According to a series of public records obtained exclusively by The Bayou Brief, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry is currently spending nearly $150,000 of taxpayer dollars on digital billboards, radio commercials, and Facebook advertisements to promote a program on fair housing that is in imminent danger of losing federal funding as a result of mismanagement and failure to comply with standards.
In addition to the “public awareness campaign,” which is prominently branded with Jeff Landry’s name and directs people to the web domain AGJeffLandry.com, The Bayou Brief has learned his office is also spending fair housing funds on 30,000 plastic cups, 23,000 pens, and 19,600 keychains, all of which advertise Landry’s name and state website. (Landry is the only elected official in Louisiana whose office uses and promotes a commercial web domain that contains his name, instead of his .gov address).
A source familiar with the spending, who spoke candidly to The Bayou Brief on the condition of anonymity out of concern for professional retribution, claims that Landry’s office is already using federal funds provided by HUD and is planning to seek reimbursement from HUD for any related expenses, including the tens of thousands of plastic cups, keychains, and ink pens they ordered.
The campaign, which thus far features billboards in both Shreveport and New Orleans, began on April 1st and is expected to end in late June or early July.
Landry personally kicked off the campaign on April 2nd, in a video posted on his Facebook account.
According to an internal requisition order, Landry’s office spent $19,500 with Audience Partners, a Pennsylvania-based political communications firm, to produce the video and is spending an additional $15,000 with the company to handle other Facebook promotions.
The document detailing the agreement with Audience Partners, which contains an expense code labeled HUD, was drafted on March 20, 2018. The timing is not coincidental.
Five days prior, on March 15th, Garry Sweeney, the regional director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, sent a formal letter to Renee Fontenot Free, a top-level employee of Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry. The letter was stamped as received on March 19th, a day before the order with Audience Partners was formalized.
Free is the director of the state Department of Justice’s Public Protection Office and, among other things, is responsible for administering its Fair Housing Assistance program, which is largely funded through HUD and charged with investigating complaints about housing discrimination.
Sweeney wrote to inform her that, as a result of a week-long, on-site visit conducted in late October of 2017, HUD had determined Louisiana’s program was not in compliance with federal performance standards and would not be recommended for renewal as a “substantial equivalent agency” unless it cleaned up its act during the next 120 days.
Notably, on Oct. 27th, 2017, the final day of HUD’s on-site inspection, Landry hosted a “fair housing workshop” in Baton Rouge.
Last year, HUD provided more than $680,000 to Landry’s office, which stated in its Executive Budget that “Federal Funds are derived from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Administration and Enforcement of the Louisiana open housing law (sic)” (see pages 16-18). In addition to the $680,000, his office also lists nearly $200,000 in charges reimbursed by HUD during the previous fiscal year.
It is worth noting that the “open housing law” does not exist. Louisiana’s law, enacted in 1991, is known as the Equal Opportunity Housing Act, an analog to the federal Fair Housing Act.
Since he was elected in 2015, federal support for the state’s program to combat housing discrimination has nearly quadrupled, but according to internal documents, its results are anemic; Landry’s office handles fewer than 100 complaints every year.
Because of that, fair housing advocates question the office’s true intention in spending taxpayer money on a campaign that appears to be more focused on promoting Jeff Landry himself than on addressing mismanagement and poor performance.
This is underscored by the decision to solicit quotes and file requisition orders, pictured below, for the purchase of 30,000 plastic cups, 23,000 keychains, and 19,600 ink pens. Each of these records is coded under the expense code for HUD.
According to the source who spoke with The Bayou Brief, the office has already received its first shipment of plastic cups. There are 7,500 cups in the colors of LSU, 7,500 in the colors of the Saints, 7,500 in the colors of Southern University, and 7,500 in the colors of Tulane. One side of the cup promotes fair housing, the other side promotes Jeff Landry.
“This is shocking and saddening,” Andreanecia Morris, the executive director of Housing NOLA, tells The Bayou Brief. “We just commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, and the Fair Housing Act was part of his legacy. President Obama had tried to close some of the gaps and loopholes in enforcement, but there was still much more work to be done when he left office. Under the current administration, we have seen the weakening of this act and the perception that people can get away with not complying with the law.”
Morris, who, along with attorney Kim Sport, was named by Gambit as the 2017 New Orleanian of the Year for her work in housing policy, believes Landry’s office could have spent taxpayer money in a way that led to meaningful improvements. “There are areas of the state not covered,” she explains. “The organizations that do this work are significantly underfunded. Partnering with these groups would be a much better use of resources than advertising.”
She’s worked on these issues for most of her professional career, not only in New Orleans but across the entire state.
“Our AG’s office should be the place where everyone can receive help,” she says. “There needs to be an understanding that this is what the money is for, for people and not supplies.”