This article was produced in partnership with The Advocate, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
Gordy Dove has begged Uber and Lyft to make their ride-sharing services available in Terrebonne Parish, where he serves as parish president.
The sprawling coastal parish of 112,000 people is not easily walkable, and Dove worries about how students at colleges in the area will get home from the bars after they’ve had a few drinks.
But the big ride-sharing companies aren’t coming to places like Houma, the parish’s biggest city, or many other parts of Louisiana anytime soon. That’s because Louisiana does not have legislation in place allowing them to operate. The state is one of only five that lacks such a law, instead requiring the companies to go through the costly and time-intensive process of getting approval in each locality.
A bill to change that has garnered widespread and bipartisan support. It was backed by the governor, a Democrat, and sponsored by the House speaker, a Republican. It had 56 co-sponsors from both parties — nearly 40 percent of the state’s lawmakers — in both chambers and from all corners of the state. It was favored by the potent Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and other economic development groups.
But the bill is not going anywhere, thanks to one man, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.
The powerful politician twice used parliamentary maneuvers this year to sideline the bill.
More than a dozen legislators, lobbyists and Capitol staff pointed to Alario’s close personal, professional and political alliance with former Sen. Francis Heitmeier, who makes a living selling insurance to cab companies and lobbied against the ride-sharing bill.
The cab industry was one of the few opponents of the bill.
In interviews with The Advocate, the legislators, lobbyists and Capitol staff said they didn’t want to speak about Alario on the record for fear of antagonizing the most powerful man in the Legislature, who has more say over what becomes law in Louisiana — and what doesn’t — than any other person, except perhaps the governor.
Those willing to speak publicly hinted at Alario’s influence on the bill but stopped short of using his name.
“There’s one really important person who’s just not on board,” said Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, a frustrated proponent of the bill. Asked if that person was Alario, Magee said he didn’t want to answer the question.
This year, The Advocate is partnering with ProPublica to investigate conflicts of interest in the Louisiana Legislature. The news organizations have shown how legislators routinely sponsor, speak on behalf of and vote for bills that benefit their own businesses or help their relatives and clients. Another story illustrated how financial disclosure reporting is so poorly policed in Louisiana that lawmakers can easily hide how they earn their income — even when the source is public money.
Alario, in an interview, said that he had not taken a position on the ride-sharing bill and that his actions were not motivated by a desire to kill it. He said he and Heitmeier may have “talked about it in passing,” but their friendship had no impact on his actions.
“Francis is a dear friend of mine, but that would not sway me. I have friends on all sides, a whole slew of lobbyists that I’m friends with,” Alario said. “Sometimes I’m on the same side as them and sometimes I’m not.”
He said he believes the accusations stem from people who are unhappy that the bill died.
Heitmeier said in an email that his opposition to the bill “has always been a case of public safety.”
Proponents of the failed ride-sharing bill say it makes no sense that Louisiana, which depends on tourism but lacks reliable public transportation, would reject a bill designed to allow ride-sharing. Lyft called the political landscape in Louisiana “tough” but said it would keep trying to bring service to the state. Uber has been careful not to blame players by name, but it is getting close.
“The personal allegiances of a few powerful people shouldn’t obstruct the ability of Louisianians to earn flexible income and get a reliable ride,” Uber spokeswoman Evangeline George said.
Pearson Cross, a political science professor and an associate dean at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the situation illustrates the way business is conducted in Louisiana and every other state legislature.
“It seems clear that personalities, interests and webs of influence matter a great deal to what does and what does not get passed by the state legislature,” he said, adding that legislators are within their legal and ethical rights, per state law.
Sent to a Committee “So It Could Be Killed”
The bill, which would have legalized ride-sharing and outlined uniform regulations for drivers, was sponsored by House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia. Such high-profile backing was meant to ensure its passage.
“We thought we could neutralize the Senate with having the speaker’s name on it, thinking they wouldn’t quite put up the opposition,” said Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, who sponsored the bill in 2017, when it also was killed.
But after the bill easily passed the House 97 to 1 in April, Alario used a parliamentary maneuver that doomed the bill from the start.
The bill’s sponsors and other supporters wanted it to be heard in the Senate transportation committee, where it would have passed easily, according to the committee chairman Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette. However, in April, Alario assigned it to the committee known as Judiciary A, which typically handles bills concerning criminal justice and civil law and procedure.
Barras found the move confusing.
“I assigned it to House Transportation for that very reason. It’s a transportation company asking to do business in the state; that would have been a logical assignment to me,” he said in an interview.
But the Judiciary A committee also happens to have several members who oppose the bill.
Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, a member of Judiciary A who supported the bill, said he thought the assignment was strategic. “I think it was sent to Judiciary A so it could be killed,” he said.
Asked about the assignment, Alario said it was “the proper subject matter” for Judiciary A without elaborating. He added that he was unsurprised that Barras, the bill’s sponsor, wanted it to be assigned to a committee where it had an easier path to victory.
