Lobbyists dominate Gulf Coast reconstruction plans
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Lobbyists representing transportation, energy and other special interests dominated panels that advised Louisiana's U.S. senators crafting legislation to rebuild the storm-damaged Gulf Coast, records and interviews show.
The Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act — introduced last month by Sens. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican — included billions of dollars in business for clients of those lobbyists and a total price tag estimated as high as $250 billion.
One advisory-panel member who discovered that most of his fellow panelists were lobbyists called the resulting legislation "a huge injustice" to the state.
"I was basically shocked," said Ivor van Heerden, director of a hurricane public-health research center at Louisiana State University. "What do lobbyists know about a plan for the reconstruction and restoration of Louisiana?"
Van Heerden is the first participant in any of the senators' working groups to provide such a detailed and scathing account of the process and its outcome. He said he was shut out after he voiced his concerns.
The result, he said, was a lost opportunity "to come up with something innovative, something the people of Louisiana and the nation could really endorse."
Among the lobby-supported interests with a stake in the relief and recovery bill:
• Energy utilities. Entergy Corp. and Cleco Corp. lobbyists consulted with the senators' staffs. Five days before the bill was introduced, Cleco retained the lobbying services of Lynnel Ruckert, Vitter's former deputy campaign manager and the wife of his chief of staff. In an unusual assist to private utilities, the recovery bill includes $2.5 billion to help Louisiana companies such as Entergy of New Orleans and Cleco of Pineville restore and rebuild their electricity systems and recover losses from sustained power outages.
• Supporters of a controversial industrial canal project serving the Port of New Orleans. Among those serving on advisory panels were two officials of Jones Walker, a New Orleans-based firm that lobbies in Washington for the canal project. The recovery bill asks Congress to give "priority consideration" to the Army Corps of Engineers' project that would build a lock along the canal at a cost of $748 million.
• Highway advocates. Among those on a transportation working group were lobbyists for highway projects seeking money, including one from a company headed by former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La. In the bill, four Louisiana highways considered evacuation and energy supply routes would receive construction, maintenance and repair work worth $7 billion. At least two of those projects were represented by lobbyists on the working group.
The bill already has been widely criticized as excessive and opportunistic. Its price tag exceeds the high end of estimated costs of the storm and does not include the $60 billion in emergency aid already approved.
Landrieu and Vitter defend the bill as a necessary response to the region's devastation. The bill's supporters say Louisiana is crucial to America's energy industry and that the state's ports handle 20 percent of all U.S. imports and exports daily.
"Key economic sectors took a big hit from the storm," said Landrieu spokesman Adam Sharp. "Standing up the region's economy will help stand up the American economy."
Sharp also said the recovery bill's final cost would be closer to $200 billion, not the estimated high of $250 billion.
Aides said the lobbyists were among those who made recommendations, but they did not draft the legislation. Lawmakers also consulted with local and state officials and community and business leaders in the Gulf Coast region, the aides said.
"The lobbyists and the entities they represent tend to be among the most experienced experts available who have direct, real-world knowledge of the situation on the ground," Sharp said. "They are advocating for a position and for a client, but usually from a vantage point of expertise that can be very beneficial to us."
Vitter's office did not return numerous calls seeking comment.
Johnston, the former senator whose clients include hard-hit New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, said the participation of lobbyists in the working groups was appropriate. "There is no conflict of interest," said Johnston, a former Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman. "We represent areas that were impacted, and the needs of those areas need to be brought to the fore."
But the House's rejection Friday of a bill that would provide $750 million in federal loans to cities wracked by Hurricane Katrina suggested growing resistance to expensive reconstruction proposals.
Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington watchdog group, said lobbyists were trying to exploit the catastrophic hurricane.
"They are using Katrina to get funding they haven't been able to get in the past," he said. "You want to help the region, but the bill they put together has a lot of projects that aren't needed. This is congressional looting at its worst."
The working groups were set up by the senators' staffs to advise the lawmakers on a variety of topics, including housing, education and health care.
Van Heerden, who served on a flood-control working group, had overseen Louisiana's coastal restoration program as an official in the state's Department of Natural Resources and has done hurricane research at Louisiana State University since 1997. After Katrina, the public-health center he directs has been trying to determine how and why the flooding occurred and conducting damage assessments.
Van Heerden said he was particularly outspoken about his recommendations to limit the role of the Army Corps of Engineers, which was responsible for the levees that failed to keep the floodwaters out of New Orleans.
"We hadn't restored the coast, and all we had was second-rate levees," he said.
He suggested the creation of a politically independent agency along the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority to spearhead the restoration and reconstruction, but he said the lobbyists opposed the idea. He also favored an oversight role for the National Academy of Sciences, which was not included in the legislation.
"My concern was that the whole process was more about generating a lot of projects for the Corps and [the lobbyists'] clients, rather than saving Louisiana," Van Heerden said.
Some lobbyists acknowledged an appearance problem even as they defended their advisory work.
"The delegation's heart was in the right place," said Jan Schoonmaker, a lobbyist for New Orleans educational, health-care and other interests.
"It was not people intending to stuff pork in a barrel. We were looking for creative, outside-of-the-box ideas. That said, maybe we should have stepped back and thought about how it was going to look to others."
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