Free Willie: An Environmental Studies Class Fights for Fontenot

In today’s terror-fighting climate, do students and teachers still have the right to take field trips on public property? Thirteen students, two teachers and Willie Fontenot may learn that answer the hard way. Fontenot, the long-time environmental justice advocate working for the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, claims he was forced out of his job April 5 by Attorney General Charles C. Foti, Jr. Fontenot’s supposed “crime” was assisting the students and faculty who were part of an Antioch New England (ANE) Graduate School’s field course studying environmental justice issues in Louisiana. The students’ only “crime” was standing on a public sidewalk as part of their research and taking pictures of an ExxonMobil petrochemical facility in Baton Rouge.

Field trip escort Willie Fontenot (in blue jacket) being interrogated by police outside a Louisiana chemical plant.© Stephen C. Kowal

Within two minutes of my students taking their photos, off-duty police officials working for ExxonMobil detained the ANE field class and our tour guide, Fontenot, for over an hour. These corporate security guards first claimed that taking pictures of any industrial facility in America is illegal. When Fontenot pointed out that this was not true, the guards then claimed that three of the students had crossed the street and trespassed on ExxonMobil property. Fontenot explained that this was not true either. Then, the off-duty police started yelling and threatened the study group with a full “Homeland Security” investigation that would keep them detained all night.

After a 90-minute detention, the ExxonMobil officials finally relented and let Fontenot and the field studies class go. Yet, the next day, these same two security guards, now on-duty as official police officers, filed a complaint about the students with the U.S. Coast Guard and filed a complaint with Attorney General Foti about Fontenot’s soft-spoken, but firm support of the legal rights of the students. One week after the study trip was over, the U.S. Coast Guard called ANE and interrogated me as one of the two faculty members leading the trip.

After our conversation, the investigator said the matter was now closed and thanked me for my time.Yet, less than a week later the Attorney General weighted in on the “police” complaint against Fontenot. On Monday, April 4, according to Fontenot, one of Attorney General Foti’s assistants called him into his office and gave Fontenot the choice of retiring the next day or facing the prospect of being fired and losing his benefits. A 62-year-old family man with health problems, Fontenot says he reluctantly took the “retirement” option after 27 years of acclaimed public service in the Attorney General’s Office.

Upon hearing of Fontenot’s forced dismissal, students and faculty members from ANE’s Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program explored what to do in response. We didn’t want to say, “how sad,” and let the matter drop. Fontenot had helped us plan the 10-day field studies trip to Louisiana’s Cancer Alley—the 90 mile strip of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that houses more than 150 oil refineries and petrochemical plants and some of the worst public health conditions in the United States.

Fontenot had also visited our campus in New Hampshire before our trip and gave a public talk about his unique job aiding citizen groups to hold government agencies and polluting corporations accountable. He also traveled with us for a few days during our trip as our tour guide—something Fontenot has done dozens of times with other groups as part of his job.

An Antioch New England Graduate School student snaps a quick picture of the plant, drawing the ire of law enforcement.© Stephen C. Kowal

We quickly agreed to launch a national campaign to get Fontenot his job back and expose what we considered ExxonMobil’s and the Attorney General’s abuse of power under the guise of “Homeland Security.” We first had ANE send out a press release defending Fontenot against the charges made by Kris Wartelle, the Attorney General’s public relations officer. This got good coverage for Fontenot’s case in the Baton Rouge Advocate.

We also created an information packet that the Louisiana Environmental Action Network sent out to the individual members of the Network’s more than 100 member organizations. We then sent out this information packet everywhere we could think of nationally on the Internet and started calling national organizations to encourage them to join the campaign.

Since then, hundreds of students, academics, labor activists, environmentalists and concerned citizens have written the Louisiana Attorney General urging him to rehire Fontenot immediately. Former Attorney General William Guste, the man who originally hired Fontenot and resisted several corporate attempts to get him fired, also called Attorney General Foti and urged him to rehire Willie immediately. A leader of the state AFL-CIO also met with Foti and urged him to rehire Fontenot. An executive from the Shintech Corporation even described the Attorney General’s alleged forced dismissal of Fontenot as shameful. Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, also made a strong public statement in support of Fontenot and his 27 years of public service on behalf of the land and people of Louisiana.

