Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009
Shreveport, Louisiana


Just how many boards, commissions, water districts, sewer districts, parish auditors, law enforcement offices, and a whole list of other special districts are spread throughout Louisiana? No one really seems to know. Some estimates are as high as 7000. But can you believe no agency, public or private, can list all the public bodies that exist in Louisiana today? And if no one knows the number, than it goes without saying that no one knows the overlapping cost.

Start with the 64 parishes. In the rural farming economy of the early twentieth century, each parish served as the synergy of daily life in Louisiana. There was a need for local road and water districts to take care of rural needs. Government, by nature, was local. Police jurors and sheriffs ran their respective local districts like a fiefdom. When election time came around, rural voters were enmeshed in electing local candidates who directly touched their lives.

The sheriff was there to not just keep you safe, but to offer a ride to town for groceries or a doctor’s visit in many cases. The local police juror kept the ditches from overflowing and could see to it that a little gravel was spread on the dirt road leading to your farmhouse. Baton Rouge was often a two day ride on horseback or an all day trip by car over muddy dirt roads. What happened or did not happen at the local courthouse had a direct bearing on the daily lives of a majority of Louisianans.
But that was in days gone by. Times have changed, and the state has assumed the vast majority of public duties including funding and administering highway construction, flood protection, healthcare, and an array of other public needs. Yet the local governing structure, with thousands of commissions, districts, and boards, hasn’t really changed in the past 75 years.

Many parishes, particularly in my home area of Northeast Louisiana, continue to lose population every year. Every one of the six parishes I represented as a state senator in the 1970s has lost some 10 to 20 per cent of its population in the intervening years. Yet here are still the same number of elected officials, the same number of local boards, commissions and other governing bodies that have existed for decades. Just one example: In Caddo Parish, the student enrollment in public schools has dropped since 1970 from 60,000 to 40,000. Yet there are eight more additional schools that have been built since 1970.

Do we need 64 parishes? Would 45 work more efficiently and save millions? Do cities that take up the bulk of the parish like New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport really need both a sheriff and a police chief? Some of the small, rural parishes have as few as nine thousand people per district judge. The average is more like 20,000 per judge. Should consolidation be undertaken? Why does every parish elect a coroner? Back in the 70s in my home parish of Concordia, the job was held by a local logger. Couldn’t this job be run by professionals on a regional basis?

As demographer Elliot Stonecipher has pointed out in a recent study, Louisiana’s population is exactly the same today (4,410,000) as it was in 1985. Yet far from any reduction in local and state governmental entities, the numbers have significantly increased. Over the past century, little has changed involving how local government operates, and the system in place is still run by the same archaic institutions that were put in place before the invention of the telephone, light bulb, automobile and of course the computer.

On the state level, the same overlap and duplicity exists. Four boards to govern higher education? How come states like California and North Carolina, where colleges rank at the top of all national lists, seem to get by quite well with just one board? And how about the slew of state boards and commissions that almost seem to make up ways to regulate where none is needed. If I go to Whole Foods and buy a dozen roses for my wife, do I really need a licensed florist, certified through a floral board, to wrap them up for me? Or a board to oversee someone I hire to help decorate my office or home?

In a recent interview, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw talked abut the problem and the opportunity: “Every state and every region of the country is stuck with some form of anachronistic and expensive local government structure that dates to the horse-drawn wagons, family farms and small-town convenience. It’s time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today’s realities rather than cling to the sensibilities of the twentieth century.”

The Louisiana Legislature comes into session next week. This is a time of financial crisis on both the state and national level. Lawmakers have no problem telling the private sector how to run their businesses in order to receive state and federal help. If we demand reorganization of companies like General Motors and poultry processors in North Louisiana, then isn’t it time to demand the same reorganization of state and local government? Consolidation could save the state in excess of 300 million dollars a year. And when there is a billion dollar hole to fill, that ain’t chump change.


‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste….What I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before..”

Rahm Emanuel

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s weekly columns going back to 2002 are archived on his website at


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why Should Prosecutors Have Legal Immunity?

Thursday, April 16, 2009
New York City, New York


If you have followed the criminal case of former US Sen. Ted Stevens from Alaska, a title of a future book or video could well be titled "prosecutors gone wild." Stevens was convicted of accepting gifts from campaign supporters. But key notes taken by an FBI agent that would have significantly helped the Stevens defense were purposely kept from his defense team. He was defeated in a close election just a few days after the verdict was rendered. Federal prosecutors failed to follow basic rules of fair play. The federal judge in the case has ordered a full criminal investigation of the Justice Department employees involved. So is this an anomaly where prosecutors violate the law, and something like this rarely happens? Far from it. Prosecutorial misconduct, specifically withholding evidence that favors the defendant, has become almost a fact of life in the federal judicial system.