In 2017, when Alario assigned a similar ride-sharing bill to the same committee, Havard, the House author, withdrew it before debate, sensing it was dead.
In the committee this year, the bill faced tough questioning from Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, an ardent defender of the taxi industry who has been open about his distaste for companies like Uber and Lyft.
“For those of you who are cab drivers, I have led the charge to stop what they are trying to do to you with the Uber and Lyft people,” he said in 2017 while stumping for a seat on the Jefferson Parish Council, a race he ultimately lost.
During the committee hearing, Martiny sometimes angrily questioned Uber and Lyft representatives about what he said was the lax way in which their companies are regulated in other states, and how they were proposing to be regulated in Louisiana. He also questioned why the bill called for the state Agriculture Department to oversee ride-sharing, rather than the Public Service Commission.
Martiny had an ally in Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, who works with a law firm that represents 50 taxicab drivers and companies that sued Uber in March, saying the ride-sharing firm’s aim was ”to unfairly compete, crowd the market and eliminate competition.”
Bishop is “of counsel” to attorney Ira Middleberg’s law firm, meaning he is not directly employed by the firm but has a close relationship with its lawyers. The status is sometimes used for high-profile attorneys, such as politicians, who serve as rainmakers. Bishop’s connection to Middleberg was first reported this summer by WVUE-TV.
In the end, Martiny and Bishop were the only two members of Judiciary A to express concerns about the bill. But that was enough: Three members didn’t show up to the debate. One said he doesn’t remember why he was unable to attend. Two said they were presenting bills in a different committee. And two others, Donahue and the committee chairman, Sen. Rick Ward, said they would have supported the bill.
The vote would have been 2-2, meaning the bill would fail. Before a vote could be taken, Barras, recognizing defeat, withdrew it.
Alario watched from the back of the room, a rare appearance by the Senate president at a routine committee hearing.
In an interview, Alario said he could not recall why he was at the hearing.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I could have been looking for a senator to talk about a vote.”
Martiny declined comment. Bishop said he would not discuss his position on the bill but said his relationship with the Middleberg firm does not impact his votes on legislation.
Middleberg referred questions to public-relations specialist Todd Ragusa, who said that Bishop was not involved in the Uber suit and that no one from the firm discussed the bill with any lawmakers.
“This Is Not a Common Practice”
Even though Barras pulled the bill, it wasn’t dead yet.
On the final day of this summer’s regular session, House lawmakers attached the bill as an amendment to less-controversial transportation legislation. By doing so, they felt they were giving the measure new hope by circumventing a committee vote.
But when the bill moved from the House to the Senate that day, Alario ruled that the amendment was not “germane” to the rest of the legislation, which dealt with how the Department of Transportation posts signs about construction and maintenance.
Alario’s decision broke with a long-standing tradition of accepting amendments appended and approved by the other chamber. It also meant the amendment would be stripped from the bill before it was put to a vote.
Cortez, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, noted the departure from practice. “Has it been tradition that Senate rules on germaneness of House amendments?” Cortez asked on the Senate floor.
Alario quickly responded: “We do on Senate bills.”
Such vigilance is not always exercised in the Legislature. Just last year, an amendment barring companies like Tesla, which sell cars directly to consumers, from operating in Louisiana was grafted awkwardly onto a bill that aimed to make it easier for law enforcement to purchase armored vehicles. Alario allowed the bill, which passed the Senate and was signed by the governor.
Senate spokeswoman Brenda Hodge acknowledged Alario’s handling of the Uber bill was a break from tradition.
“This is not a common practice and doesn’t happen often,” she said, though she added that Alario was also bound by another tradition to offer a ruling when asked by a member of the Senate.
Barras, the House speaker and sometimes an Alario ally, also called Alario’s intervention “unusual,” noting that under House custom, “the speaker will not rule on the germaneness of Senate amendments.”
In an interview, Alario said it was Barras’ prerogative to handle business in the House however he chooses, but he was unaware of such a tradition.
“If someone brings an issue before me as to rule on whether it’s germane, then it’s my job to offer an opinion,” he said, adding that the amendment “was so far off base it wasn’t even close.”
Alario’s decision handed a victory to Heitmeier, his longtime friend who led the lobbying effort to kill the bill.
Alario, Heitmeier, two of Heitmeier’s brothers and Middleberg, the attorney suing Uber, are officers in a corporation called S.N.D.V., which stands for Saturday Night in Death Valley. The firm, established in 1999, purchases suite tickets for LSU football games for use by its partners and friends, Alario said.
A spokesman for Middleberg said his involvement in S.N.D.V. was limited to helping the members file paperwork, though he is listed as a company officer. Alario also said he does not recall Middleberg attending games, though he said he and Heitmeier attend four or five a year together.
Today, Heitmeier sells insurance to cab companies in the New Orleans area through at least three companies that he either owns or sells insurance for: Imperial Fire and Casualty Insurance Company, Academy Consultants and Taxicab Insurance Store.
