Last week, former deputy director of the Louisiana State University (LSU) Hurricane Center filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in state court against the flagship university.
Flanked by big name supporters, Dr. Ivor van Heerden held a press conference in New Orleans. Notables included John Barry (author Rising Tide), Harry Shearer (actor, filmmaker), Oliver Houck (Tulane University law professor), Mtangulizi Sanyika (African American Leadership Project), and Jed Horne (author Breach of Faith).
l to r. Ivor van Heerden, Marc Levitan, John Barry, Oliver Houck and Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika take part in a pre-press conference huddle. Photo by Sandy Rosenthal
Van Heerden alleges in a 32-page suit that LSU officials waged a campaign of retaliatory harassment against him after his Investigative Team looked into levee failures after Hurricane Katrina. The expert team concluded that the Army Corps of Engineers failed to properly safeguard metropolitan New Orleans.
Louisiana State University receives large federal grants from the Corps.
The lawsuit's outcome will be important in the protection of academic freedom. Administrators set dangerous precedent when they remove faculty for expressing concerns about a government entity, especially when those concerns are about citizen safety. The lawsuit will also draw attention to similar issues in the civil engineering profession.
In early 2006, when it became apparent that the Corps -- the entity that designed and built the levees -- was largely and directly responsible for the catastrophic flooding, the Corps and its consultancy communities sprang to damage control. The Corps spent, and continues to spend, millions of taxpayer dollars on public relations consultants to improve the Corps' image and repair its reputation.
At the same time, the civil engineering profession in south Louisiana was swimming in emergency federal funding to restore the region's levees. But it was understood that permission to feed at this federal trough required giving respect to the New Orleans Corps District. It also meant helping the Corps drive critics out of town or out of business. Those who were proficient at criticizing the Corps found themselves marginalized, vilified or worse. Here are just a few examples:
As revealed in a 42-page ethics complaint, a high ranking Corps official Paul Mlakar prevented Dr. Ray Seed (University of CA Berkeley), co-chair of the Independent Levee Investigation Team from talking to the press about his findings.
The Corps awarded a grant to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) to travel the country giving powerpoints to gullible young engineering students and others. Caught on tape, the narrators minimized the Corps' role in the flooding while exaggerating the strength of Katrina, the region's vulnerability, and the role of the locals.
The ASCE even threatened to sue a bunch of high school kids and a non-profit in New Orleans for creating a spoof of the Corps' overly cozy relationship with the ASCE. (The society became an overnight laughing stock, and quickly retracted its threat after a half dozen law firms offered pro bono representation.)
l to r. John Barry, Sandy Rosenthal and Harry Shearer at Feb 10, 2010 press conference. Thank you atty Jill Craft for taking the photo.
Protecting academic freedom and preserving ethical civil engineering are this lawsuit's issues. At a minimum, discovery could reveal and make public that the leading hurricane scientists in the state of Louisiana were intimidated and then fired by LSU at the command of the Corps of Engineers. Many will follow this suit closely.
And today, many are grateful to Dr. van Heerden for his courage to represent the people who have been silenced in fear of losing their jobs.