Misconduct by those who were charged with seeking justice is nothing new. The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes makes a pretty clear case for the fact that injustice has been around for a long time. "I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness, and in the place of justice and equity. Do not be shocked at the site where justice has been denied."

When the key FBI notes were finally given to Stevens’ defense team after the Senator was convicted, Stevens lead counsel had this to say about the actions of the prosecutors: “When we were finally given the notes, you might have thought my reaction would be to celebrate, do high-fives, that we were right. But it was note like that at all. I was sick to my stomach. How could they do that?”

It has also become clear that the failure to turn over key notes by the federal prosecutors was not merely an oversight. An FBI agent has now come forward and said in a sworn affidavit the he sat in on meetings where Stevens’ prosecutors were clearly aware that they were ignoring their professional obligations to turn over key notes that would have helped the defense counter the criminal charges.

Stevens’ case would seem to be the latest example of vengeful prosecutorial overreach. A little research starkly shows that the Stevens case did not occur in a vacuum and should not be treated as isolated instance. Numerous recent cases abound showing federal prosecutors overstepping the boundaries of fair play, often in direct violation of the law.

Louisiana is not immune from prosecutors on both the state and federal level purposely withholding key evidence that would help the case of the accused. One can Google names like John Thompson, Dan Bright (both convicted and put on death row when evidence that was withheld eventually cleared them), and some former insurance commissioner whose name slips by me, that gives case studies of how prosecutors abused the judicial process. The question is, why do they do it? The obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence is basic law, and something every prosecutor understands. It’s the “gotchya ” mentality. An outsized desire to win at any cost.

But that’s not the prosecutor’s job. As federal appeals courts have said repeatedly: “A prosecutor has a special duty commensurate with a prosecutor’s unique power, to assure that defendants receive fair trials. Prosecutors sometimes forget that the prosecutor’s special duty is not to convict, but to secure justice.”

So if we have so many examples of prosecutorial misconduct and outright criminal behavior, why do we rarely see those at fault ever being charged as criminals themselves, or being on the end of lawsuits brought by the victims of such abuse? Both the legislature and congress have bestowed immunity to those privileged to work in the “justice” system. The courts have ruled that prosecutors are absolutely immune for anything they do that is considered within the lines of their official duties.

Here is what the courts seem to be saying: judges and legislators are not willing to expose prosecutors to legal liability because it might “distract” them from their work or make them legally vulnerable. In effect, that they should not be subject to the very legal process that they force upon the rest of us. They are telling us they cannot trust the system to do what is right if THEY are sued. The same prosecutors who drag us into court, who charge us with often ridiculous “crimes,” and who impose judgment after judgment on us, cannot possibly be expected to face the same system that governs the rest of us, as it might “distract them from their duties.”

So all Americans are supposedly equal, but prosecutors are apparently more “equal” than the rest of us. Is this a legitimate concern, or merely the exercise of raw power where only “winning a conviction” matters? A recent study of widespread prosecutorial misconduct was done by Dr. William Anderson at the University or Maryland. After extensive research, he concludes that: “It is not enough to say that lawsuits would “distract” these prosecutors from their duties (as claimed). After all, everyone outside this “justice” system faces such lawsuits. And the courts have ruled that such lawsuits are fine. When a prosecutor actually does face some small consequences for criminal behavior, we are told that it is “extraordinary.” Wow. A prosecutor lies in court, hides evidence, foists a major frame on innocent people, and we are supposed to believe it is “extraordinary?”

The fundamental proposition of equal justice under law was expressed in the Declaration of Independence by our founding fathers. There was no discussion of carving out exceptions to be used, and often abused, by prosecutors. Taking away legal immunity and making these public officials subject to the same sanctions that the rest of us face would be a good step in restoring confidence in a judicial system that has been tainted way too often.

As the poet said many years ago: “It is just as well that justice is blind; she might not like some of the things done in her name is she could see them.”
Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

. You can read Jim’s Blog, and take his weekly poll, plus read his columns going back to the fall of 2002 by going to his own website at

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Are College Athletes Being Exploited?

