Emails show governor’s Europe trip raised staffing, itinerary questions

Ten-day trade mission to France and the Netherlands cost taxpayers $100,000
Parisians ride their bicycle past the French Senate buliding in Paris. (Ap Photo/Remy de la...
Parisians ride their bicycle past the French Senate buliding in Paris. (Ap Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)(REMY DE LA MAUVINIERE | ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Published: Mar. 2, 2023 at 12:09 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

Ahead of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ 10-day mission to France and the Netherlands last August, one state government employee raised questions about whether her agency should be paying for a government administrator to attend the entire overseas trip. 

“The last leg of the trip (Normandy) is not officially affiliated with water issues – not sure if CPRA can pay for Greg’s hotel room for these nights or meal allowance for these days … please advise,” wrote Elizabeth Schoenfelt, with the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), in a July 21 email to the governor’s staff.

The Greg in Schoenfelt’s email is Gregory Grandy, deputy executive director of Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority. Grandy accompanied his boss, chairman Chip Kline, and the governor to the Netherlands and France.

In all, the 10-day excursion cost the public approximately $100,400 to cover 14 government officials’ travel, according to financial documents.

The Louisiana Illuminator received receipts, emails and other records associated with the trip through public records requests made to the governor’s office, Louisiana State Police, Port of New Orleans, Louisiana Economic Development and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Bending travel restrictions

The documents show officials took steps to justify Grandy’s participation – and fill in what was originally a light schedule in Normandy.

Less than two weeks before the trip, the governor and Kline personally signed off on Grandy attending the entire mission at the government’s expense, in spite of concerns there wasn’t a justification for him to take part in the Normandy section.

”Chip (as chairman of the CPRA Board) and the Governor have requested that Greg go on the last segment of the Amsterdam trip to Normandy with them so according to state travel, he is now eligible for the hotel/meals for the Normandy leg of the trip,” wrote Schoenfelt, who was organizing Grandy’s travel, in a July 27 email.

Edwards’ mission spanned from Aug. 5 to 14 and was divided into three sections. The Louisiana delegation – which included the governor’s wife, two members of Edwards’ staff, a security detail, economic development officials and coastal staff – first went to Amsterdam for two days, where they learned about Dutch flood control projects and dined with Shell Oil officials. They also spent a half-day visiting tourist sites, including the Anne Frank House, the national museum of the Netherlands and the Van Gogh Museum.

Then they headed to Paris, where Edwards met with Denise Bauer, U.S. ambassador to France, held business meetings and worked on potential climate change partnerships with French officials. The vice president of the French Senate also gave him a tour of the Senate chamber and hosted a cocktail party for the delegation.

The third and final leg of the trip was mostly devoted to a three-day tour of World War II sites and museums in Normandy, after which the delegation returned to Paris for one night before flying back to the United States.

In a prepared statement right before the trip, Edwards, a West Point graduate and military history buff, said he was going to Normandy to “honor those who fought in World War II and raise international awareness of the world-class WWII Museum in New Orleans.”The governor held a small ceremony for Louisiana’s World War II military members during his visit. He laid a wreath while “Taps” was played at the gravesite of a Louisiana serviceman buried at the Normandy American Cemetery.

‘Not enough meetings’

Emails show the Normandy portion of the trip received the most internal scrutiny from government officials. Schoenfelt raised concerns more than once about the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority paying for Grandy’s Normandy travel before the governor signed off on it.

Grandy’s job responsibilities primarily focus on fighting Louisiana coastal erosion, and the Normandy portion of the trip was initially focused on tourism, which Grandy doesn’t handle.

“For now, I don’t think we can pay for Greg’s hotel rooms in Normandy,” Schoenfelt wrote on July 27 in an email. “I think for now we must plan on Greg paying for this last leg of the trip.”

Emails also show the governor’s apprehension about “not enough meetings” taking place during the Normandy segment. His unease set off a scramble to find a business or coastal restoration tie-in for the final portion of the trip, according to a lengthy email exchange among state officials.

“I am not sure … every minute is being used but I was looking at [a website featuring attractions on the Normandy coast] and thought maybe at some point there is someone in Normandy that can talk about the coast possibly. Just a thought because the Governor is concerned about not enough meetings,” wrote Alicia Williams, special assistant to the governor, in a July 30 email, about a week before the delegation was scheduled to leave for Europe.