Heitmeier and Alario represented neighboring districts in both the House and Senate for 23 years, fighting for similar projects and bills. Both men were Democrats, but Alario switched to the Republican Party as Louisiana voters began changing their allegiances.
Heitmeier, who represented Algiers, left the Legislature in January 2008 because of term limits; his brother David ran for his seat and won. When Alario became Senate president, he assigned the newest Heitmeier a coveted committee chairmanship.
Francis Heitmeier wanted to lobby the Legislature, but he needed special dispensation to do so. State law bars any member of a lawmaker’s immediate family from becoming a lobbyist. But legislators carved out a special exemption in the state ethics code that applied only to an immediate family member who was registered as an executive branch lobbyist for one year prior to Jan. 9, 2012, a designation that its author said at the time referred to Heitmeier.
Alario voted for the change, which passed the Senate with the bare minimum number of votes required in 2014.
Known as a Master Negotiator
Alario is the longest-serving member of the Legislature. He’s widely acknowledged as a master negotiator and a clever parliamentarian, with a penchant for backroom dealing.
“I don’t disagree,” he said of that characterization, “but I don’t think that’s the only definition of my service. I would hope people would also find me to be the master of the front-room deal.”
But throughout the years, backroom deals have landed Alario in controversy. One memorable example came in the late 1990s, when a Jefferson Parish businessman accused Alario of playing a key role in killing a bill — one that Alario himself had authored. The episode prompted a complaint to the FBI.
At the time, Jim Ward was preparing to open the River Birch landfill in Jefferson Parish. Alario, then speaker of the House, filed a bill to block the landfill, saying his constituents didn’t want it.
Ward began meeting with lobbyist Dan Robin Sr., who was so close to Alario that he had his own desk in the speaker’s office and shared Alario’s secretary.
Robin promised Ward he would get his friend to kill the bill in exchange for a $50,000 fee and 4 percent of the landfill’s profits for 15 years — or roughly $10 million, according to transcripts of recordings later filed in a civil lawsuit filed by Ward against Robin.
Ward told authorities that he was being extorted, and he said FBI agents outfitted him with a wire, though the case never resulted in any charges.
Ward eventually sued Robin to free himself of his contractual agreement with Robin.
On the tapes, Robin described himself as Alario’s best friend, and he said that even though Alario would be making a public show of support for his bill to appease his constituents, he would help kill it — which would allow Ward to move forward with his landfill.
“So he don’t get in trouble with his constituents, he’ll tell me, I want you to kill it on that side,” Robin told Ward in the recordings, referring to the Senate, “and he’ll send word.”
Ultimately, the bill was killed and Ward was contractually bound to pay Robin, a state judge ruled.
Alario testified in that case that he had nothing to do with the bill’s demise and that he was trying his best to get it passed.
In a recent interview with The Advocate, Alario said Ward was trying to blame others because he was unhappy with the outcome, adding that “nothing came out of that discussion.”
Robin and Ward declined to comment.
Avoiding a Regulatory Patchwork
Currently, Louisiana’s largest cities have ride-sharing services, including New Orleans and most of its suburbs, plus Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Monroe and Shreveport. But hundreds of smaller and mid-sized cities and towns, such as Alexandria and Houma, have no access.
Uber and Lyft are eschewing new local markets, saying they want to avoid building a patchwork of disparate regulatory environments within the same state.
Under the existing framework, for instance, Baton Rouge drivers can’t work in New Orleans on a busy weekend to earn extra money, because New Orleans requires drivers to be screened. A statewide law would eliminate the regulatory disparities, but cities with built-in fees would be allowed to keep those.
While Lyft and Uber are wildly popular among consumers, they’ve also attracted ample controversy. Taxi drivers have accused them of unfair business practices. In some places — notably New York City, which established new limits on Uber this month — taxi drivers invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into medallions, whose number was limited by the government. Because of Lyft and Uber, their value has fallen precipitously.
However, other places have reported positive impacts.
Victor Silvio’s 24-year-old son Christopher was killed by a drunk driver five years ago. Now Silvio drives for both Uber and Lyft, hoping to keep people who’ve been drinking off the roads.
Four nights a week, he drives his Honda Ridgeline around Baton Rouge, oftentimes until 3 a.m., and he occasionally helps carry his inebriated passengers from his car to the door.
He said he’s driving in his son’s honor.
“It’s more of a service than it is a job,” Silvio said. “I don’t want to see any other families go through what my family went through. It was devastating.”
Magee, the representative from Houma, said Louisiana needs to catch up with the rest of the country. Alabama last month enacted new legislation opening up ride-sharing statewide, the last state in the South other than Louisiana to do so.
Magee said he plans to sponsor the bill next year, but he hinted that it might be easier two years later after Alario is term-limited out of the Senate.
“I’ll keep running this bill, and maybe we will have better luck in two years,” he said.