Unlike a year ago, Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni was a featured speaker Tuesday at the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the Parish luncheon.
Continuing to show he’s moved on from a sexting scandal 13 months ago that prompted near-universal calls for his resignation, Yenni also held a $500-a-head campaign fundraiser later in the day.
He told WWL-TV he hasn’t decided yet whether he will be seeking re-election in 2019.
“I’m focused on my job here today, and I’m working on making sure that I complete this term with the success that we have accomplished so far,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of great things to happen. Only time will tell” if he will run for parish president again.
He said the fundraiser, a cocktail party at Austin’s Restaurant in Metairie, is at least the fourth campaign event he’s held since taking office in 2016, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to run.
“Yes, I’m having a fundraiser for whatever campaign or whatever I decide to do in the future,” he said.
In November 2016, at the last Chamber of Commerce State of the Parish event, it didn’t look like Yenni would survive the sexting scandal. WWL-TV had reported that Yenni purchased underwear for a college-bound student and solicited him for sex in text messages. Yenni had just apologized for sending inappropriate texts to a young man, every major group in the parish called on him to resign, including the Chamber, and a well-financed campaign to recall him began.
At the time, Chamber President Todd Murphy explained why Yenni was not giving the State of the Parish address.
“We thought that given all of these distractions surrounding him and his office that it was impossible for him to properly govern,” Murphy said before the 2016 event.
But on Tuesday, Yenni was back and Murphy was singing a different tune.
“Mike Yenni is the parish president,” Murphy said right before the 2017 event. “So, I don't think there's anybody better to deliver that address than the parish president.”
In his address and a moderated discussion with Parish Council Chairman Chris Roberts, Yenni touted his accomplishments over the last year, including renewed taxes for drainage and other key parish services. Immediately afterwards, he fielded questions from WWL-TV about the latest issue dogging him: Major renovations and remodeling of his and his staff’s public offices.
In September, WWL-TV and others questioned public records showing at least $170,000 in renovations to the parish president’s suite of executive offices for 23 employees. The station also found the parish had failed to turn over invoices requested by a citizen, prompting the Parish Council to demand a full accounting last month.
The council approved less than $118,000 in the parish budget for capital expenses for the Parish President’s Department. But the records provided to the council showed more than $187,000 was spent on that work, including $32,000 in employee overtime.
“Everything was approved through the budget in some way, shape or form,” Yenni said. “Whether it was the General Services budget, or whether it was the budget that we approved for new fixtures and furniture.”
Just shy of $10,000 was paid by the East Bank Consolidated Fire Department for seven flat-screen televisions and for them to be installed in the parish president’s suite of offices, including in Yenni’s own office in Gretna, on the West Bank.
Council Chairman Chris Roberts questioned if dedicated funds for the Fire Department could be used in such a way, adding that the Inspector General was looking into it.
But Yenni again stood by the move, saying the money was properly used for him and his staff to keep track of emergency operations that often include the Fire Department.
“We use those for presentations, for watching the weather and vital services,” he said. “There were no TVs on the 10th floor of the Yenni Building (on the East Bank). We do have to find out what’s going on in real-world time.
Asked about the use of East Bank fire money for TVs in the West Bank offices, Yenni said: “The money was used for oversight of the parish. I’m still the parish president in Gretna. I still run the East Bank Consolidated Fire Department from the city of Gretna at our General Government Building.”
Yenni initially told WWL-TV he used his own money to turn his inner office on the East Bank into a replica of George W. Bush’s Oval Office, and the only taxpayer money used in that specific office was for buying three telephones.
But when the parish council questioned him Oct. 2, he said the pittance of public money was spent on a different minor expense.
“Outside of the two garbage cans the parish provided me, one for recycling and one for trash, that’s all the parish has provided in my office,” Yenni said.
Documents Yenni and his department heads turned over show a $3,700 taxpayer expense to “replace the leather top for the Parish President’s desk” and a separate payment of $700 to “refinish executive desk with leather inlay for Parish President.”
Conley said in an email to WWL-TV that those charges were for refurbishing Yenni’s desk in his Gretna office, not on the East Bank.
The desk in Yenni’s Bush-inspired office on the East Bank is a replica of the famous Resolute Desk used by many U.S. presidents in the Oval Office. It sits on the custom-made rug that looks just like Bush’s starburst rug, complete with a presidential seal in the middle that has the parish crest and says, “Office of the President, Jefferson Parish.”
Yenni isn’t shy about showing off his decorating touches and comparing them to the U.S. presidents of the past. He posted a photo on Facebook of his daughter – who shares her name with another president, Reagan – opening the desk’s ornate cabinet, in almost the same pose as President John F. Kennedy’s son John F. Kennedy Jr. from an iconic photograph.
“I bought that with my personal money,” Yenni said. “I’m a history buff, certainly like things of history and I bought myself a desk that I liked.”