Zurik: Governor defends pilot commission as neutrality questioned

Zurik: Governor defends pilot commission as neutrality questioned
Updated: Jun. 4, 2018 at 10:15 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Fallout from a FOX 8 investigation in May: Louisiana's governor has received two letters asking him to remove three powerful board members from a commission that governs river pilots. We have new questions and new findings that those commissioners may have broken the law.

Records reviewed by FOX 8 show one river pilot made $758,000 last year. This pilot is part of the New Orleans Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots, or NOBRA.

A state board, the Pilotage Fee Commission, set the target compensation for NOBRA pilots at $455,000. So, this pilot made more than $300,000 more than the commission's target salary.

The Pilotage Fee Commission holds the power over pilot salaries. They essentially determine how much money industries doing business on the river will have to pay the pilots.

The commission is made up of four river pilots, four members of the businesses or industry and three at-large or independents.

Louisiana Chemical Association chief Greg Bowser told us the three independents have a big impact.

"They're the key on the board," Bowser told us in a May interview. "They're the governor's appointees."

On the commission, pilots typically vote for pilots, industry reps for industry, and the independents are the swing votes.

But our investigation found the independent board members picked by the governor were recommended by the NOBRA pilots themselves. NOBRA president Stephen Hathorn sent Gov. John Bel Edwards a letter, included resumes and wrote, "You will find they would bring experience and diversity to the fee commission that will be very useful and efficient."

Since appointing the pilots' handpicked choices to the commission, the governor has received 343 campaign contributions from the pilots and their spouses, attorneys and lobbyists. The contributions over a two-year period total $112,000.

For example, on November 20, 2017, the governor received contributions from 181 pilots totaling $49,000. That included a $5,000 contribution from two NOBRA pilots.

Days after our story aired, the chemical association's Greg Bowser and five other business leaders sent the governor letters, writing, "We believe the trust and confidence in the process has been violated." They asked the governor to "request the resignation of the current at-large member appointments to the Louisiana Pilotage Fee Commission and appoint new at-large members."

But the governor has refused to do so.

His communications staff failed to respond to our request for a comment. But they told the Advocate, "These appointments were made in public and in accordance with the law."

"The governor's office has received no information or complaints that suggest these members have violated the requirement that they are impartial. If evidence or a complaint exists, we would ask that they bring it forward." - Statement from Governor's Office to The Advocate newspaper.

The governor's staff pointed to a part of the law that says these members were required to sign and maintain a statement of neutrality. Gov. Edwards himself referred to the signed letters in our interview last month.

"They signed a statement saying that they are going to be impartial," he told FOX 8.

But there's a problem. We don't believe those letters exist.

We asked the governor's head of Boards and Commissions for a copy. She told us, "I don't have them. That would be something the commission would keep on file after having the members sign it."

So, we asked the Pilotage Fee Commission. They don't have letters, either, and don't know that any were signed.

To recap, the governor and his staff say one reason these members can stay on the commission is that they signed a statement of neutrality. But no such letters appear to exist. The independent members have been voting for two years, it seems, without ever signing a document stating they would remain neutral - a signed statement required by the law.

It's unclear if this calls into question every vote that's been taken since the governor appointed them to the commission. But it does raise another serious question about the neutrality of three "independent" commissioners, the swing votes on the Pilotage Fee Commission.

The three at-large commission members haven't responded to our requests for interviews. The commission has its next meeting Tuesday morning in Baton Rouge.

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