Though the gubernatorial runoff election is over, a state legislative committee today called the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to a hearing to answer questions raised in a negative campaign ad aired by Eddie Rispone’s team in the final weeks of the campaign.
The controversial ad, which was ordered off the airwaves three days before the election by a New Orleans judge, falsely accused the CPRA of showing political favoritism toward a longtime friend and former West Point roommate of Gov. John Bel Edwards during the bid process for a $65 million marsh recreation project.
Edwards’ friend, Dallas-based environmental contractor Murray Starkel, was one of four finalists for the contract. But the CPRA ultimately threw out all four bids because they were too expensive—not that Starkel was poised to win the job anyway. His firm finished third in the field of four.
Still, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, said several lawmakers wanted to hear from the CPRA leadership on the issue, which was why he called this morning’s hearing at the State Capitol.
CPRA Board Chairman Chip Kline and Executive Director Bren Haase answered questions, explaining the process they used and why this project, in particular, was different than others. It was the first to use an alternative delivery method called performance-based contracting, which costs slightly more but shifts all the burden and risk to the private sector contractor that wins the bid.
Lawmakers approved the use of performance-based contracting for marsh restoration projects during the 2017 session, in large part to get coastal projects moving more quickly.
Following 30 minutes or so of questioning today, lawmakers seemed satisfied nothing untoward had gone on at the CPRA earlier this year with respect to the contract. Several committee members even sprang to the defense of the agency.
“I cannot tell you how upsetting it has been to impugn the integrity of this organization,” said Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, R-Houma, a former CPRA board chairman. “It’s frustrating we’re even here today, and it’s beyond the pale that for a cheap political point to be scored, somehow the integrity and good work this agency is doing is somehow being maligned.”
Added Rep. Melinda White, D-Bogalusa: “I would say the election is over. Let’s button it up and move forward.”
Following the hearing, Kline said he is optimistic the CPRA has put the issue behind it.
“I think we were able to correct the record and let the public and committee know there was no contract awarded to Mr. Starkel’s firm or any firm,” he said.
But Kline said the CPRA is committed to making performance-based contracting work. The agency is currently looking at ways to revise the bid specs for the marsh recreation project in hopes that it will lower the cost.