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Louisiana state government spent more than $150,000 on Cuba trip

Louisiana state government spent more than $150,000 on Cuba trip
By Julia O’Donoghue, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
on December 29, 2016 at 4:30 PM, updated December 30, 2016 at 11:23 AM

The Louisiana state government spent at least $150,134 on a five-day
trade mission in October to Cuba for Gov. John Bel Edwards, Agriculture
Commissioner Mike Strain and 20 other state workers, according to public
records obtained by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Of the total
expense, over 23 percent was for the governor’s security personnel.

Edwards, a Democrat, and Strain, a Republican, took the trip in part
because the GOP-dominated Legislature charged the Edwards administration
with strengthening the state’s relationship with Cuba. Lawmakers last
spring approved a resolution requiring the Economic Development agency
to “develop and improve trade relations with Cuba” and return with a
full report to lawmakers by February.

Louisiana is Cuba’s leading trade partner in the United States,
exporting about $1.4 billion worth of goods to the Caribbean country in
the past decade. If the federal government relaxes its restrictions on
trade with Cuba, it’s thought Louisiana could exponentially expand its
import and export business there, particularly in the agricultural sector.

While in Cuba, Edwards and other Louisiana officials signed agreements
with the Cuban government to expand the state’s trade relationship with
Cuba, if the federal government ever relaxes its policy toward the
country. “We have to find a way forward, and we need to work diligently
to increase trade,” Strain said in an interview last week.

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune obtained records of public spending on the
trip through public records requests to LSU and four state agencies. The
state government ended up paying travel bills for 22 state employees,
including the governor and agriculture commissioner. It also covered
expenses for the governor’s wife, Donna Edwards.

The cost of most state employees on the trip amounted to at least $5,275
each, according to the records. All employees on the trip, including
the governor, had their travel booked through Cuba Educational Travel
LLC. This covered a seat on the charter flight for the Louisiana
delegation, four nights at a hotel in Havana, breakfast and some other
meals, bilingual guides, transportation in Cuba and museum admissions,
among other things.

Some officials on the trip – including Strain and Transportation
Secretary Shawn Wilson – also had their tips, additional meals, taxi
fares and some of their parking fees at the New Orleans airport
reimbursed by state government. Those expenses – not submitted by every
person on the trip – ranged from $87 to $187 for the five-day period,
according to a review of public records.

The Louisiana government also gave out several hundred dollars worth of
small gifts – including pens, notebooks and coffee table books — in
Cuba. The items typically have a Louisiana seal on them and have been
used on a variety of economic development trips over the year. About 200
Spanish coloring books were also purchased to be distributed in Cuba,
according to public records.

Unelected state employees on the trip were three members of the
governor’s staff; three members of the Agriculture and Forestry
Department; four members of the Economic Development Department,
including Secretary Don Pierson, two members of the Department of
Transportation and Development including Secretary Wilson; former state
Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, from the Louisiana Offshore Terminal
Authority; two LSU professors and an LSU administrator.

The governor’s security staff accompanied him on the trip. When a
governor goes on a trade mission, it often drives up the expense
considerably. Edwards’ security personnel alone cost about $35,000 on
the Cuba venture, the largest single expense of the trip. About $13,600
of that bill was for paying state troopers’ overtime while abroad.

The Cuba trip was Edwards’ first trade mission since taking office in
January.

Previous governors also have racked up charges when they traveled abroad
on official business. The state spent $73,000 on former Gov. Bobby
Jindal’s security personnel when Jindal went on a trade mission to
Europe in 2015; about $36,500 of that bill was just for the troopers’
overtime.

This trip was supposed to demonstrate Louisiana’s seriousness in doing
business with Cuba, should the federal government loosen current
restrictions. In 2005, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, also
traveled for three days to Cuba to establish a relationship, but
Jindal, the Republican governor from 2008 through 2015, completely
avoided contact with the communist country.

Delegations from other states – Arkansas, New York, Missouri, Texas and
Virginia — also have traveled to Cuba, according to Louisiana’s
economic development staff. But the Edwards administration thinks the
Louisiana group enjoyed better access to high-level Cuban officials.

“We believe Louisiana is the only U.S. state to succeed in arranging
meetings with all of the top Cuban government ministries for which we
requested an audience,” Pierson said.

State employees weren’t the only people to accompany Edwards and Strain
on the October trip. Thirty-two people from the private sector and
Louisiana ports also attended. They, too, booked their trip through Cuba
Educational Travel, LLC for $5,275 per person and took the same charter
flight and stayed in the same hotels as the state employees. The state
government did not pay for their travel, according to the Edwards
administration.

The private sector representatives included people from Louisiana’s rice
industry and ports as well as The Water Institute of the Gulf, New
Orleans Zephyrs, Baton Rouge Area Foundation, CenturyLink and lobbyist
Randy Haynie. Two members of the news media also attended.

