Jindal administration says no health insurance program records were destroyed without first being backed up electronically. But Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols acknowledges the Office of Group Benefits hasn't been sending all of its records to Schedler's office anymore. She says the insurance program stopped sending claims records this summer, because of privacy concerns about sharing personal medical information across agencies.

"None of our records have been destroyed. The question at hand was whether or not specific claims level data, the claims themselves, have to be archived," Nichols says. "All of those claims have been maintained in our system of scanning and filing and archiving documents."

Schedler's office placed "a legal hold" in August on the disposal of any of the documents in the Office of Group Benefits while the agency was making sweeping changes to the state worker health insurance program. It wasn't immediately clear as of this afternoon if the attorney general's office would intervene. Read the full story.

Study says Gulf shrimp mislabeling widespread at grocers, restaurants

Ever thought that big, pink Gulf Coast shrimp you ordered at the restaurant or bought from the store didn't taste juicy or salty enough? Maybe that's because it wasn't really from the Gulf.

As The Associated Press reports, from New York to New Orleans to Oregon, consumers are being misled about the shrimp they're buying, according to a survey by the advocacy group Oceana.

Cheap, imported, farm-raised shrimp is being sold as prized wild-caught Gulf shrimp while common, more plentiful shrimp is being sold as premium. And shrimp of all kinds is sold with no indication whatsoever about where it came from, the group says.

Oceana says it found about 30% of 143 shrimp products bought from 111 vendors were not what the label said they were. Bad labeling was discovered on shrimp sold at national and regional supermarkets and smaller grocery stores alike. Restaurants, from national chains to high-dollar eateries, were also selling poorly labeled shrimp, the group says.

The survey looked at shrimp sold in Washington, D.C., Portland, Oregon, and various spots around the Gulf of Mexico, as well as New York City, which it deemed the worst offender.

The group acknowledges that the survey was a small sample, but says it used a technique involving DNA to trace the shrimp's roots.

"It was a first good look at shrimp," says Kimberly Warner, a marine scientist with Oceana, who went out and obtained many of the samples.

The group's report came as no surprise to fishermen and others involved in the shrimp industry.

"I've been shouting this for ages from the rooftop," says Kimberly Chauvin, who runs a family shrimp business with fishing boats and docks in Chauvin, Louisiana.

She says shrimp mislabeling will get worse unless regulators "start handing out big fines" to companies that break the Food and Drug Administration's labeling laws. Read the full story.

News roundup: Federal court in NOLA to hear challenge to Affordable Care Act … La. homelessness has declined 63.1% since 2010, HUD says … Two Texas companies settle with NOLA-area levee board

On the docket: A federal appeals court in New Orleans has scheduled December arguments on a challenge to the health care reform act. In this case, opponents of the act say it is unconstitutional because it imposes a tax—and all tax bills must originate in the House. They contend that the Affordable Care Act originated in the Senate. A federal judge in Texas rejected the lawsuit in January. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled arguments for Dec. 2. Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in 2012, legal challenges linger. The Associated Press has the full story.

No shelter: Though the data comes from just a single night of canvassing the state's homeless population, a new report from U.S. Housing and Urban Development says homelessness in Louisiana has declined about 63% since 2010. HUD's 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress—which is based on a one-night count of homeless persons across the country conducted by volunteers in January—says there are 4,606 homeless people living in Louisiana this year, a decline of nearly 12% from last year. Across the U.S., homelessness is affecting more than 578,000 people this year, a decline of 2% from a year ago. See the complete report.

Coming to terms: Two of the 97 oil and gas companies sued last summer by a New Orleans-area levee board, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East, have settled, according to an emailed statement from the levee board's attorneys. The companies—White Oak Operating Co. LLC and Chroma Operating Inc., both Houston-based—are two smaller players in the area. The details of the settlement have not been released. The companies have a "relatively limited footprint," the statement says, adding that "at this early point in the litigation the parties had clear and simple positions." The case has been stalled while a judge assesses the legality of a measure passed during the last legislative session aimed at preventing the case from moving forward.
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