Don Pierson, Louisiana’s Economic Development secretary, responded to Williams’ email later that day.”We have made a very vigorous effort to identify any potential industry or related business activities in the area,” Pierson wrote. “They really just don’t have any there. It’s a tourist region.”

One option Pierson offered was to take the governor to a small container terminal on the Normandy coast, but he noted “that really has very little merit, it’s impossible time wise.” Plus, it would require pulling Edwards out of “…important engagements in museums and battlefields.” Another suggestion from Pierson was for the Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority or the Water Institute of the Gulf to “summon an expert” in Normandy to join Edwards for a “coastal discussion.”

Grandy then recommended what would eventually become the solution.

In an email sent to Williams that evening, he suggested that the Louisiana delegation insert a discussion about coastal erosion into their already-planned visit to the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument.

“The American Battle Monument Commission and the American government paid for a shoreline protection project there to stabilize the cliffs,” Grandy wrote of Pointe du Hoc. “Maybe someone at the WW2 museum could see if someone from the Monument Commission could brief us on the shoreline project?”On Aug. 5 – the day the delegation left for the trip – the governor’s office received confirmation that Scott Desjardins, superintendent of the Normandy American Cemetery and Pointe du Hoc, could chat with Edwards and the rest of the delegation about the monument’s erosion protections.

In written statements this week, Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority officials said the erosion at Pointe du Hoc relates back to Louisiana’s own problems.

“The challenges that France is facing are not dissimilar to those that CPRA is tackling in Louisiana,” said Kline in a written statement. “Touring this site … was an important, mutually-beneficial opportunity that broadened our understanding of possible solutions.”

Kline also said it’s common for schedules of the governor’s trips abroad to shift several times in the final few days before he leaves – and the last-minute addition of the erosion discussion to this trip’s agenda wasn’t out of the ordinary.

World War II Museum staff from New Orleans organized the Normandy leg of the trip for the governor.

“As part of our travel team’s services, the Museum arranged a custom Normandy tour package for the Governor and his delegation, and the Museum was paid for the travel expenses incurred,” museum spokesman Keith Darcy wrote in an email this week.

There are no receipts showing payment from the Louisiana government to the museum, but records show the Port of New Orleans paid the Baton Rouge Area Foundation $3,000 for its “Normandy trip” – a bill that covered lodging, transportation and a guide for the two port representatives.

John Spain, executive vice president for the foundation, said his organization was involved in collecting money from attendees of the Normandy excursion and transferring it to the World War II Museum to cover its costs for organizing the travel.The governor’s office said any money the Baton Rouge Area Foundation gave the World War II Museum would have been covered by the state or one of Edwards’ political accounts.”All expenses incurred by BRAF for the governor are being reimbursed by the state and the governor’s leadership PAC,” said Shauna Sanford, the governor’s spokeswoman.

Security detail drives up travel costs

State travel costs are higher whenever the governor goes somewhere because a security detail accompanies him. Sending troopers to the Netherlands and France in August cost Louisiana $33,846 – about a third of the total cost of the entire trip. In addition to lodging and food, Louisiana must pay troopers overtime when they travel outside the state with Edwards and the First Lady.

Unlike other state agencies, Louisiana State Police did not release individual receipts for the troopers’ travel expenses in the Netherlands and France in response to a public records request. Instead, it provided a general summary of its overall spending on the trip, without information about where the troopers stayed or what type of transportation they used.

“LSP will not be providing further specific security details including … travel plans, transportation, and lodging (even for past trips) as this information could jeopardize current and future security protocols,” Capt. Nick Manale, head of the troopers’ public affairs office, wrote in an email.

The agency recently turned over detailed records for the governor’s overseas trip to London last year, which happened a few weeks after he returned from the Netherlands and France. It did not respond to a question about why the troopers’ London travel records could be public, but the France and Netherlands records posed a threat.”Due to security protocols that are currently in place, we cannot release information that could jeopardize the safety of the Governor, his family and Troopers,” said Lt. Melissa Matey, with the state police’s public affairs office.

Edwards flew coach – not business or first class – when on this trip abroad. Only one official, Port of New Orleans CEO Brandy Christian, took a business class seat. Christian’s airline ticket for the Netherlands and France cost the port $6,823 – more than three times that of Edwards’ ticket, which was $1,490.

“The Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans’ travel policy allows for business class flights for international travel,” said Kimberly Curth, press secretary for the port.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

See a spelling or grammar error in our story? Click Here to report it. Please include the headline.