St. Charles Herald-Guide

Legislative auditor’s influence is growing

Special to the Herald-Guide - October 25, 2013

By John Maginnis and Jeremy Alford

When he was nominated for the position of legislative auditor in 2010, Daryl Purpera told then Times-Picayune reporter, now Senior Audit Analyst Ed Anderson, “What we want to be is a fact-finder, not a prosecutor.”

Nonetheless, that’s the charge that has been leveled against him at times in regard to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. Some of his audits have either directly or indirectly criticized the governor’s priorities, but Purpera said that’s the nature of auditing.

“I could see how people would think that,” he told LaPolitics in a recent interview, “but that isn’t what we’re intending to do.”

His next opportunity could be with Jindal’s public-private hospital partnerships. They were met with criticism in the Legislature, although lawmakers were virtually powerless to slow the deals down.

“Those will have to be audited,” Purpera said, qualifying that the private side of the partnerships will likely only be reviewed in conjunction with an overall audit all of the providers that contract with the Department of Health and Hospitals. “We can go look at if they performed the services and if they charged the right fee, but we don’t really have an interest in their financial statements.”

Purpera also played a role in the trial regarding Jindal’s cash-balance retirement plan last spring. When the Supreme Court overturned the plan, Associate Justice Greg Guidry parroted in his ruling what Purpera had been saying all along. Guidry stipulated that the constitution requires the Legislature to use the findings of the legislative auditor’s actuary, not the private firm hired by the administration.

“The constitution is bigger than the administration, me and the Legislature,” Purpera said.

Purpera said the structure of his office makes his job highly independent. He answers only to the Legislative Audit Advisory Council, made up of a handful of lawmakers. Once the council moves forward with a recommendation, the Legislature ratifies the hire and it takes a two-thirds vote of both chambers to terminate whomever holds the position. The council does not tell him what to audit, but it can suggest projects.

“I don’t have enforcement powers, but by using public reports, by making good recommendations, I can have influence,” said Purpera, who makes $170,000 annually, but isn’t required to file financial disclosure reports with the state Ethics Administration.

Yet even with a budget of $32.5 million for the current fiscal year and a staff of 293, the office can’t look into every tip, he said, which means strategic decisions have to be made.

“We get allegations every day from all kinds of different sources,” Purpera said, “and I don’t have enough people to cover every one of them, so we look at where the risk is.”

Still, you can tell he has 95 CPAs on staff, especially when you review their recent work history. The office helped take down former Jonesboro Mayor Leslie Thompson, who was found guilty of malfeasance in office for questionable monetary practices. The defense attorney went as far as to tell the court that Purpera was the one who should be looked into, for spending $500,000 on the case. The office’s audits have also changed the way DHH monitors restaurant safety and brought serious heat down on parish assessors for the way they value properties.

Even though his profile is growing, Purpera said running for public office doesn’t interest him.

“This office makes a difference,” Purpera said. “I look at public service as being just that, serving the public.”Voucher contract with firm could growEven though the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recently approved a $150,000 contract with a D.C. firm to defend the state against a lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department, there are indications that the payoff could be much larger.

The feds are suing Louisiana in federal court in New Orleans over its decision to move forward with vouchers in public school systems that are under desegregation orders.

The state Department of Education recommended the contract with Cooper and Kirk, but only listed the $150,000 figure in its agenda documents.

Attorneys familiar with such proceedings say it’s customary to lead with an arbitrary, reasonable-sounding figure on a contract and then extend it when billings get close to or exceed the threshold.

According to department spokesperson Barry Landry, Cooper and Kirk has quoted the state a rate of $495 per hour. “The contract can be amended as more work is done,” said Landry.

Serving as lead counsel will be Michael Kirk, a prominent Beltway attorney who has appeared regularly in desegregation cases involving the federal government.New energy coalition to be unveiledA campaign and coalition called Our Energy Moment will be rolled out this week in Lafayette to help educate the public on the benefits of liquefied natural gas, or LNG. It’s a burgeoning field in Louisiana, which is probably why Cheniere Energy and Sempra LNG have emerged as the coalition’s lead sponsors.

Cheniere is the first company in the nation to be awarded a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to export LNG and Sempra currently has a permit pending to become the second. There’s major risk just in applying, since the permitting process can cost upwards to $100 million.

But it’s seed money compared to the endgame. For instance, Cheniere’s plant adjacent to Sabine Pass will be a $10 billion facility.

“We’ll be working to raise awareness about the benefits of LNG exports to America,” said Tyron Picard of The Picard Group. “Our aim is to obviously launch in Louisiana, but we won’t be limited to Louisiana.”

He added that the official announcement will come during this week’s annual LAGCOE exposition. A major business organization is also expected to join the ranks of Our Energy Moment this week, he added, as the coalition launches its online presence. They Said It“Being tried by a jury of your peers is as American as moms and apple pie.”—Jonica Coates, the director of civil justice reform at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, on the idea of lowering the claims threshold in a jury trial. “I wish the guys in prison could see me now”—Edwin Edwards, on WBRZ-TV