Our View: We should expect more from officials

After weeks of talk within the newsroom, we decided to print an article today that details public records showing Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph conducted private business with an agency that sought and received grant funding funneled through Lafourche Parish Government.

From 2006-10, Randolph Publications received more than $90,000 from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and Barataria Terrebonne Estuary Foundation to promote the Barataria Terrebonne National Estuary Program’s annual festival. BTNEP footed the bill in its budget.

The estuary program, as early as 2006 and no later than 2007, was being considered for federal grant funds according to an email, handwritten notes on advisory committee meeting minutes and a state draft plan of the funding program. The federal funds were funneled to BTNEP through Lafourche Parish via an agreement set in principle in October 2008.

State law prohibits public servants from doing business with a party that “has or is seeking to obtain contractual or other business or financial relationships with the public servant’s agency.”

The dealings with these three agencies are similar to the infraction the state Board of Ethics charged Randolph with stemming from her camp rental to BP after accepting $1 million from the oil company for spill-related costs in 2010.

Regarding her promotional work for BTNEP, Randolph deserves due process, and in the event it is considered an ethical violation, it’s hardly the worst misstep in the state’s distinguished history. Randolph claims that her detachment from Randolph Publications once she took office facilitated her oversight of the potential conflict of interest.

We are not opining on the legality or intent of Randolph’s business dealings with LUMCON, BTNEP and BTEF. And we understand the wide-ranging effects the story may have on vital institutions in education and coastal restoration.

But we feel it is our obligation, as a community newspaper, to bring these contracts and the questions they raise into the public’s eye. We now look to the state Board of Ethics Administration, which has an opportunity to set a standard on what point an agency is “seeking” funds from a public agency and delineate how nonprofit organizations factor into the law. The board understandably offered no guidance on our story.

We feel it is our elected officials’ obligation to navigate the laws by which they are bound. A mistake does not equal corruption; we understand this and believe the public does, too.

The state law in question is explicit, and its purpose is broader than cause and effect. Consider that quid pro quo is not mentioned once in the statute. There is no need to prove ill intent. The issue, as ethics board staff attorney Tracy Barker posed at the hearing on the BP-related ethics charge, is perception.

“Quid pro quo is not an element of the state law,” Barker said while stressing that Randolph’s intent in the BP case is irrelevant. As an elected official, “there are more rules that (Randolph has) to follow than an ordinary citizen. The public should not have to question her motive.”

If one law is accidentally ignored, what about others?

We believe the three-term Lafourche Parish president does operate with the parish’s best interests in mind. She has done an exceptional job developing vital contacts to ensure grant receipts to facilitate recovery from major hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Lafourche has made substantial progress under her leadership, despite a frequently adversarial council that isn’t shy to seize on her mistakes in public. The taxpayer’s eye is always on Charlotte Randolph, because of her position and because of the magnifying glass other elected officials hold steady above her.

It can be argued that the fractious institution distorts her public profile. But, because the electorate drives that institution, it’s a simple and excusatory position that ignores parish voters’ perception. Complaining that the light cast is unfair does nothing to jettison the perceived chasm that lights it.

It very well could have been that she overlooked the conflict of interest. That she continued a long-standing business relationship without considering the fact the agency was pursuing funds funneled through the government she leads.

But BTNEP went on to sign a contract with the parish, and the business relationship continued. The top elected official in the parish should understand this is not acceptable.