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Kennedy tactic questions Edwards' competence

Perhaps Republican Sen. John Kennedy’s attack on Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ criminal sentencing reform package contained more than one layer in a bid to challenge him in 2019.

In my most recent Baton Rouge Advocate column, I noted how criticisms Kennedy levied against measures championed by Edwards to reduce numbers and lengths of sentences of incarceration appealed to a law-and-order populist crowd. He did this in a way to suggest Edwards had put public safety at risk by reducing prison populations without putting in place enough resources to discourage recidivism, but more overtly by calling the Department of Corrections incompetent to handle the transition.

He made this charge by reminding of numerous black eyes suffered by DOC over the past few years. But he also lumped in the Department of Public Safety, increasingly in the spotlight for the nervy antics of its former commander Mike Edmonson. Apparently, investigators believe Edmonson engaged in corrupt behavior that escalated in brashness over time, ripping off taxpayers and winking at other favored individuals who did the same, even obstructing investigations.

DPS has next to nothing to do with DOC’s management of reform implementation. Yet by tying the two together, Kennedy plants a question into voters’ minds: how much responsibility does Edwards have for the incompetence that Kennedy perceives threatens bad consequences in dealing with the outcomes of sentencing reform (which had bipartisan support and across the ideological spectrum)?

On the surface, at the very least Edwards looks as if he tries to close the barn door after the horse got out. The look into Edmonson’s activities after his abrupt retirement, in the wake of an Advocate investigation over inconsistencies in DPS personnel’s authorized travel to a convention, came at Edwards’ request. And Edwards has had little to do with getting to the bottom of a series of DOC scandals, which began to blow up in the months before he took office, nor has he acted as more than a spectator as others took the lead in uncovering additional alleged malfeasance since.

Making matters look worse in this regard, Edwards only retained a single holdover from his predecessor’s cabinet – DOC Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, who presided throughout the period all of these scandals occurred. And he also kept on Edmonson, who with LeBlanc became virtually the only senior officials that remained from the previous administration.

Publicly, Edwards’ stated belief that LeBlanc had invaluable qualities to help oversee the reform process would justify keeping him around. More politically, LeBlanc’s good relations with Louisiana’s sheriffs, whose organization with some dissension endorsed Edwards, perhaps encouraged Edwards to keep LeBlanc on board.

The obvious smoke surrounding LeBlanc perhaps obscured that coming from Edmonson. As the ongoing investigation supposedly has revealed a long pattern of billing taxpayers’ inappropriately or double-dipping, surely Edwards had heard of such accusations, and other questionable actions. For example, in 2015 Edmonson travelled to Boston to watch his son run in the venerable Boston Marathon, but supposedly billed the state for the jaunt on the basis that he observed security procedures.

At worst, Edwards looks like a cross between a poor administrator and one who lets his allies have the run of the place to the detriment of the public. Imagine how opponents to Edwards’ reelection attempt so easily can tear into him on these matters.

In Edwards’ defending his choice of Edmonson by pleading ignorance, they could fault him for inadequate background checking as the reported behavior had occurred for years prior to his inauguration. And if Edwards claimed he needed LeBlanc so badly to see through reform despite the many instances of illegal behavior publicly known in DOC, they could start reeling off the policy’s beneficiaries freed early who committed crimes shortly after release as evidence of leadership failure, which they will say they could have predicted given the spotty management record of LeBlanc.

Kennedy already seems to have honed in on this with his call to Edwards to seriously consider suspending the reform program, as he listed such individuals. Add a few high-profile incidents where people imprisoned under the previous laws instead roam the community and commit crimes under probation, and this just fuels that argument.

As Kennedy has pointed out, Edwards has vulnerability perhaps on the reform issue, but most certainly more on the issue of managerial competence, specifically in tapping key subordinates. And every new revelation about Edmonson or new wrongdoing under LeBlanc’s watch will just reinforce negative impressions of Edwards.

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