NEW ORLEANS - Dressed in orange prison jumpsuit and with his hands and feet shackled, crooked contractor Aaron Bennett acted as his own attorney in a federal civil case Tuesday, arguing that he shouldn’t be bound by an agreement he signed in May to pay a subcontractor a $9.2 million settlement.
Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson listened to the arguments and said he’d rule shortly.
Bennett, who was convicted of bribing former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle in 2011, is still awaiting sentencing as he prepares to testify about how he gave freebies to former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and introduced him to Frank Fradella, another businessman who has pleaded guilty to bribing Nagin.
And it was Wilkinson who recently revoked Bennett’s criminal bond. It had come out that Bennett violated the terms of his release by leaving the state without permission, gambling at a casino and, according to a Mississippi arrest warrant, passing a bad check in the form of $10,000 in unpaid gambling markers, and a vociferous Wilkinson called Bennett “arrogant.”
This time, Bennett argued to Wilkinson that he shouldn’t be bound by an agreement he and his former company, Benetech, signed in May with Massachusetts-based CDM Constructors. CDM was a subcontractor for Benetech on work storm-proofing pump stations in Jefferson Parish.
In 2010, I exposed Bennett's scheme to use his father's status as a veteran to get huge construction contracts with the Corps of Engineers, including storm-proofing work in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. In 2007, Bennett installed his father, William Bennett, a former Texas preacher, as Benetech’s license-holder to get federal set-asides for combat disabled veterans.
Federal investigators found the veterans set-aside program to be rife with abuse because it allowed self-certification. After my stories in The Times-Picayune in 2010 and 2011, the feds revoked Bennett's certification. And when Aaron Bennett pleaded guilty to bribery late that year, several of Benetech’s pump station projects fell apart.
CDM sued Benetech and Aaron Bennett personally to get money it was owed on the Jefferson Parish work. Bennett and his father signed a settlement agreement in May, but Bennett called that an “agreement to agree” and argued that he still had a chance to change some of the terms before signing a final agreement.
Bennett said he didn’t want to let CDM hold his father liable or pursue its claims in bankruptcy court and he wanted the subcontractor to pursue other “pots of money” to get what it’s owed. But CDM attorney Eades Hogue testified that Bennett didn’t object to those aspects of the agreement before signing it.
Bennett cross-examined Hogue and testified on his own behalf. He had fired his attorney David Courcelle, although Courcelle showed up and helped Bennett get documents because his handcuffs didn’t allow him to pull out paperwork. He also held his hand out like a flipper when he was sworn to tell the truth as a witness.
“My signature to this agreement to agree was based on my understanding that my concerns would be addressed,” Bennett said.
At one point, Bennett claimed that CDM, the former Camp Dresser & McKee, also owed Benetech some money for unpaid work on the Plaquemines Parish jail complex. That called to mind Bennett’s criminal problems because his bribery conviction was for contracts he got to build that jail for Hingle.
Benetech got the original contract for the temporary jail when an attorney on Benetech’s payroll, Stephen Braud, handled the contracting process for Hingle and Benetech was the only bidder. The sheriff’s office rebid the contract a year later because Bennett got in a dispute over FEMA payments, and this time there were 25 bidders and CDM got the contract.
And CDM turned around and hired Benetech as a subcontractor.
CDM’s attorney, Jim Butler, declined to comment.