Thursday, April 9, 2009
Baton Rouge, Louisiana


Millions of rabid college basketball fans have been glued to their TVs over the past month as March Madness reached its crescendo this past Monday night. My North Carolina Tar Heels rose to the occasion to win its second national title in the past four years. And the big bucks have been rolling in. Lots of winners, with coaches getting big salaries, and colleges spiting up their percentage of huge TV and admission revenue. But there is one group that is being both exploited and shortchanged. It’s the players themselves.

There certainly is not a shortage of income. This year in the NCAA tourney, television income is estimated to be some $600 million, with an additional $40 million from ticket sales and sponsorships. A thirty second spot for Monday night’s championship game exceeded one million dollars. And college football is awash with the same increasing yearly income. More bowl games, and ever increasing television revenue allows most college football programs to cover the cost of a growing array of minor sports.

A sign of growing sports revenue is the dramatic increase in coaches’ salaries. The University of Kentucky just hired new basketball Coach John Calipari from the University of Memphis with a salary package of $35 million over the next 10 years. In 2005-06, head coaches whose teams made the NCAA tournament had an average salary of $959,486. And that doesn’t include all the perks like free cars, country club memberships, housing subsidies, access to private jets, and generous severance packages.

In college football, the numbers are even higher. LSU football fans are still incensed over former Coach Nick Sabin taking a salary package estimated at close to $ 4 million at arch rival Alabama. South Carolina Football Coach Steve Spurrier was enticed to take the job with a free country club membership at Augusta, home of this week’s Masters Golf tournament, that includes the use of a private jet to get him there for a quick 18 holes. LSU is paying assistant football coaches $500,000 a year or more. The University of Tennessee just announced it would pay two assistant football coaches $650,000 or more each for the coming year.
By comparison, the average compensation for these NCAA tourney coaches is double or more that of the typical university president, which shows us the perverse priorities of these institutions of higher learning. Little wonder that American industry has not been standing up too well in world competition.

Fans pay through the nose to attend major college athletic events. As an LSU football season ticket holder, I personally pay $700 a seat just for the right to buy the seat. The seat ticket itself is $50 per game. So there are big bucks coming in to major college programs all over the country. Top-level college sports are big business. LSU, for example, receives some $100 million in revenue each year from ticket sales, television rights, concessions, parking, logo sales, which is about five times what the school receives in tuition revenue from all the students that attend the university.

All this income comes from one source…the athletics on the field or on the court. Yet these athletes are paid only their expenses to attend college; room, food, tuition, books, maybe a summer job, the basics. No pocket money to go to the movies, no gas money, no extras whatsoever. So we have college athletic programs raking in millions on the backs of talented athletes, without sharing the revenue with those responsible for generating it. Such a system is ill defined at best and hypocritical at worst. The universities are reaping the value produced by their recruits, where the players are given a subsistence.

It was a little better some 40 years ago when I was lucky enough to attend the University of North Carolina on an athletic scholarship. I was given a housing and food allowance that exceeded my costs, as well as “laundry money” that allowed for weekend dates, gas, and a few frills above the basic scholarship costs. What I received then was equivalent to some $250 in pocket money if the same were allowed today. But it’s not. The NCAA tighten up the rules, and college athletes get less today than athletes like myself received some years back.

Supporters of the present system will argue that there is the opportunity for these athletes to move on to the pros and make big financial returns. But we all know that very few make it to that level. They may not even end up with the basic skills necessary to succeed in other workplaces, since only a minority of student-athletes in major sports even graduate. LSU football and basketball players generally graduate at a rate of less than 40%.

There is a system in place now that’s allows our young college athletes to be exploited, and the exploitation is being committed by their adult mentors. What a deal. Your body in exchange for a pittance of basic expenses. A little monthly expense money is not about to corrupt the system. $300 a month to all athletes on full athletic scholarship seems reasonable. March Madness, as is always the case, turned out to be a financial bonanza. But not for the kids that many of us paid to watch. They deserve a better shake and a small piece of this huge financial pie.

P.S. How bout them Tar Heels.

“The coaches own the athletes' feet, the colleges own the athletes' bodies, and the supervisors retain the large rewards. That reflects a neoplantation mentality on the campuses that is not appropriate at this time of high dollars."
Walter Byers, the executive director of the NCAA from 1952 to 1987.

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown
Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in a number of newspapers and websites throughout the State of Louisiana. You can read Jim’s Blog, and take his weekly poll, plus read his columns going back to the fall of 2002 by going to his own website at

Jim also has a new book out on his views of Louisiana. You can read about it and order it by going to .
Jim’s radio show on WRNO (995 fm) from New Orleans can be heard each Sunday, from 11:00 am until 1:00 pm.