Charity Hearing Behind Closed Doors

  In a process that continues to be marked by its lack of transparency and public participation, the dispute over how much FEMA owes Louisiana for damage done to Charity Hospital during Hurricane Katrina will go to binding arbitration on Monday, before a completely secret closed-door panel.

 A front-page Times-Picayune story reports that the three-judge arbitration panel will have a week-long hearing and then have 60 days or more to make their binding decision.

In a dispute that has yet to see a public hearing of any kind, it is outrageous that this hearing be conducted in secret.

State officials are depending on receiving the maximum amount of money for damages to be able to fund their increasingly expensive Lower Mid-City proposal. Just recently, LSU Vice Chancellor Fred Cerise admitted "If we don't get the money from FEMA, then we're going to have step back and say, 'OK, now what is the plan? What can we iron out?"As reported on this website and elsewhere, even if the state received the full $492 million, the project is still on shaky financial ground.

That this must-win dispute is happening in total secret raises many red flags.

"This is the way they make decision in North Korea – it's outrageous," said Jacques Morial of the Louisiana Justice Institute. How, Morial asked, can official justify closing a proceeding in which "all parties are public and only public dollars are at stake, and, it's an issue of great public interest."

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Sandra Stokes, executive vice chairwoman of the Foundation for Historical Louisiaina, also wrote to Stephen M. Daniels, the presiding judge in the arbitration case, pressing the public's "fundamental right to attend this hearing to better understand the decision of the arbitration panel as well a to inspire confidence in the integrity of the proceeding and ultimate outcome of this claim."

The state has maintained that Charity Hospital suffered more than 50 percent "storm-related" damage, which would require FEMA to pay for the full replacement cost of the hospital. However, it is now common knowledge that only the basement of the hospital took water and that cleanup crews and chemical teams had the first three floors patient-ready as early as three weeks after the storm. 

FEMA has only ever offered $150 million for damages and claimed the rest of the building had fallen in to disrepair as a result of faulty maintenance. This website obtained photographs of Charity Hospital taken after the cleanup, supporting up claims by members of the cleanup crew that the facility was ready to receive patients when state officials shuttered its doors. For instance, here's what the first floor Emergency Room looked like on September 21st, 2005, three weeks after the storm:

And here's what the first floor Emergency Room looked like nearly four years later, on June 1st, 2009 when Congressman Cao visited Charity Hospital:

We join the concerns of those outraged by the closed-door arbitration panel. It's hard to imagine how the public will have any confidence in the integrity of this decision going forward.