Zurik: Governor, commissioners decline comment as questions dog pilotage fee board

Zurik: Governor, commissioners decline comment as questions dog pilotage fee board

BATON ROUGE, LA (WVUE) - Governor John Bel Edwards remains silent, despite the findings of a FOX 8 investigation..

Two months after our initial reporting, the governor's office still won't return our request for a comment. And three powerful board members at the center of our series also remain silent.

We tried to get their comment Tuesday, at a quarterly meeting of Louisiana's Pilotage Fee Commission.

"I'm wondering if you have comments on the stories that we've done," we ask Noel Cassanova of New Orleans.

"Not at this time," he tells us after a pause.

When we ask when he might have a statement, he simply says, "Nothing right know."

All three nominally-independent board members - Cassanova, Bruce Mohon and Danny Kingston  - refused to answer our questions.

As members of the Pilotage Fee Commission, they help set salaries for state river pilots, who can make up to $800,000 a year. Governor Edwards appointed all three board members to the commission and, for Mohon and Kingston, did so after receiving a recommendation letter from a river pilot group.

These members are supposed to be independent, not tied to industry or the river pilots. But the letter of support by the pilots calls their independence into question.

The businesses that do work on the river, the industry groups, sent the governor a letter in June, asking him to remove the three independent members. The governor never responded - and he hasn't replied to two of our emails asking for comment.

Greg Bowser says he can't explain the governor's lack of response. "I don't know if he's been preoccupied with other things," Bowser says. "I don't know if he doesn't think that this is a major issue.  But I will tell you, it is a major issue. And it calls into question, as you saw today, every decision that's made at this commission."

At Tuesday's meeting, the Louisiana Chemical Association asked the three independent members to recuse themselves from any votes.

"Questions have been raised and concerns have been raised, and with respect to the independent commissioners, those questions and concerns have not been resolved to this point," Randy Young told the commission. "And so, I would ask that the independent commissioners not vote on this matter."

The independent members ignored that request and voted on that issue, despite lingering questions about their independence.

"I think any vote they make, if it goes in your favor, then you're probably note going to say anything," Bowser acknowledged. "But if it goes against you, I think it's going to be called into question."

Another industry representative on the fee commission wants the potential conflict cleared up.  Tyler Gray of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association asked the board's attorney to investigate.

"My concerns are with the integrity of this body," Gray said. "I want to make sure that any decision that's made is going to be sound in its determination. It's a rate-making body, it'll be important going forward."

Sources with ties to the board tell us they feel the commission has been compromised, and the three independent members often - if not always - side with the pilots. It's why they say the governor needs to ask these board members to step down and start over.

The Pilotage Fee Commission meets again in November.

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