Jindal administration avoids litigation on redirecting DWF funds

By By Kevin Thibodeaux / Special to the American Press

The Jindal administration temporarily

has avoided litigation from commissioners of one of its agencies over

the diversion

of Department of Wildlife and Fisheries funds to meet budget

shortfalls. How long it will be able to stave off legal action

from commissioners of his choosing is unclear.

For the past two years, the DWF Commission has had a lawsuit set to file in an attempt to halt the Governor’s Office from

sweeping dedicated funds out of DWF’s Artificial Reef Program to the general fund. Some $46 million has been taken so far.

In 2010, the administration stripped the fund of $18 million and in 2011 another $26 million was transferred to the general

fund. The governor’s office isn’t saying whether the sweep will be repeated this year.

Stephen Sagrera, commercial fishing and

fur representative on the DWF’s commission and a member of a

subcommittee meeting

directly with the Governor’s Office about possible litigation,

said the threatened suit will be used by the board it to “hold

the fire to [Jindal’s] feet.” 

When the lawsuit originally was drawn

up, said Sagrera, the commission consisted of holdover appointees of

former Gov. Kathleen

Blanco. The action had the appearance of politics, he said, adding

that now the committee can be taken seriously because it

is composed of Jindal appointees. 

That $44 million diverted from the

DWF’s Artificial Reef Fund was used to alleviate overall revenue

shortfalls and committee

members fear this money will again be transferred into the general

fund because of predicted deficits in the current budget,

although the legislation that deals with the sweeping of funds,

House Bill 2, has yet to be made public.

“We think what they’re doing is potentially against the law,” Sagrera said, noting that the money was donated to the Artificial

Reef fund by oil companies specifically to convert their old platforms to artificial reefs that serve as natural habitats

for the Gulf Coast’s fish species.

The DWF commission met in executive session in mid-February to discuss possible litigation against Jindal. Billy Broussard,

vice chairman of the committee, said the February meeting didn’t close the door on litigation but the commission chose to

refrain from taking action until the state budget was released. 

Sagrera said the Governor’s Office

reached out to the committee in February and requested a meeting. At

this meeting, the

Jindal administration agreed to begin talks to replenish the funds

that already had been taken from the Artificial Reef fund. 

The Governor’s Office did not respond

to repeated requests on the possible litigation or on its discussions

with the DWF Commission.

“The governor seems eager to make the fund whole again by the end of his term,” Sagrera said.

He said the commission not only hopes to have the money returned to the Artificial Reef Fund but also to protect the fund

from future administrations. 

Sagrera said the agreement was only

verbal and the committee is waiting on a formal proposal. No deadline

was set, he said,

but the Jindal administration said it would have a proposal by the

DWF’s regular monthly meeting last week. That did not happen.

The DWF commission held an executive

session at last Thursday’s meeting to further discuss possible

litigation. Ronny Graham,

chairman of the DWF Commission, said the Jindal administration

still hadn’t given the commission a formal plan, but he expects

one by the summer.

As for now, both Graham and Sagrera say that litigation is a likely possibility. While neither says he wants to sue, they

both agree the DWF Commission is willing to do what is necessary to safeguard the reef fund.

“The commission is very serious” about this issue, Sagrera said. “We’re not going to let (Jindal) leave office without action

being taken or without letting a judge decide.” 

Kevin Thibodeaux writes for the LSU News Bureau. Contact him at kthib16@gmail.com.