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Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry at the Jefferson Chamber annual meeting at the Alario Center in Westwego on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. (Photo by Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

The chief of staff for Gov. Jeff Landry has worked as a lobbyist for Pennington Biomedical Research Center, the institute that the governor has singled out to receive potentially millions of research dollars as part of the controversial proposed sale of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana.

Landry aide Kyle Ruckert, who also served as a campaign strategist for Landry’s gubernatorial bid last year, held the lobbying contract until late last year when his wife Lynnel took it over exclusively. The contract, which is for representation in Washington, pays $40,000 per year, according to federal filings.

The Ruckerts have represented Pennington Biomedical since 2020.

Landry’s ties to Kyle Ruckert, the couple’s work for Pennington, and the governor’s decision to tap Pennington exclusively have prompted criticism from people closely watching the sale. They point out that Landry’s decision means that Tulane, LSU and other higher education entities in the state cannot receive what could be a substantial amount of research dollars that aim to make Louisianans healthier.

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Lynnel Ruckert, left and her husband, Kyle Ruckert visit with US Representative Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, before The Louisiana Family Forum Legislative Awards Gala Thursday night.

“Reports that the governor’s chief of staff and wife have a financial lobbying relationship with Pennington should heighten scrutiny of this deal by legislators and policyholders,” said Melissa Flournoy, a former state legislator who chairs 10,000 Women, a statewide progressive advocacy group, and who believes that the Blue Cross sale would harm health care in Louisiana.

“The decision to invest only in research in Pennington is a short-term political decision when the universities across Louisiana are engaged in research on basic science, the development of community initiatives to improve health care.”

The governor’s office and Lynnel Ruckert both said they had not discussed the Pennington Biomedical decision beforehand.

“Pennington is a world-class research facility that is at the forefront of promoting health and eliminating disease,” Kate Kelly, the governor’s communications director, said in a text. “Lynnel Ruckert’s federal contract with Pennington has absolutely nothing to do with this potential new funding for the center. Frankly, both parties were surprised to learn of each other’s involvement.”

'This was a big deal to him’

At issue is whether Baton Rouge-based Pennington Biomedical should receive all of the research money to be spent by the foundation that would be created by the sale of Blue Cross to Indiana-based Elevance Health, a for-profit company that is one of the nation’s largest insurers. The foundation, Accelerate Louisiana Initiative, is expected to have $3 billion in assets if the sale is approved.

Landry confirmed on Tuesday that he insisted that Pennington Biomedical alone should receive the research money because he wanted it used in Louisiana’s workforce and not have it “sucked up” by higher education.

“This was a big deal to him, and we’ve done a lot of research and kind of know what to do about these chronic health problems,” said Tim Barfield, who chairs the foundation and has said he met with Landry to discuss the foundation both before and after his election last fall. “He wanted to make sure this money would be used in the best way for Louisiana.”

No one questions whether Pennington Biomedical, which is affiliated with LSU, should receive a sizeable share of the funding given its sterling reputation for research, particularly for advances in combating diabetes and obesity, two big problems in Louisiana. Pennington also is known for its research in finding ways to prevent dementia and for how people can eat more nutritiously.

The question ricocheting around the health care industry now is why Landry didn’t include the other higher education institutions given their own research capabilities to improve public health in Louisiana.

Tulane, for example, is launching a program this fall that plans to put more than 200 students each year on an accelerated path to become nurses.

LSU’s medical schools in New Orleans and Shreveport have cancer research centers.

Also, the New Orleans medical school has a big federal grant to research how to combat alcohol and drugs addiction.

Tulane and LSU declined to comment.

The proposed sale has also come under fire for reasons unrelated to Landry’s involvement.

State senators raised questions about it during a special legislative hearing on Monday, but they do not have a say in whether to approve it. That decision will be made by state Insurance Commissioner Tim Temple and 92,000 Blue Cross policyholders.

On Thursday, state Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Mandeville, and other senators who held the hearing criticized the deal in a letter to Temple. Meanwhile, the Louisiana Hospital Association and Treasury Secretary John Fleming, a practicing physician, opposed the deal’s current structure.

Blue Cross has said it will better serve its customers and slow rising health care costs if it sells now to Elevance, which because of its larger size has superior digital tools, tele-health platforms and its own pharmacy benefits manager.

Top political operative

Kyle Ruckert is among Landry’s top advisers as his chief of staff.

He is perhaps the preeminent Republican political operative in Louisiana, having been a key strategist for then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, for U.S. Sen. John Kennedy’s re-election in 2022 and for Landry during last year’s gubernatorial election. He has also managed the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, which has worked closely with Vitter, Kennedy and Landry to raise money from wealthy business owners to elect conservative legislators.

At the same time, Ruckert has held a slew of contracts that have paid handsomely to lobby the legislators he has helped elect. He and Lynnel Ruckert, who has her own extensive career as a Republican staffer, operate through a Baton Rouge-based firm called Bold Strategies.

Kyle Ruckert turned over his lobbying clients to Lynnel when he became executive director of Landry’s transition team in October.

In an email, she said she has been proud to represent Pennington Biomedical since 2020, adding that she “had no discussions with Governor Landry about the Blue Cross sale.”

Officials at Pennington Biomedical were unaware that they alone would receive the research money under the proposed sale until this past week, said Ernie Ballard III, senior director of communications and marketing.

With the Ruckerts having represented the center in Washington, an in-house staff handles the lobbying of the state Legislature, Ballard added.

Staff writer Stephanie Riegel contributed to this report.

Email Tyler Bridges at