By David Hammer and Paul Murphy / Eyewitness News
Two Jefferson Parish nonprofits tied to former parish Councilman Byron Lee and his protégé, sitting Councilman Mark Spears, misspent or misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and parish grants, a new legislative auditor’s report alleges.
Auditors found that one of the nonprofits, Thompson Thibodeaux Community Development Corp., was supposed to perform painting and minor home repairs for low- and moderate-income homeowners and was supposed to provide mentoring services to at-risk youth.
Auditor Darryl Purpera’s staff reported that Thompson Thibodeaux spent more than $800,000 to complete less than $200,000 worth of painting and repair work and performed the services on less than 100 of the 130 homes the company agreed to paint or repair.
Thompson Thibodeaux also allegedly misspent or misappropriated nearly $250,000 intended for mentorship programs, including giving $56,500 to the step-mother of the state legislator who secured the grants, former state Sen. Derrick Shepherd of Marrero, the audit said. Another $6,000 meant for the mentoring program actually went to Shepherd’s political campaign, the auditors wrote.
Meanwhile, more than $90,000 in Thompson Thibodeaux expenses were allegedly faked by Eddie Williams, a Thompson Thibodeaux board member, so he could redirect the money to Faith Academy, the Marrero school Williams ran as executive director.
Byron Lee led the charge on the parish council to give the public funds, including federal HUD dollars, to Thompson Thibodeaux. In fact, the nonprofit called the painting program “Councilman Lee’s Project Paint Lift Program.” Lee logged the first of his 10 votes to send public funds to Thompson Thibodeaux just days after he stepped down as a board member of the nonprofit.
Thompson Thibodeaux also used a web of subcontractors, including one owned by Williams’ brother and another owned by Lee’s bother-in-law, Eric Thompson. What’s more, the head of Jefferson Parish Community Development at the time, Thompson's wife Anatola Thompson, approved invoices that included almost $8,500 for a partnership involving her husband’s company, the audit says.
Anatola Thompson abruptly resigned from Jefferson Parish government Sept. 26 without explanation.
Faith Academy, which is a separate entity from Faith Christian Academy now occupying the same property, was run by a second nonprofit, the Rev. Mansfield Thompson Educational Foundation. Lee remains on the board of Faith Academy.
Thompson Thibodeaux and the Rev. Mansfield Thompson foundation state on tax documents that they are affiliated entities, with several of the same directors. And like Thompson Thibodeaux, the Rev. Mansfield Thompson foundation also got hundreds of thousands of dollars from the parish to offer mentoring programs.
In his role leading Faith Academy, Eddie Williams allegedly took $240,000 the parish awarded to Faith Academy for education programs and temporary jobs for workers displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and instead used it on ineligible Faith Academy expenses, including replenishing cash Williams had withdrawn for his own personal use.
Before taking over for Lee as parish councilman for the West Bank district, Mark Spears was an assistant parish attorney. But the audit says he spent parish time and used parish equipment for his private legal work, including work he did for Thompson Thibodeaux. At one point, Spears sent an email from his parish account to the parish about getting his mother’s house painted through Thompson Thibodeaux and the work was done, allegedly at inflated prices.
The auditors said Spears failed to notify the parish of his outside legal work, in violation of parish policy. The report also pointed to 143 workdays in which Spears accessed private legal documents on his parish work computer, also in violation of parish policies.
Spears issued a stinging rebuke to the findings early Monday.
"I’m extremely disappointed in the findings of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Investigative Audit Report which was released today regarding myself and organizations that serve a meaningful and rewarding purpose in the Jefferson Parish community. The findings are misleading at best, and would have those that I serve to believe that I have done something wrong, when the auditors themselves know that this is not the case..."
In a written response to the audit findings, Spears’ attorney Tracie Washington also defended his actions, contending that Spears was simply using the private legal documents as templates to support his parish work. She also said he had nothing to do with his mother’s application for painting program funds. Spears said he did "what any adult son who cares for his aging mother would do" when he sent an email from his parish account making an inquiry for assistance on her behalf.
Anatola Thompson denied knowing of her husband’s connection to the payment invoices she approved.
Byron Lee also disputed the report and accused the legislative auditor of attacking those who represent Jefferson Parish's majority-black district since it was formed.
"For 8 years I helped any person or worthy cause that I could. It is unfortunate that Politics is the only place where your Virtues can become your faults," Lee wrote in a statement.