NEW ORLEANS - Isaac is bearing down on the Gulf, Ray Nagin is under investigation, and now new evidence that a key figure in that corruption probe has hurt the effort to fortify pump stations so they can withstand a major hurricane.
Businessman Aaron Bennett pleaded guilty last fall to bribery and is helping the government in the case against the former mayor. But just a week before he was charged – and after he’d already fielded at least one plea deal offer from the feds – he took $600,000 from his construction company – money that came from the Corps of Engineers to pay for storm-proofing work on three New Orleans pump stations – and gave it to his fourth wife’s film production company.
The film company, HB Entertainment, is in post-production on the New Orleans-shot feature “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It stars Rose McGowan and Peter Bogdanovich.
Bennett’s wife, Martha Russell Bennett, filed papers in federal court this month stating that her firm did indeed receive and keep more than $468,000 from her husband, and spent $405,000 of it on the movie.
Aaron Bennett’s former company, Benetech, partnered with Winter Park Construction on the $12 million pump station project. But Benetech had to walk off the job in January after Aaron Bennett was convicted of bribing former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle.
The project was supposed to fortify the stations by January of this year so they can withstand a Category 3 hurricane. Now, the station on the 17th Street Canal won’t be done until October and Pump Station No. 3 on North Broad Street can’t be finished until next January. A Corps spokesman said the project should be totally done in February.
He said the Corps is confident the strengthening work won't affect the use of the pumps in any future tropical event.
The fact that Benetech even got the job in the first place is controversial. As I first reported in 2010, Benetech won $50 million in Corps work by claiming it was owned and operated on a daily basis by Aaron Bennett’s father, a service-disabled veteran. But Bennett’s father was not involved in daily operations at that time, and the Small Business Administration picked up the case and kicked Benetech out of getting such disabled veterans contracts.
The Corps of Engineers took the position that it couldn’t do anything about Benetech’s existing contracts, even if they were obtained fraudulently.
Martha Russell Bennett is a former strip club employee who also helps run the Playboy Golf Tournament here in New Orleans. She married Aaron Bennett last year. Bennett said he provided the money to set her up with three film-services companies, HB Entertainment, Carnivale Productions and Devil’s Playground.
Martha Bennett and Benetech are fighting a recent court order directing them to set aside money to pay the pump project vendors. They argue all of the subcontractors have already been paid, making the order by Judge Susie Morgan improper.
“If all of the subs have been paid, how can the (court-ordered set-aside) be maintained?” said Mark Beebe, Martha Bennett’s lawyer.
She also claims she isn’t entitled to any of the proceeds from Tell-Tale Heart, even though her company, HB Entertainment, is. And she admits in the court filings that she is the sole owner of HB Entertainment.
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