Zurik: Three 'independents' are no-shows at Pilotage Fee meeting

Zurik: Three 'independents' are no-shows at Pilotage Fee meeting
Updated: Jun. 5, 2018 at 10:15 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, LA (WVUE) - Three members of a powerful state board failed to show up to a meeting after they were featured in two FOX 8 investigations. That board regulates river pilots, some of whom pilots can make almost $800,000 a year.

PFC Administrator Larry McNutt announced to the commission at a regularly scheduled meeting in Baton Rouge Tuesday that the independent commissioners - Bruce Mohon, Danny Kingston and Noel Cassanova had "informed this office, in a timely manner, that they would not be able to attend today."

Our investigation found those independent members may not be so independent. A letter uncovered by FOX 8 shows a pilot group - the NOBRA pilots - recommended the three at-large appointments to the governor.

The law requires these members to sign a statement of neutrality - but our investigation found no signed letters exist.

"That's very concerning, very concerning, because it's a requirement," says Greg Bowser of the Louisiana Chemical Association. "That's why I had a discussion, during this commission meeting, about the ethics - perhaps, is that something we should refer to our ethics commission? Because there [are] no letters and they're supposed to be there. Should they be the ones that now have to come in and do some kind of investigation?"

We ask Bowser whether the findings potentially call into question every vote made by the three supposed independents. "I think certainly it would be prudent to go back and look at it, and look at some of the transcribed discussion about it. That would be interesting, to see what happens. The other thing that it's going to bring up is, now, possibly: Do you question the governor's office every time they make an appointment of a commission, not just this one but anyone, to see where the nomination came from?"

With the three independent board members absent, an alternate, Amanda Aucoin, led Tuesday's meeting. The governor appointed Aucoin to fill in when an independent board member can't make a meeting.

Aucoin is a partner at a New Orleans law firm. The same year the governor appointed her to the alternate spot, her law firm and two of her law partners represented the Board of River Pilot Commissioners in a case. That's a state board affiliated with yet another pilot group, the Crescent River Pilots.

"I did not know that," Bowser responds when we tell him this. "But that's an example of why we think the administration needs to address this issue - because, Lee, you brought up several points that no one would have known. And I can assure you that nobody on the commission, at least on the industry's side, knows that information you just gave me."

Amanda Aucoin is not listed as an attorney on that case we referenced, only her law partners.

Mike Delesdernier, attorney for Board of River Pilot Commissioners, sent this statement:

The commission had acquired insurance from Ace Chubb. Ace Chubb hired the firm to competently defend the commissioner and the case was dismissed.  At no time did the commission fund or employ the law firm. Nor did the board pay any legal fees to that firm.

The industry groups that represent businesses on the river have been frustrated with the governor. After sending two letters calling for him to remove the commissioners from the board, the governor has remained silent. They say his appointments call into question the integrity of the board, designed to help regulate one of Louisiana's most valuable resources - the Mississippi River.

"What's more concerning to me is that the administration will not address this," Bowser says. "If they want to come out and say 'Hey, yes, we did that, we don't have a problem with doing that, we think that's the way business ought to be operated,' we could have that discussion. But to just simply say 'Oh, it's legal' - it's not enough. They've got to address it. And I think the governor's got to address it as well."

The governor's office says it's still reviewing letters written by the industry groups.

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