Audit: Nungesser may have violated charterJun 22nd, 2010 | By Frank McCormack | Category: news
A recent report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor claims Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and the administration may have violated the parish charter and local ordinance when it entered into two hurricane recovery projects in 2007.
The study also details three other potential legal and ethical violations: failure to include grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the parish’s 2008 budget, the procedure for hiring parish attorney Steve Braud, and a real estate transaction between Nungesser’s trust and individuals whose companies do business with the parish.
The audit, carried out by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, is dated June 9 but was made available to the public June 14.
In Nungesser’s written response to the legislative audit, he points to “political operatives” that met with Purpera’s office in order to impede the parish’s recovery from the 2005 and 2008 hurricanes.
“While we find these attempts to block our recovery efforts very troublesome, we are happy and pleased to work with your office,” the letter reads in part.
The first possible violation involved the parish’s state of emergency declaration in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. According to the report, the parish issued two emergency declarations and 70 extensions of the state of emergency thereafter.
During a state of emergency, the parish government may award disaster-related contracts without going through the normal public bid process and without a vote of the parish council.
The state of emergency ended July 2008.
In January and February 2007, approximately 16 months after Katrina and Rita, the parish awarded two contracts for debris removal, project management and oversight of all FEMA reimbursements, according to the report.
The Legislative Auditor’s report argued that because the “administration could not demonstrate how these contracts immediately mitigate a threat to life, public safety, or property damage, and the contracts covered multiple years, the Parish President may not have the authority to suspend local rules and regulations for the procurement of these two contracts.”
The report encourages the parish to comply with the Disaster Act and ensure that non-emergency contracts and emergency contracts alike are awarded according to the proper procedures.
Nungesser, though, argues his administration acted within the authority of the state of emergency.
“The state of emergency was filed like it was in every other parish,” Nungesser said.
In Nungesser’s written response to the audit, he stated, “While the declaration occurred 18 months before I took office, we support the validity of the declaration which was made August 27, 2005. … The Legislature has also left the determination as to when the emergency ends solely to the parish president. … There is no authority for your auditors to second guess my decision as to when the state of emergency is over.”
As part of its response to the audit’s allegations, the parish included Katrina and Rita-related state of emergency declarations from both the State of Louisiana and St. Tammany Parish that had been extended well into 2010.
The audit then turns to hurricane-related expenditures in 2008 which were reimbursable by FEMA. In the fiscal year ending Dec. 31, 2008, the parish received about $66 million in revenues while is spent approximately $84 million, a difference of $18 million.
During a state of emergency, the parish president has the authority to expend available funds, the budget “must be amended to include these expenditures and obligations,” according to the report. Failure to do so may have been a violation of the Local Government Budget Act.
In the parish’s written response, Nungesser points to contradictions between court rulings, the Local Government Budget Act and Stafford Act requirements.
“As your report recognizes, all funds are properly accounted for,” Nungesser said in the letter. “There are multiple audits and all funds are properly accounted for.”
The audit also questions whether parish attorney Stephen Braud was hired in a proper manner. According to the report, “On November 21, 2008, during a budget review meeting, the Parish Council discussed the creation of the Lead Parish Attorney position and the salary. During that discussion, four of the seven Council members present stated they knew the person who was to fill the position and that he will represent both the legislative and administration bodies of the Parish.”
One of the seven council members present did not know who would be hired. Braud’s name was not mentioned specifically in either the budget hearing or the following council meeting, according to the report. Because of that omission, the council “may not have properly approved his employment,” the report says.
Nungesser’s response was blunt: “[T]here is no question that all of the members of the parish council knew who they were voting on. Otherwise, your office is accusing the Plaquemines Parish Council of mismanagement and/or of not knowing what they were doing for the past 16 months. While we have differences of opinion on many matters, I will not agree that they did not know what they were voting on.”
Finally, the auditor’s report addresses a real estate transaction that took place between a trust whose beneficiary is Nungesser and individuals who own companies that do business with the parish. Citing state law regarding payments for nonpublic service, the report says the transaction “may constitute a violation of the Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics.”
In response, Nungesser contended, “The transaction referred to in your notation is a real estate sale. It is not a transaction for services.”
“If anyone has an ethics complaint to make, let them make it, and let them make it to the proper authority, the State Ethics Board,” Nungesser’s response also reads.
Plaquemines Parish Council Chairman Don Beshel did not return calls requesting comment.
A letter sent from the parish council to Purpera dated April 26 reads in part, “As you may be aware, there exists an unfortunate divisive situation in Plaquemines Parish between the Office of the Parish President and the Parish Council. For reasons explained below, we regret to surmise that litigation is inevitable between the two branches of government.”