By Jeremy Alford, Mitch Rabalais & Sarah Gamard
State and federal enforcement agencies are receiving more complaints than ever about robocalls, which are commonly used in political campaigns as well as more shady business operations.
In turn, that is leading to action by legislatures around the country, according to reporting by PEW’s Stateline. No part of that trend, however, can be found in Louisiana — yet.
Based on tracking by YouMail Inc., which also markets software to block such calls, the number robocalls shot up significantly from 2.9 billion calls in January to 4.1 billion in June. Last year, a spokesperson for the state Public Service Commission told The Advocate that the agency handles roughly 30 to 50 complaints each month regarding robocalls.
Here are just two of the state-specific efforts underway, per PEW’s latest research:
— “Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, in June signed a bill adding criminal fines and penalties to the state’s anti-robocall statute. The law goes into effect in October.”
— “In Massachusetts, a bill making its way through the Legislature would prohibit robocalls to mobile devices and impose penalties including fines starting at $10,000 for each violation.”
Back home in Louisiana, among the last few efforts to better regular robocalls came from Rep. Truck Gisclair in 2012. As robocalls were being used more frequently in conjunction with policy campaigns, Gisclair unsuccessfully sought to add layers of restrictions amid complaints that his bill was too broadly drawn.
Generally, robocalls are carried out like large phone banks, delivering a recorded message to anyone answering the ring. But the bill sponsored by Gisclair would have only addressed those robocalls that invite the other person on the line to press a button to be connected directly to lawmakers.
At the time, Gisclair said that his office had been inundated with 700 to 800 constituent calls over a two-day period, just as a major vote was approaching over land right issues. His bill would have required anyone involved with such robocalls — for the purpose of “influencing the passage or defeat of legislation” — to electronically file a notice and related reports with the Board of Ethics.
ACLU monitoring Louisiana officials
Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney for the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told LaPolitics recently that of the dozen or so complaints that his organization has received this year about government officials supposedly “abusing” social media platforms, at least five of them involve Congressman Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre.
LaPolitics became aware that the ACLU was fielding complaints and monitoring the online activities of elected officials after a subscriber posted a related status update on their social media account.
When contacted, Hamilton declined to disclose the other officials who have spurred complaints from Louisiana citizens, but said they range from a member of Congress to a parish public informations officer. At least one complaint is involves a citizen being blocked by an elected official, but what exactly the ACLU deems to be abuse is unclear.
Hamilton said the ACLU sent a letter to Higgins Monday telling him about these complains and asking him to address them. Hamilton said they have yet to get a reply, and Higgins’ office said they don’t have a record of receiving the letter.
The ACLU declined to share the letter with LaPolitics.
Political History: The conspiracist vs. the crooner
By 1973, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison was a well-known figure outside of his jurisdiction, due largely to the legal and political rabbit hole he followed in the wake of the assassination of late President John F. Kennedy.
Trapped in the shadow of a trial gone bad, the notoriously tenacious former FBI agent was desperately fighting for his political life. Four years earlier, Garrison and his prosecutors had staged the sensational trial of Clay Shaw, a prominent New Orleans businessman, charging that he been involved in the assassination.
The Louisiana-rooted case drew international press and attention, of course, bringing Garrison to such heights as Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. As for Shaw, he was acquitted after less than an hour of jury deliberations.
Garrison himself was also on trial in 1973. Federal prosecutors accused him of taking bribes from operators of illegal pinball machines — and keeping them in business by directing the efforts of his office elsewhere.
When reporters questioned him at a press conference, Garrison shouted, “The Department of Justice of the U.S. government is absolutely corrupt!”
Garrison was eventually acquitted that August, after the validity of some evidence was called into question. The lengthy criminal trial had eaten up most of the district attorney’s year, and his re-election campaign would begin in earnest in just a few short weeks.
His opponent was Harry Connick Sr., a former assistant U.S. Attorney who also moonlighted as a singer in the Crescent City. His son, Harry Connick Jr., then an aspiring musician, performed at his father’s campaign events. The candidate struck a memorable tone as well, calling the six-foot-six Garrison a “moral midget.”
It was Connick’s second race against Garrison, having last lost at the polls in 1969. But in the four years since, the incumbent’s political stock had plummeted. Even after Garrison was acquitted of bribery charges, many still seriously questioned his ethics.
After outspending Garrison by a wide margin, Connick narrowly defeated him on election day by less than 2,500 votes. Dejected, Garrison filed suit against Connick, alleging that voter fraud was responsible for his electoral loss.
The lawsuit, like the petitioner, was defeated. Connick would go on to hold the seat for another 30 years.
They Said It
“I’m thinking, ‘Man, I must be dropping acid.’ Not that I’ve ever dropped acid. But… for the record, I have not.”
—U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge, describing his reaction to committee testimony, on C-SPAN
“I am what they call a radical centrist.”
—Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, describing his political philosophy, on CNN