People attending Louisiana trade mission to Cuba in October 2016
Organization Last Name First Name
Office of the Governor Edwards John Bel
Office of the Governor Edwards Donna
Office of the Governor Scott Roderick
Office of the Governor Carbo Richard
Office of the Governor Monroe-Wesley Erin
LED – Louisiana Economic Development Pierson Don
LED – Louisiana Economic Development Collins Larry
LED – Louisiana Economic Development House Richard
LED – Louisiana Economic Development Marshall William
LED – Louisiana Economic Development Fournerat Lauren
LDAF – Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry Strain Mike
LDAF – Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry Strain* Susan
LDAF – Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry Simon Rene
LDAF – Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry Mosgrove Veronica
LDAF – Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry Ribera Michelle
Committee of 100 Olivier Michael
Committee of 100 Clark Tom “Verne”
Committee of 100 Schneckenburger Robert
Port of New Orleans Christian Brandy
Port of New Orleans Landry Robert
Port of New Orleans Kearney Michael
Port of Greater Baton Rouge Marionneaux Robert
Port of Greater Baton Rouge Hardman Jay “John”
Port of South Louisiana Aucoin Paul
Port of South Louisiana Robichaux Dave Paul
Port of Lake Charles Sanchez Walter
Port of Lake Charles Burckel Daryl
LSU – Louisiana State University Valsaraj Kalliat “KT”
LSU – Louisiana State University D’Elia Christopher
LSU – Louisiana State University Earle Jonathan
Louisiana Offshore Terminal Authority Adley Robert
Biehl Gonzalez Roy
Haynie & Associates Haynie Randy
Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson Newsome Saul
CenturyLink Koecher Derek
Roy O. Martin Byrd Bobby
Powell Group/Farmers Rice Milling Co. Lefort Ana
Kennedy Rice Kennedy William Elton
New Orleans Zephyrs Leger Walter
Waggonner & Ball Architects Waggonner Joseph David
FSE Energy Thibaut James “Jim”
FSE Energy Thibaut II James “Bo”
Baton Rouge Area Foundation Spain John
All Star Automotive McKay Matt
Engage Cuba Bryant Adelina
Engage Cuba Jorgensen Gabrielle
Engage Cuba Williams James
LDOTD – La Dept. of Transportation and Dev. Wilson Shawn
LDOTD – La Dept. of Transportation and Dev. Clark Tommy
Water Institute of the Gulf Speyrer Nick
The Advocate Crisp Elizabeth
WAFB Frey Kevin
*Commissioner Strain’s wife Susan attended the trip, but the couple paid
for her expenses personally. State government didn’t.

Nor was this the state’s first official trip to Cuba this year. Strain
lead an even larger delegation, of about 95 people, in July. The costs
of that trip haven’t been calculated, but it included Strain, one member
of his staff and four legislators – Sens. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, and
Sharon Hewitt, R-Chalmette, and Reps. Patrick Connick, R-Harvey, and
Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe. A couple of employees of the University of
Louisiana at Monroe also went on the trip. Appel said the state
government did not fund his travel. He paid for it out-of-pocket.

The July trip was supposed to lay the groundwork for the governor’s
visit three months later. It also included private sector
representatives from the Louisiana rice industry, the Farm Bureau
Federation, Cox Communications and former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu,
D-La., now a lobbyist in Washington with the Van Ness Feldman firm.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, has also gone to Cuba in trips separate
from the state delegations and is pushing in Congress to relax trade
restrictions with the country. But it’s not clear where the U.S. policy
toward Cuba is headed.

At the time that Edwards and Strain took their trip in October, it was
assumed Hillary Clinton would be elected president Nov. 8. Clinton was
expected to continue President Barack Obama’s trajectory on Cuba, by
relaxing restrictions on travel and trade.

President-elect Donald Trump threatened during the campaign to revert to
more restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba. He said he would undo
Obama’s warming of the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

In Louisiana, the push for a more open relationship with Cuba is
bipartisan, led by two Republicans — Strain and Abraham — in part
because of the opportunities it presents for Louisiana agricultural
industry. But not all Republicans in Louisiana are on board. U.S. Rep.
Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said in an interview last month that he
was “open” to the idea but still had concerns about human rights
violations in the country.

And House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Jefferson said in an interview
he was not interested in improving U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba
at all until that country addressed its human rights problems. Scalise
is not only the most powerful member of the Louisiana congressional
delegation but also the member with the best access to Trump.

Trump’s stated views on Cuba haven’t deterred Strain from pushing for a
relaxed relationship between the U.S. and the island country. Strain
went to the White House in both November and December to talk Cuba
relations, albeit with the Obama administration. The most recent meeting
took place Dec. 15. The trips were paid for by the National Association
of State Departments of Agriculture, which Strain leads.

Strain remains positive about the U.S.-Cuba relationship. He said the
next step is to have Cuban officials visit Louisiana. The 2017 New
Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival will highlight Cuban culture, so any
delegation would likely coincide with that event this spring, Strain said.

Edwards has not yet scheduled another trip abroad. In October, he said
he might consider a visit to France, where several other governors have
led delegations.

But state officials are certainly aware their communications might be
monitored. In emails released through the public records request, Wilson
warned about communicating over government email.

“Please do not use this email for personal communications as it is all
subject to public records laws,” Wilson wrote on Sept. 8.

. . . . . . .
Julia O’Donoghue is a state politics reporter based in Baton Rouge. She
can be reached at jodonoghue@nola.com or on Twitter at @jsodonoghue.
Please consider following us on Facebook at NOLA.com.

Source: Louisiana state government spent more than $150,000 on Cuba trip
| NOLA.com –
www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/12/john_bel_edwards_cuba_1.html

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