Ivor van Heerden - the independent expert who spoke out for residents harmed in the 2005 flood during Katrina - was scheduled to get his day in court starting on February 19th.
Author of The Storm and state-appointed leader of a post-Katrina levee investigation, Dr. van Heerden concluded that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is primarily to blame for the catastrophic flooding. And for that, he alleges in his lawsuit, LSU officials intimidated him and ultimately fired him because they feared he was putting the university's chances of receiving federal funding in jeopardy.
LSU receives significant federal grants from the federal government including the Army Corps.
But on the eve of the Mardi Gras Festival, we received word from Dr. van Heerden that an out-of-court settlement had been reached. No details were available at this writing, and we doubt there will be many.
And while we would not wish the hardship of a federal jury trial on anyone, the eleventh hour dismissal means there may be no arena to discuss some extremely important issues. If what van Heerden had to say was not contested, it would have revealed just how much power the corps wields when it comes to muzzling those who criticize the agency.
Just last week, Garret Graves, chair of the state agency working in partnership with corps, excoriated the federal agency and its "rogue attorneys." Graves, who oversees the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in Washington DC that the state and local sponsors working with the corps are essentially powerless bystanders. Graves testified,
"...Under the current terms of the Corps' Project Partnership Agreements, the corps retains "exclusive control" over key terms of these agreements, in addition to general immunity, while the non-federal sponsor's role is largely reduced to that of a bystander -- hardly that of a "partner...."
We all recall that after Katrina, corps spokespersons insisted the local levee boards and environmentalists "forced them" to build an inferior levee system. But the fact is, according to Graves, the corps enjoys a unilateral power that no other federal agency has, both before Katrina and today.
Dr. van Heerden was the first to report what - bit by bit, study by study - would eventually become common knowledge, namely that the Army Corps is overwhelmingly and primarily responsible for the flooding during Katrina.
But also at the heart of the van Heerden trial was the issue of academic freedom.
A 30-page report prepared by the American Association of University Professionals (AAUP) in August 2011 revealed that LSU had a 'prevailing position' on the cause of the flooding and that Dr. van Heerden's research and public stance ran contrary to that "position."
In November 2005, Vice Chancellor Michael Ruffner wrote,
"...LSU will engage in helping with [the] recovery of Louisiana, not in pointing blame. The chancellor has begun initiatives toward this goal, and it would not be useful to have the university associated, intentionally or not, with efforts aimed at causation."
The AAUP report observed that the Chancellor attributed the deaths and destruction to a "natural disaster."
Marcia Cooke, an adjunct math professor at Loyola University and a high school math teacher was surprised to hear that LSU had a 'prevailing position' at all. She felt that it should be the opposite, that a university should be the arena where ideas are discussed, debated and researched.
"That remark both surprised and confused me, said Ms. Cooke. "I didn't think a state university had a job to promote a 'prevailing position.' That is a dangerous idea to society and is contrary to my notion of institutes of higher learning."
Preparation for the upcoming trial has been a long difficult journey for Dr. van Heerden who first announced his decision to file lawsuit in April of 2010. After all that he and his family have been through, we are happy the ordeal for them is over.
However, we are also disappointed. We suspect that LSU will insist that van Heerden no longer discuss any details of his allegations against the corps and LSU. And we fear that this particular chapter of the corps' alleged exercise of its power, and the shenanigans at LSU, may never get the light of day it deserves.