Politicians' Offspring Get the Scholarships
Louisiana hayride? Regular folks are fed up. They say it's time to roll the money their way once in a while.
New Orleans, LA – June 20, 1993

Arrogant abuse of a century-old political perk has unleashed a surprising and sustained rage in Louisianans that has unnerved even the most powerful politicians.

"Tulanegate," as it's called in the local press, began a couple of weeks ago. It started when a printed graduation program at the private high school attended by New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy's son, Sidney II, listed the young man as a recipient of a four-year Tulane University scholarship. The scholarship, worth more than $70,000, had been awarded to him by none other than his dad.

Under an 1880 law, the city's mayor is allowed to award five such scholarships annually. Under an 1884 law, the state's 144 lawmakers also are allowed to offer tuition-free scholarships to Tulane.

Each state legislator can award a one-year scholarship annually. In exchange, Tulane is exempt from some taxes.

The problem is that the mayor and some lawmakers have routinely given their children — or the children of their pals — scholarships to the private and pricey university.

The routine political trilogy of deny, deflect and justify is not producing the generations-old, what-else-is-new shoulder-shrugging of a Louisiana populace dulled by the doings of some of its elected officials.

Higher education slashed

Perhaps it was that state legislators had just slashed more than $65.2 million from higher education. Or that Mr. Barthelemy's justification that his $90,000 annual salary is "not a whole lot of money" evoked incredulity in a state whose people are suffering through a decadelong economic depression. Or that one representative said he gave a scholarship to his son for three years because "everybody did it."

For more than two weeks, the public's outrage has continued to mount as the evening news programs and the morning paper add to the list of prominent politicians whose children have benefited. They include U.S. Sens. J. Bennett Johnston and John Breaux and three U.S. representatives. City Councilman Johnny Jackson even gave himself a Tulane scholarship back when he was a state representative.

"I've never seen a reaction like this," says author John Maginnis. "The sort of unspoken deal that Louisianans have struck with their elected officials, their kings — after all, this is Louisiana — has historically been, 'Just take care of us, and don't be too big a pig with the perks.' Reform is in the air."

Alexis Klock has observed this mess from a peculiar vantage point. Ms. Klock, 21, was awarded a one-year $17,000 scholarship last year by her Metairie representative, David Vitter. Just after Mr. Vitter took office in 1991, he was told he could award a scholarship to Tulane, his alma mater.

He took it seriously

Unlike some colleagues, Mr. Vitter took his appointment seriously, meeting with Tulane officials, setting criteria and winnowing his list of candidates down to Ms. Klock, an A student who's the daughter of a public school teacher and a state social worker. Mr. Vitter now has filed formal charges against Mr. Barthelemy with the state ethics commission.

"We were shocked that she got it," says Sandy Klock, Alexis's mother, "because we knew about the scholarship, but we weren't related to any politicians and we certainly didn't have any pull and we'd always understood . . . they went to people who knew people in power.

"We are middle-class people who have done what others have done: sacrificed and saved to give their child the best education," Mrs. Klock said. "I think that's why this has hit like it has. People are fed up with business as usual."

Her daughter, who enters Tulane Medical School this fall, says, "I think things will change now because people realize how unfair this has been and that there are students who really need and deserve these scholarships."

Tulane President Eamon Kelly says he has been trying to reform the scholarship system for nearly a decade. In 1986, at his urging, higher academic standards were set for legislative awards.

But, he says, the mayor has rebuffed his attempts to raise the academic standards of the four-year scholarships. Dr. Kelly says he all but gave up when, a few years ago, one legislator sued Tulane after the administration tried to reject an unqualified recipient.

Now Dr. Kelly says the school may end the scholarship program unless it is changed to a "true competitive program based on academic excellence and financial need."

But it is Mr. Barthelemy who continues to be the primary focus of the public's anger even though he has announced his son will not attend Tulane after all.

One city resident suggested in a letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune that Mr. Barthelemy award himself a scholarship for a course in ethics.

As serious a scandal as this is, it is still a Louisiana-style scandal, fodder for humor.

State Rep. Raymond "La La" Lalonde of Sunset has joked that Tulanegate doesn't affect him because students must be "pretty smart" to meet the university's standards. That alone, he said, disqualifies his relatives.

Copyright 1993, The Atlanta Journal and
The Atlanta Constitution

From: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 20, 1993, p. A-3.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

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