Media Investigation incites debate on legislative scholarships: Recipients respond to allegations of improperly issued scholarships

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When Tulane University became a private institution in the 1880s, the state legislature and the university struck a deal: According to Act 43 of 1884, every Louisiana state senator and representative could grant one student a full-tuition scholarship to Tulane, and in exchange, Tulane could use the scholarships as a tax write-off on commercial properties worth up to $5 million.

There are restrictions, however, as to which students legislators may award their scholarship. According to the Office of Tulane Admissions, any student who is a graduate of a Louisiana high school and is a resident of Louisiana may apply for a legislative scholarship. Applicants must be admitted to an undergraduate division of Tulane as a full-time, degree-seeking student to be eligible.

Legislators allocate 144 scholarships to Louisiana students every year and can choose to renew the scholarship on a yearly basis. Though not required, legislators often choose to give their scholarship to the same student for all four of that student’s years at Tulane.

In 1995, a scandal broke involving the politically, connected Reggie family in New Orleans that revealed that multiple generations of family members had received scholarships in exchange for political favors during a 30-year period. Despite efforts by lawmakers to eradicate the program following the scandal, the legislative scholarships have remained intact.

This year, 140 of the 144 legislative scholarships are filled.The other four remain vacant.In spite of previous reforms, however, new allegations of scholarship misappropriations surfaced earlier this month and have called the program’s legitimacy into question.

Political Gains

Though few state politicians have welcomed interviews questioning their awarding process, personal and professional relationships between the legislator and the awardee’s family have raised ethical questions in several instances.

Senior Alexandra Saizan, a former Hullabaloo advertisement layout editor, has received a legislative scholarship from state senator Jean-Paul J.Morrell for the last three years. Darrel Saizan, Alexandra’s father, is a consultant who has donated $2,000 to senator Morrell’s campaign since 2011, plus $1,000 to Morrell’s mother, New Orleans councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, and $1,000 to state Rep. Jared Brossett, a political ally of Morrell’s.

Saizan said she was unaware of any controversy regarding the scholarship program and declined to comment further on her father’s relationship to Morrell.

Junior Reagan Reed received his first legislative scholarship in the fall of 2012 from state representative Harold Ritchie, who represented the majority of Washington Parish, a district far smaller and poorer than Reed’s hometown of Covington, La. Reed’s father, Walter Reed, however, is the district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington parishes.

Sophomore Andrew Lemoine, The Hullabaloo’s online editor, received his scholarship from state representative Lowell Hazel. Lemoine’s father, Jay Lemoine, is the district attorney for Grant Parish, just north of Hazel’s home district.

State Rep. Helena Moreno has awarded her scholarship to junior Collin Buisson since 2011. Buisson’s father, Greg Buisson, serves as Moreno’s political consultant, handling her campaign and office communications since 2008.

The Louisiana State Ethics Board, which previously issued an evaluation on the legislative scholarships in 1993 following previous allegations, said in a statement that it had not received any formal requests for evaluations and could not comment on possible complaints filed with the board.

Athletic Edge

The legislative scholarship also requires the recipient to have an ACT score of at least 28 or an SAT score of 1870 and be in the top quarter of his or her class, as well as gain acceptance into the university prior to applying for the scholarship program. Athletic ability or prior experience playing in a high-ranking high school team are not stated factors in scholarship considerations.

In a previous interview with The Advocate published Oct. 24, Tulane Executive Vice President Yvette Jones said only nine student-athletes received a legislative scholarship last year out of the 299 playing, and all nine students were walk-ons. MLB recruiting officials said, however, Tulane noted many of the walk-on baseball players as talented prospects long before they began playing for the university.

NCAA rules state that no more than 11 of the baseball team’s 38 players may receive athletic scholarships. Last year, seven additional legislative scholarships were awarded to walk-on Tulane baseball players for full tuition.

Brandon Boudreaux, who graduated last spring, started nearly every game for the four years he played at Tulane. David Napoli and Brennan Middleton were drafted by the Washington Nationals in June after both received legislative scholarships while playing at Tulane.

Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche said the issue of multiple athletes being awarded scholarships is worth looking into further.

“I think that’s something that merits additional investigation by Tulane,” Goyeneche said. “I think that’s beyond a coincidence. I don’t know if that’s Tulane’s doing or something done by the legislature, but it calls into question the culpability of Tulane in the matter.”

A representative from the NCAA said it could not confirm any ongoing investigation of Tulane’s scholarship practices and as a policy does not comment on formal complaints if or when it receives them.

Earning the Prize

Regardless of possible connections between representatives and these students, however, supporters of the scholarship program stress that many of these supposedly connected students are still the most qualified and deserving. Reed was the senior class president at his high school, Lemoine was a valedictorian heavily involved in sports and community service and Morrell said Saizan had high test scores.

“I am a recipient of the Legislative Scholarship, and I am related to an elected official, but just because a student is related to an elected official does not mean that he or she does not deserve what they’ve worked hard for years to earn,” Lemoine said. “My personal relationship to a public official didn’t have anything to do with my personal accomplishments, so it shouldn’t prevent me from attending Tulane University on a legislative scholarship.”