In the face of this publicity and public outcry, Attorney General Foti reached out to Marylee Orr of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and asked for her help in setting up a meeting with Fontenot. Foti and Fontenot met for the first time on April 27. According to Fontenot, in that meeting, the Attorney General asked several questions, denied personal involvement in the decision to force him to retire, and floated some hypothetical ideas about bringing Fontenot back to work for the agency. Foti also asked Fontenot to meet with him again in mid-July to see if they could hammer out a final agreement about his employment status.

Kris Wartelle has now also backed away from the criticism of Fontenot in her first public statements on the issue. In a May 15 New Orleans radio news show, Wartelle praised Fontenot as an exemplary public servant and expressed hope that the ongoing discussions could resolve the controversy. Wartelle also said that her boss is now committed to expanding the staff and resources available to the environmental citizen protection division of the Attorney General’s Office.

This ExxonMobil facility is at the heart of a controversy surrounding the Louisiana Attorney General's Office.© Stephen C. Kowal

The public campaign to get the Attorney General to rehire Willie has intensified. On May 16, the national environmental organization Clean Water Action sent out an e-mail alert to its membership and generated more than 1,000 messages to Attorney General Foti in a single week. The Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the Mississippi River Basin Alliance and Friends of the Earth are also busy preparing e-mail action alerts to their members.

On May 20, Sally Hillsman, the executive officer of the American Sociological Association, also sent an open letter to Louisiana Attorney General Foti on behalf of the entire ASA. She wrote, “The Association’s concern with academic freedom extends to individualrights of due process and legitimate grievances that play an importantrole in protecting our freedom to learn, teach and research.“This June, the American Public Health Association gave Fontenot a national award at its upcoming annual convention in New Orleans before an audience of 13,000 public health officials and advocates from all across the country.

All of us involved in this campaign are hopeful that this outpouring of public support for Willie Fontenot will encourage Atto

rney General Foti to rehire him in the very near future. Yet, Marylee Orr, the director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, and ANE’s Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program have also devised a “Plan B” in case the Attorney General decides not to take the high road. We are creating a Willie Fontenot Support Fund that has already raised more than $12,000 in pledges to help offset his lost wages. Checks from all over the country have come into my office in the last 10 weeks—in amounts ranging from $25 to $300, and now totaling $2,500.

Organizations like Antioch New England’s Environmental Advocacy Program, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Clean Water Action, and the Louisiana Labor to Neighbor Project have each pledged $1,000 to $2,000 to the fund from their budgets. The Delta Chapter (Louisiana) of the Sierra Club also pledged $5,000 to the fund and has requested that the Club’s national board match the state chapter’s contribution. Several of these organizations have also agreed to contact their major funding sources to raise additional monies for the support fund if needed.

[Editors’ note: Spokesperson Kris Wartelle of the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office denies that an ultimatum was ever given to Fontenot, and says she doesn’t know why he announced his retirement. Wartelle says leading tours of refineries was actually not part of Fontenot’s job with the Attorney General’s Office, and appears to be something he did “on the side” as either a volunteer or a consultant, although he may have led such tours during his work hours. According to Wartelle, “The Attorney General wants to work with Willie and see it all work out well, but doesn’t appreciate discussion in the media of the details of whether they’ll meet or what they talk about. Those are private issues that have to do with Willie’s employment, and we are prohibited by law from talking about ongoing personnel matters.”

Wartelle says an internal investigation is underway on Willie Fontenot—including on what arrangements, if any, he might have had with past Attorney Generals to lead tours. “He was well respected and liked, and we hope this can be resolved,” she says. “This situation is not even close to what these groups have blown it up to be.”]

Steve Chase co-led the “Environmental Justice in the Mississippi Delta” field studies trip to Louisiana this past March and is the director of Antioch New England’s Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program. For more information on the campaign to defend Willie Fontenot, you can write Steve at steven_chase@antiochne.edu.

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