METAIRIE, La. -- The Jefferson Parish Council voted 5-2 Wednesday to reject a proposed settlement with a political consultant who sued the council in 2015 over an ordinance that would have barred him from getting contracts with the parish.
The only votes in favor of settling with consultant Greg Buisson and paying him up to $120,000 in legal fees came from Councilmen Ben Zahn and Paul Johnston, who recently had state ethics complaints filed against them for previous votes they cast to give contracts to Buisson.
One complaint says Zahn, who was inaugurated as mayor of Kenner on Thursday, voted twice last year to give parish contracts to Greg Buisson, whose firm Buisson Creative was consulting for Zahn’s mayoral campaign at the time. It also says Zahn voted against an ordinance that would have barred Buisson from parish contracts.
Another complaint is against Councilman Paul Johnston, saying he also voted in Buisson’s interests those three times after Buisson worked for his political campaigns.
Before voting to approve a contract with Buisson for Mardi Gras viewing stands Nov. 7, both Zahn and Johnston asked Parish Attorney Mike Power if they were allowed to vote, given their professional ties to Buisson. Power gave the go-ahead. In fact, Zahn joked about it after Johnston mistakenly called Buisson his "HR (human resources) guy" rather than his "PR (public relations) guy."
Interestingly, Council Chairman Chris Roberts voted against the settlement even though he is named personally in the lawsuit by Buisson. There were questions about whether that was ethical, but Power advised from the floor of the council meeting that Roberts could vote.
Buisson said he was disappointed the council didn't accept the settlement offer and says he will pursue damages in court for opportunities he says he lost during the controversy.
The ethics complaints against Zahn and Johnston come on the heels of a legal opinion by the parish attorney’s office that says it would be an ethics violation for council members to vote on litigation involving someone with whom they have a contractual relationship.
That stems from legislation Zahn sponsored on Wednesday’s council agenda to settle a lawsuit filed by Buisson against the council. The proposed settlement would repeal the ordinance barring Buisson from contracts and would pay Buisson up to $120,000 for legal fees.
A vote scheduled to settle that lawsuit in December was delayed and Zahn has stayed on the council for three weeks beyond when he could have taken office as Kenner mayor to have one more council meeting Wednesday.
Zahn’s mayoral campaign paid Buisson Creative nearly $35,000 in the last six months, according to campaign finance reports.
But Buisson says he no longer has any contracts with anyone on the council. He said his relationship with Zahn ended with the Dec. 10 runoff election. Johnston paid Buisson nearly $93,000 for public relations work in 2014 and 2015 but there are no records of any payments in 2016.
Buisson sued the council and Councilman Chris Roberts personally in federal court, claiming they targeted Buisson by passing an ordinance preventing consultants who work for parish elected officials from getting parish contracts. Zahn and Johnston cast the only votes against that ordinance.
On Jan. 3, a memo by the Parish Attorney’s Office stated that it would be an ethics violation for a council member to vote on litigation if someone involved in the lawsuit has a contractual relationship with that council member.
Jefferson Parish Inspector General David McClintock took immediate action last week, asking all of the council members to disclose their financial relationships with Buisson. But Power, the parish attorney, sent a letter to McClintock this week saying he had no authority to force the council members to disclose their private contracts with Buisson.
McClintock responded Tuesday evening with a strongly worded letter back to Power stating he does, indeed, have the authority to get that information because he “possesses credible information of actions which may constitute violations of state and local ethics laws as well as abuse of authority.”
Buisson represents Parish President Mike Yenni and his firm received payments from six of the seven members of the parish council over the last six years, according to state campaign finance records.
In addition to Johnston and Zahn, whose mayoral campaign last paid Buisson more than $5,300 in November for “campaign services,” Councilman Mark Spears made a $200 payment to Buisson Creative last summer, and Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken paid Buisson Creative $1,500 for “design services” in 2015.
Roberts and Councilman Ricky Templet both had Buisson as a consultant in 2011. Templet paid Buisson Creative more than $100,000 in 2011 and 2012, campaign finance reports show, while Roberts paid the firm $58,000 during those years. Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng is the only member of the council whose campaign has not paid Buisson's firm.
Buisson Creative has received annual parish contracts for the Uncle Sam Jam event in Metairie and for Mardi Gras parade stands, among others.
Roberts said the ordinance he sponsored in 2015 was intended to limit the influence of political power-brokers in government contracting after the parish had been through political scandals involving self-dealing.
But Buisson claimed in his lawsuit that Roberts targeted him after Buisson represented Roberts’ opponent Louis Congemi in a knock-down, drag-out election for at-large council in 2015. Roberts had previously used Buisson as his own consultant in 2011.
During public comment, Waggaman resident George Peterson called on Zahn to recuse himself from any vote to settle the lawsuit by Buisson. Zahn shot back that he doesn’t have a contract currently with Buisson and therefore did not have any conflict of interest.
Zahn questioned how Peterson got the memo by the parish attorney's office, which was marked as "attorney-client privileged." Peterson said a member of the council gave it to him.
Zahn also pointed out that a settlement to pay Buisson’s legal fees would actually save parish taxpayers several hundred thousand in fees to the parish’s private defense attorneys down the road.
Buisson confirmed to WWL-TV that he has held a meeting since Dec. 10 to help Zahn with his transition to the mayor’s office, but said he is not being paid for that. Buisson then took to the public comment podium to defend his right to get parish work and to argue that the council’s attempt to exclude him from contracts was unconstitutional.
“Why treat a political consultant any differently than a counsel for a campaign, several of whom have parish contracts?” Buisson said.
NOTE: An earlier version of this story said Paul Johnston hadn't paid Buisson since 2013, but a review of state campaign finance reports shows more than $92,000 Johnston's campaigns paid in 2014 and 2015 recorded under a misspelling of Buisson.
Another earlier version of this story said that Buisson Creative has an annual contract for Family Gras. It’s work on Family Gras is volunteer and not paid. It does have contracts for Uncle Sam Jam and Mardi Gras parade stands as well as with the Jefferson Parish Convention and Visitors Bureau.
(© 2017 WWL)