Junior Jacob Theriot, another recipient, said the scholarship is what allowed him, like many others, to attend such a high-caliber institution.

“If I hadn’t gotten that scholarship, I would have gone to [Louisiana State University],” Theriot said. “My father’s a teacher, and my mother’s the director of a battered women’s and children’s shelter. Paying for [Tulane’s tuition costs] wouldn’t have been an option without this. I agree that there are kids here who have a scholarship who don’t need it, but with them are so many more who really do.”

Freshman Ethan Champagne said it took a lot of work for him to get to where he is now.

“I had been calling senators even before I applied,” Champagne said. “I had shown interest in the university early on. I had a lot of good extracurriculars, a lot of good service involvement with a lot of non-profits in Louisiana, a solid [grade-point average] and good test scores.”

Champagne, like Theriot, said the legislative scholarship program is the reason he can attend Tulane.

“I probably won’t be able to go to school here anymore [if the scholarships end]. Without it, my family couldn’t afford it,” Champagne said.

Director of Admissions Faye Tydlaska said it’s important to remember that every recipient must still pass Tulane’s standards to gain admission before applying for this scholarship.

“The student does have to be admitted, which is not easy,” Tydlaska said. “You still have to be an academically, motivated student, and when we review applications just for admissions, we don’t know that [you] may be considered for a legislative scholarship.”

Drawing Board

“Legislators are tasked with passing laws for the state of Louisiana,” Goyeneche said. “It is not in Louisiana’s best interest, Tulane’s best interest or the people’s best interest to have our politicians involved in the scholarship business.”

Following the changes made to the process in the mid-1990s, students must sign a waiver and declare any relationships between themselves and the representative. There are no restrictions, however, that prevent legislators from awarding their scholarships to children of their contributors or political friends.

Senator Dan Claitor said it is this potential for abuse that has prompted him to draft legislation to end the scholarships for good. The bill is scheduled to enter the Louisiana Senate in March of next year.

If the bill passes, students who are currently studying at Tulane with one of these scholarships would lose coverage to their full-tuition check. Claitor said that the legislature would make arrangements for the students to help them complete their undergraduate studies.

“I don’t expect that there would be a strong desire to pull it from anybody that presently has it,” Claitor said. “More likely than not, I would expect there to be some movement to phase it out over a period of time. If that’s what it takes to be successful, then I would certainly have to consider that.”

Some critics of the current program, however, do not see the complete dissolution of the scholarships as the right choice.

Sophomore Ryan Poche, a legislative scholarship recipient, said that scrapping the program would send Louisiana students elsewhere.

“If this scholarship goes out the window, these Louisiana students are either headed to LSU or out of state, and Louisiana’s best and brightest leave forever,” Poche said. “You can’t abolish it because the opportunity [that the scholarships have] provided these students from Louisiana is unfathomable.”

Tydlaska said bringing Louisiana students to Tulane is and must remain a priority of the admissions office.

“Anyone who comes to school here understands that we don’t exist in a vacuum,” Tydlaska said. “We’re part of a community, and that community helps sustain us. We have a responsibility to the community around us and the state that supports us to make sure we are educating our own students, and hopefully get them to stay in-state once they graduate so that all this brain power can stay local.”

If the bill to repeal Act 43 of 1884 does not pass, however, Claitor said he plans to draft another bill that will allow restrictions on who can receive the scholarships.

Goyeneche said he believes any attempt to revise the program must include specific restrictions to political supporters and associates.

“If the legislature is going to introduce reforms, they need specific rules regarding campaign donations, as well as business relationships,” Goyeneche said. “In many instances, it’s just common sense and integrity that needs to be applied to the process.”

Claitor said he agreed with Goyeneche’s point, adding that the second plan would hit upon a broader group of people who shouldn’t ethically receive these scholarships.

“If it doesn’t pass, then I would look to advance another bill that would ensure that politicians don’t give [the scholarship] to their campaign manager or their contributors or any number of other restrictions as far as what ordinary people would think to be improper,” Claitor said.

Sharon Courtney, Tulane vice president of government relations, said the university will be in continuous discussion with the state regarding possible changes to the program.

“The legislative scholarship program provides an important opportunity for more Louisiana students to attend Tulane University who otherwise could not,” Courtney said. “We will work with the legislature to decide how to move forward with the program. Our discussions with the legislature regarding this program are in the preliminary stages. We do not want to conjecture or comment about possible outcomes.”

Goyeneche said the worst part of this investigation is how it might affect the students caught in the middle simply trying to get an education.

“The actions of a few always tarnish the opportunities of the many,” Goyeneche said.

Poche said that regardless of instances of misuse he and his peers are at Tulane to gain a first-rate education.

“I can understand where [critics] are coming from, but if you pulled up [scholarship students’] resumes and looked at them, I’d venture to say that you wouldn’t be able to find more qualified students anywhere,” Poche said. “I really don’t think this is as black and white as people might think.”