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Landry and the “Rule” of Law

“Do you think this is targeting certain people?” — Sen. Regina Barrow

Since taking office in 2016, Attorney General Jeff Landry hasn’t been shy about asserting his desire for more power and control. From his ill-fated attempt to carve out a separately appropriated budget from the executive branch under which he serves, to his courtroom battles over one of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ executive orders (insisting the governor exceeded his authority), to demands that state funds be withheld from Louisiana cities that implement sanctuary policies, the AG has been waging a campaign to expand his authority.

Landry announced plans last month to change the state Senate into a more “conservative” body, by pouring money into 2019 candidates’ campaigns through the newly-branded Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority which he heads.

25 of the upper chamber’s 39 members are Republican, but Landry says, “They’re Republicans in name only. That’s the problem.”

This legislative session, his cause celebre’ has been Medicaid fraud, and more specifically, Medicaid recipient fraud. The fact that the federal government, which provides the vast majority of funding for the Medicaid program, prohibits the state from prosecuting Medicaid recipients hasn’t dissuaded Landry.

He’s been aided and abetted by two members of the legislature in particular: Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville) and Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell). Despite all evidence to the contrary, each of them has become fixated on the idea that the main reason for the immense Medicaid budget is not that Louisiana has one of the nation’s highest proportions of citizens living in poverty; rather, it’s because too many of those now getting health care under Medicaid expansion are doing so deceitfully.

No one should find it unusual that politically ambitious members of the party that has deified Ronald Reagan would also preach the dogma of the “welfare queen.”

Though research has subsequently shown that the fur-coat wearing fraudster driving a Cadillac was actually a psychopath with several dozen aliases, kidnappings, and murders-for-profit in her bag of tricks, the resentment and suspicion has remained. The hostility has morphed into judgmentalism, masking only slightly the institutionalized racism that drives the new narrative of policies that only help those who are “deserving.”

Landry has had mixed results for “his” bills thus far this session.

HB 447, the bill to recreate the Department of Justice – a procedural requirement for state departments every six years – is awaiting House concurrence on Senate-made changes. The bill authorizes a new section for the Attorney General’s office: the federalism division, described as being “responsible for the appellate work of the state relating to federal litigation, multistate actions, amicus briefs and other complex litigation as determined by the attorney general.”

A Senate committee had stripped that new division from the bill, but the full Senate restored it, with no questions and no objections, even though the phrasing “as determined by the attorney general” ought to raise some red flags.

What issues is Landry seeking to pursue?

In his own words, from a letter to the editor of The American Banker, published May 8th, the attorney general vents his vitriol for federalism by excoriating the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for implementing restrictions on the payday loan industry.

Calling the agency “a tool of the political left,” Landry maintains “the short-term, small-dollar lending rule”is “federal encroachment” on “the economic liberty of our people”. Further, he states, “Ensuring citizens have options to obtain credit when traditional avenues through financial institutions are unavailable is a critical issue in my state.”

Of course, that’s in direct contradiction of the campaign against predatory lending that’s been waged for several years by groups like Together Louisiana and the Louisiana Budget Project. Though LBP scored a victory this week by killing SB 365 – a bill to increase the amount and time allowed for payday loans – the group’s executive director Jan Moller finds Landry’s letter disturbing.

“It’s a shame the attorney general takes sides with national predatory lending corporations over the people of Louisiana who fall victim each year to the deliberate debt trap caused by these unaffordable loans,” Moller says.

A separate bill to expand Landry’s authority, creating the Medicaid Recipient Fraud Unit within the attorney general’s office, was withdrawn from consideration this week, by its author, Rep. Sherman Mack (R-Albany).

“I felt we were putting the cart before the horse,” Mack said by way of explanation, as he presented the ”horse” power part of his legislation to the Senate Finance committee Thursday. HB 88, which Mack has previously stated is ”the Attorney General’s bill,” creates the crime of ”government benefits fraud,” designating it a felony.

“Do you think this is targeting certain people?” Sen. Regina Barrow asked, directing her question to the Louisiana Budget Project’s Jeannie Donovan, who was testifying in opposition to the bill.

“Those who are elderly or confused by the details and quantities of information required on the applications could be swept up, if this becomes law,” Donovan replied.

Mack insists it is not aimed at Louisiana’s poor.

“It contains the element of mens rea: you have to prove they intentionally falsified their application in order to receive the benefit,” the House Criminal Justice committee chairman explained. “It is not targeted at low income people. It’s targeted at people who are NOT low income, but are still trying to get benefits.”

Not unexpectedly, Sen. Sharon Hewitt supports the bill, saying, “Kentucky passed legislation similar to this last month, and here’s what they found as they looked at other states: Michigan found 7,000 lottery winners who were on welfare; Illinois found dead people receiving welfare benefits; and Arkansas had 20,000 people with fake identities enrolled in their welfare program. These are real cases in other states, so we need to do a better job of making sure people here meet the requirements and we enforce them. Medicaid is a new program – it’s a lot of people and it’s a big program.”

Linda Hawkins from the League of Women Voters, who was testifying against the bill, didn’t hesitate to correct Hewitt’s litany of misinformation.

“Medicaid expansion is new, but Medicaid has been around since 1966,” Hawkins said. “And what you read off was all about welfare. Additionally, Kentucky’s new law is in limbo, as CMS is questioning their fraud unit.

“Further, Medicaid program money goes to providers. It does not go to recipients,” Hawkins reminded Hewitt.

Committee chairman Eric LaFleur, clearly wearied of Hewitt’s fixation at this point in the session, reminded her, “This bill doesn’t say anything about Medicaid.”

“It may not specify Medicaid or welfare in the bill, but the spirit is clear — that’s what it’s aimed at,” said Sen. Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans). “And if we’re not talking Medicaid, but rather any and all government benefits programs, what about the kid who falsifies his ACT score to get TOPS? He’s definitely got a motive.”

“And he could be prosecuted,” Rep. Mack replied.

“And I expect you to apply the same energy to that as to these 80-year-old grandmothers,” Bishop said, directly addressing Ellison Travis, who heads the AG’s Medicaid Fraud Unit. “And what about these corporations that straight up lie about the number of jobs they will create, in order to get subsidies? Will that command your same energy, Mr. Travis? After all, for the return from twenty grandmothers you’re going to prosecute, you can get one corporate executive and get it all back.”

The committee did approve the bill, on a 6-3 vote, sending it to the full Senate.

As currently worded, HB 88 says, “The crime of government benefits fraud is the act of any person who, with intent to defraud the state or any person or entity through any government benefits…does any of the following: (1) Presents for allowance or payment any false or fraudulent claim for furnishing services, merchandise or payments (2) Knowingly submits false information for the purpose of obtaining greater compensation than that to which he is legally entitled for furnishing services, merchandise or payments…”

Considering Attorney General Jeff Landry’s use of “government benefits” from his office’s HUD Fair Housing grant, won’t that put him in an awkward position – having potentially violated his own law?

Tell me more about this “welfare queen”…

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