4 Investigates: Plaquemines deal has some claiming conflict of interest

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by Lee Zurik / Eyewitness News lzurik@wwltv.com

wwltv.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:03 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 21 at 6:09 PM

BELLE CHASSE, La. -- A Plaquemines Parish councilman uses the words "conflict of interest" when raising ethics questions about President Billy Nungesser and a group of colleagues and businessmen.

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The questions center on a lucrative deal involving a piece of land, dirt and millions of dollars in public money.

"I can tell you this, there is absolutely nothing being done wrong in this administration."

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser has gone on the defensive after questions have been raised about money the parish is spending that could be making friends of his rich.

It all started shortly after Nungesser was elected in Fall 2006. The soon-to-be parish president had an option, he said from an October 2002 sale, to buy two tracks of land from Citrus Lands of Louisiana.

In December 2006, Nungesser signed over the option to buy that land to his trust company. On that same day, Plaquemines Parish records show Nungesser's trust acted on that option and bought the land from Citrus Lands for $1.3 million.

About one year later, a group of Plaquemines Parish businessmen formed a company - Plaquemines Parish Dirt and Clay. The next week in 2008, that company bought the land from Nungesser's trust for $1.3 million.

Some council members say the owners of Plaquemines Dirt and Clay could be sitting on profitable land. They say all of the clay in this area could net those owners as much as $100 million.

They say that the business could be profitable from selling the clay to the parish, and potentially to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which hasn't yet given the clay its approval.

"Regardless of his motives, it's wrong," said Burghart Turner, a critic.

Some council members say the owners have already made some money, as the parish has spent about $22 million repairing a private levee from last year's hurricanes. Much of that clay has come from Plaquemines Dirt and Clay's pit.

Nungesser admits that some of those owners are friends of his - " some of them, absolutely," he said.

Through state records and information from Nungesser, Eyewitness News has found seven members of the Plaquemines Dirt and Clay Company.

One of them is Michael Gaffney, an attorney who records show made almost $93,000 in contract work from the parish in 2008.

There's also Mike Bush, the chief executive officer of Mississippi River Bank, and Gary Chauvin, a business owner from Plaquemines.

Nungesser said he didn't know if some of the members were on his advisory board, though he did say that Chauvin was.

"Gary Chauvin was a big supporter of mine - yes," he said.

Also, part of the group, according to a Nungesser spokesman, is a corporation associated with Plaquemines Parish Assessor Bobby Gravolet; David Pavolovich, a business owner in Plaquemines; Bart Breland of Barriere Construction; and Phil Ramon, the former chief of staff in Kenner.

Barriere Construction won the bid to repair part of the levee in the parish and was paid almost $20 million by the parish in 2008 for a number of projects. Ramon also works for All South Consulting and Engineers, which made $12 million from Plaquemines last year.

"It's a small parish," Nungesser said. "No matter who I sold it to, you could have found some kind of way to drum up a story on it.

"Let me ask you a question. If I tell my attorney to sell some land and it's a good deal, would you suggest that I recommend my enemies buy it? Because my enemies are why we're sitting here today."

Some Plaquemines council members questioned Nungesser's motives, but wouldn't agree to an interview. One who did, Burghart Turner, said his questions begin with the money.

"I don't see any justification for it," he said. "Some of the work was needed to the extent of the amount of work that was done. I don't think we can justify doing all that was done."

Nungesser said the levees have been constructed right and claims the legislative auditor recently said the parish has done nothing wrong in spending the money.

"Everything is done above board in this parish," he said. "For the first time in a long time."

But Turner also questioned whether or not anyone should be digging for clay on that land. A Plaquemines Parish document obtained by Eyewitness News showed that the Plaquemines Parish Dirt and Clay property is not permitted by the parish to operate as a borrow pit.

"How can the administration justify not acting?" complained Turner. "They don't have a permit."

"I know there are a bunch of pits that have been operated in the parish that don't have permits that was grandfathered in," said Nungesser. "I believe that's one of them."

Turner also has concerns about one of the company's members - Michael Gaffney. During a recent meeting about spending money on the levees, Gaffney signed in as PPG - Plaquemines Parish Government - and spoke on behalf of the parish, even though he's involved in Plaquemines Parish Dirt and Clay, a company benefiting from the levee work.

"If he's representing an owner or agent as Plaquemines Dirt and Clay, and he's also representing the parish government concerning money that's going to a project that's working on that property," Turner said, "I think that's an ethical issue."

When asked how a member of Plaquemines Dirt and Clay could talk on behalf of the parish at a meeting, Nungesser said Eyewitness News would have to ask Gaffney. He was also asked if it was okay for Gaffney to talk on behalf of the parish and make money with Plaquemines Dirt and Clay and responded that it wasn't a fair question.

Nungesser said the questions about people close to him profiting off of parish work are also unfair. He said he has not and will not make money off the deal. He said his focus is on getting federal levees built for Plaquemines.

"I don't need to make any more money," he said. "I need to live my life down there and enjoy the land that I bought. I think people can't understand that people would actually run for office, get in there, spend their own money and do a good job for no other reason than they love their parish."

A statement released late Monday afternoon by Barriere Construction said "we pride ourselves on our ethical business practices and our core values which promote safety, ethical conduct, best business practices, and personal development of our people, all in service to the transportation needs of our community."

A company official goes on to say "there is no ownership interest in the Plaquemines Dirt and Clay Facility by Barriere Construction Company. or any of its owners. Plaquemines Dirt and Clay is one of many material suppliers used by Barriere Construction.

"One of our employees owns a minority share of the Plaquemines dirt business. That employee disclosed his intent to acquire an interest in that business to our owners. Barriere Construction Company saw no conflict of interest, as Barriere does not specify the materials to be used in a project."

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