Louisiana Board under the Microscope

On May 20, Robert Travis Scott, a reporter for the Times-Picayune, filed the following story about the Louisiana Board of Massage Therapy, reprinted here in its entirety (Scott’s story is in italics):

Current and former board members of the Louisiana State Board of Massage Therapy are raising concerns about possible conflicts of interest in the agency’s hiring decisions.

The board, which licenses and regulates massage therapists, has seven volunteer members appointed by the governor based on nominations from professional associations. The board is backed normally by about three full-time paid staff employees. The board terminated its former executive director effective March 18 and started a hiring process.

One of the first applications was from Leslie Hill, an assistant to the special assistant in the governor’s office of boards and commissions, which collects nominations for the state’s professional and public service boards and suggests appointments to the governor. Hill said she was involved in the appointment process for members of the massage board. While she was in that office, seven members of the board were named in 2008 and three members were replaced in October.

Hill, who has a background in massage therapy, applied for the position of executive director, which led to a discussion among some board members of whether hiring her would create an ethics problem because of her former role assisting with board appointments. After consulting with the attorney general’s office, board chairwoman Mary Donker Syvertsen concluded that Hill’s hiring would not violate the state ethics code. The board hired Rhonda McManus as its new executive director at a salary of $75,000 and hired Hill for the No. 2 job in the office at $65,000, which was $30,000 more than her pay in the governor’s office.

The board’s employment ad called for an executive director and staff and made no mention of the salaries offered. McManus was not given the opportunity to participate in selecting and hiring Hill, who was to become her chief staff member. Syvertsen said she spoke with McManus the day the board was going to vote on the new hires and asked McManus then if hiring Hill would be OK.

Two board members have raised questions about the hiring. One of those is Bruce Evans, who said he has nothing against Hill but objects to the hiring process and did not think it was right for a gubernatorial-appointed board to hire someone from the governor’s appointment office. The other dissenting board member is Jan Debenedetto, who said Hill would be making a higher salary than past staff members and that she was surprise the new executive director had no say in hiring staff. “I think that the way it was handled was wrong on every level,”Debenedetto said.

Vernon Smith, a former leader of the massage board and massage associations, said he thinks Hill’s hiring has inappropriate. Syvertsen and board member Suzanne Schwing said Hill was qualified for the job and that nothing illegal was done in hiring her. Hill said she had no ties to board members and that her application and hiring was a fair and normal process.

Kyle Plotkin, a spokesman for Gov. Bobby Jindal, released a statement saying, “We expect any board, when hiring, to select the most qualified candidate in a fair process.” Another recent disruption at the board is the revelation that two board members have been under investigation for violations of board rules. The issue was brought up during a board meeting earlier this year by an agency attorney, who did not name the members. (End of story)

As a member of a state massage therapy board myself, I can vouch for the fact that board members (of any public board) are constantly warned to not only avoid conflicts of interest, but to also avoid any appearance of conflicts of interest. It appears that the Louisiana Board is walking on thin ice here, and kudos to the Board members who are questioning these actions. Although there is no clear-cut violation, there is certainly the appearance of one. I’d definitely like to be making $30,000 more a year myself, but I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t want my ethics called into question if I was getting it through my ties to the massage board I’m serving on or have been associated with in some other capacity.

A couple of years ago, the Airport Authority in my county had a similar situation, where sitting members who were privy to information jumped headlong into a position to make themselves a lot of money, to the exclusion of other citizens who may have been more qualified, and who at a minimum should have been offered the fair chance to bid on the scheme that was proposed at the time. The Board members who were accused had a rather unique way of handling the charges of unethical behavior that were leveled against them at the time: they voted to suspend all discussion of professional ethics for a period of six months. As you can imagine, I blistered them a new one in the local newspaper.

Anyone who serves on, or is associated with, a public board is sometimes faced with an opportunity to advance a personal agenda, or their personal finances, through their access to insider information. It’s a potential abuse of power when that happens, and it ought to be called into question. If it turns out that no wrong-doing has been done, well and good. Most of the time, if the person in question acts to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, they’ll have to pass on that opportunity, if good conscience and common sense prevails. Board members violating their own rules and/or their own code of ethical behavior is never a good thing. It will almost always come to light, and not in a good way.

Peace & Prosperity,

Laura Allen

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