Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni quietly increased the budget for improvements in parish executive offices by more than 1600 percent last year, but he says he used only his own money to make his inner office look like George W. Bush’s Oval Office in the White House.
Yenni says the only furniture or items in his inner office on the 10th floor of the Joseph S. Yenni Building that the public paid for were three telephones. He said he used his personal money and personally picked out the furniture to make the room look like the Bush Oval Office, including special ordering a starburst rug nearly identical to the one Bush used. One notable difference about the two rugs: the seal in the middle.
In Yenni's office it says, "Office of the President, Jefferson Parish."
Yenni declined to tell us how much he spent on the starburst rug, saying he should be allowed to make his office “as nice as I want it to be as long as taxpayers don’t pay for it.”
Purchase orders from the parish show a $6,800 expense for removing the old flooring in Yenni’s inner office and replacing it with new wood, but Yenni said that hasn’t been done yet. Greg Schmidt, manager at Gil’s Carpet and Tile, said he has the items for that work on hold, but was told the parish is waiting to remove some walls before performing the work.
He and Yenni both said the plan is only to install the new wood floors around the perimeter of the starburst rug and use basic plank under the rug to save money.
Yenni says taxpayer money was used to update more than two dozen of his staff members' offices at both the Yenni Building on the East Bank and the Gretna Government Building on the West Bank. Yenni said some didn't have any furniture when he took office in January 2016 and some hadn't been remodeled since Hurricane Katrina.
Questions about Yenni’s office spending arose last fall, when longtime Kenner resident Jack Zewe noticed the modest $11,700 capital budget for the parish president’s department was ballooning. He filed a public records request asking the parish to turn over invoices and other records last fall.
“And I got not one invoice. Not one! For anything,” Zewe said. “That’s when I went to court.”
Zewe sued the parish for failing to produce the invoices under the state public records law. The case was dismissed this summer, and Zewe eventually got records that showed more than $138,000 spent on the suite of parish president offices, which house 23 employees.
Among the purchase orders the parish turned over were $1,000 apiece sleeper sofas, $2,000 leather desk chairs and $5,000 for two custom mahogany desks.
“There were rooms that had no furniture in them at all,” Yenni said in an interview with WWL-TV. “We bought them off the state contractors’ list. In some cases, we found good furniture in surplus and refurbished it.”
“I don't have an issue with a chair,” said Zewe, who also challenged Yenni’s spending when he was mayor of Kenner. “A chair breaks, you replace it. Painting, you upgrade things now and then. You don't move walls. You don't buy people sofa sleepers…. Etched glass doors! What's that all about?”
In response to public records requests from WWL-TV, the parish released purchase orders for another $32,000, bringing the total documented cost to more than $170,000.
“Nobody is working in a palatial office in Jefferson Parish,” Yenni said.
Yenni's own budget for 2017 puts the total for capital expenses for his offices at $205,000, a whopping 1600-percent increase over the original amount budgeted last year.
By comparison, Yenni's predecessor, John Young, spent just $415 on his office's capital expenses in his last year on the job.
The new questions come a year after WWL-TV broke the story of Mike Yenni's sexting scandal, where he sent sexually explicit solicitations to a teenage boy.
“Regardless of what you think of me as a person, I am very responsible when it comes to taxpayer money,” said Yenni, who kept a sign on his desk in Kenner quoting his grandfather, former Parish President Joseph Yenni, saying, “Do not spend what you do not have.”
After the sexting story was reported, the Parish Council called for Yenni to resign. By then, they had already approved large spending increases for his offices without debate.
Zewe said the council failed to do their due diligence.
WWL-TV spoke to the two at-large councilmembers Monday. Both Chris Roberts and Cynthia Lee-Sheng acknowledged they approved spending increases for Yenni's office, but only $106,000 of it.
Lee-Sheng said some increase was expected for a new administration, but she said the items we found sounded "excessive." Roberts now calls the spending "absurd" and said he would be calling for a council investigation.
An email WWL-TV received from its public records request shows the Jefferson Parish Inspector General was already looking into the matter earlier this year. Special Agent Ben Myers sent the email to parish General Services Director Anthony Francis in February questioning the expanding cost of storefront doors at the front of Yenni’s offices and requesting access to take photographs both at the Yenni Building and in Kenner.
Inspector General Dave McClintock declined to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.