NEW ORLEANS -- The chief operating officer of City Park authorized more than $1 million in public works payments to contractors while using the same vendors to build or repair two homes for himself in Metairie, according to records uncovered by WWL-TV.
State ethics laws generally frown on such arrangements because of the potential for self-dealing.
But City Park officials say that they investigated the matter and determined the executive — Rob DeViney — paid fair market value for all the work he hired the contractors to perform on his home, and therefore, they say, there's no ethics violation.
However, park CEO Bob Becker would not provide WWL-TV with any documents to substantiate the conclusions park officials reached in the DeViney matter. DeViney is the son of late Jefferson Parish Councilman Bob DeViney Jr.
WWL-TV discovered the issues while looking into claims in a lawsuit filed recently by the park's former chief mechanic, Jimmy Hood, who alleges he was wrongfully fired for refusing to sign off on repairs to popular rides in City Park's Carousel Gardens amusement park.
Becker vehemently denies Hood's claims that popular amusement rides, such as the Tilt-A-Whirl, Musik Express, Coney Tower and Mini-Train, were fixed by unqualified companies or did not get needed repairs. Records show that a certified inspector of the state Fire Marshal's Office signed off on all of the rides before they were put back into operation.
But in separate interviews, Hood made allegations about DeViney's personal use of park vendors that WWL-TV independently verified.
Work done at DeViney's home
The conflict involved work performed at two houses owned by DeViney — one that he lived in several years ago and sold, and then a new house he built last year in a tony section of Metairie.
While Becker says DeViney broke no ethics laws, he confirmed that a state policy adopted in December 2011 forbids park employees from hiring park contractors for private work. The policy was distributed to all park employees in January 2012, and Becker acknowledged that DeViney violated it with his most recent home construction project.
"I can tell you we investigated it, and he used extremely bad judgment at that time, but again, not a law, not an ethics law, but a policy violation, and we did take disciplinary action," Becker said.
Becker would not say how he disciplined DeViney, calling it a personnel matter that he couldn't disclose. In the last year alone, the park spent more than $20,800 to have outside attorneys and a consultant, Robert Foley, investigate DeViney and the work done at his house.
The park paid $3,225 for Foley's report, which the park would not provide, citing attorney-client privilege. Becker said the report says DeViney did not break any ethics laws because he paid "fair market value" for the work performed at his home.
Pressed to provide any receipts or other proof, Becker said that determination was Foley's professional opinion.
Becker stood by his decision to let DeViney continue to work at the park, where he makes a six-figure salary, even though one of DeViney's employees, Mike Mariani, was forced to resign for doing something similar in 2013. Mariani was found to have helped himself to building materials in addition to hiring park vendors.
"He did take materials and he did, I believe, have some contractors work at his house," Becker said of Mariani. "When we learned of that, we investigated, we called him in and he resigned."
Mariani declined to answer questions from WWL-TV.
Contractor hired without state license
During its investigation, WWL-TV also determined that one of the contractors DeViney hired at the park has received more than $600,000 in taxpayer money for repairs and construction work at City Park since 2009 without ever holding a state contractor's license. Such a license is required by law for all commercial projects of more than $50,000.
Records show that contractor, Salvador DiMaggio of Metairie, received more than $165,000 on a single public works project at the park that was not publicly bid, a requirement for projects over $150,000. DiMaggio also submitted invoices to City Park using a company name that is not registered with the Secretary of State.
Financial records gathered by WWL-TV show that most times when DiMaggio is paid by the park, a special note is written on the check stub indicating that the check was taken by DeViney, personally, to deliver to DiMaggio — something that isn't done with other contractors.
Becker defended the use of DiMaggio.
"If you remember that time, it was hard to find contractors that were available and would show up and would do work," Becker said. "And (DiMaggio) was reliable and he did show up and he did quality work every place that we looked."
There are also questions about whether all of the payments to DiMaggio were justified. The park hired him to do more than $165,000 worth of repairs to the gutted driving range clubhouse in 2009 and 2010, a federally financed project for Katrina damages that was approved and reimbursed by FEMA.
The payments to DiMaggio started with $13,200 in 2009 to remove ruined drywall. But photographs of FEMA work obtained by WWL-TV showed the main entrance of the building gutted to the studs in 2006, three years before DiMaggio's work began.
Becker said the initial contractor, Balfour, did shoddy work and had not completely removed the drywall.
As for why the work wasn't put out for public bid, Becker said officials did not initially expect it to exceed the $150,000 threshold that requires bids.
"We did not expect this building to go over that," he said. "We did not look at it as a single project. We looked at it as incremental repairs as we were trying to get the building back in operation."
Park financial records also show the park paid DiMaggio in late 2012 to repair a small bathroom building on the festival grounds. But WWL-TV got a photo taken while the work was being done — three months later, in March 2013.
"I'd have to investigate that," Becker said when asked about the timing of the payment. "I'm happy to do that and get back with you."
Another company hired by DeViney
Among the companies DeViney hired for work on his new house was Sunny Sod, a company owned by Tate Elsensohn of Lacombe — who is also the owner of a major City Park contractor named Mardi Gras Decorators.
The park's outside attorneys interviewed Elsensohn and found a "possible discrepancy" between what Elsensohn said and what DeViney said about their arrangement, according to park billing records.
Separately, Elsensohn provided WWL-TV with documents indicating he did not purchase Sunny Sod until September 2014, after the company had completed its work at DeViney's home. Elsensohn said DeViney had approached him about Mardi Gras Decorators and its affiliate MGD Sod doing work at the Metairie house, but Elsensohn declined.
"I told him I felt it was a conflict of interest and I referred him to Sunny Sod," Elsensohn said in an interview. Six months later, Elsensohn said, he purchased the company.
In his lawsuit against City Park, Hood names Mardi Gras Decorators, claiming that the sign- and float-maker was unqualified to do work on the hydraulics that move and stop the Coney Tower free-fall ride and leveling work on the Tilt-a-Whirl spinning ride.
Elsensohn said his company's work on the Tilt-A-Whirl was done under Hood's supervision and its work on the Coney Tower hydraulic cylinders was limited to disassembly only — not reassembly work, which requires hydraulic expertise.
Hood was trying to get the park to hire more expensive firms to do work, some of which was unnecessary, Becker said.
The state inspector general's office investigated similar issues involving work by park vendors in 2011 and 2012, but ended its probe without issuing any findings, according to Inspector General Stephen Street.
The former head of amusements also filed sexual harassment allegations against DeViney, another issue that forced the park to spend big money on internal investigations. Becker said the park paid out a confidential settlement to the woman.
In spite of that track record, Elsensohn said DeViney doesn't deserve this scrutiny.
"He's a good guy and I don't think he meant anything by (hiring park vendors at his private house)," he said. "I've never known any back-door deals with him."
And Becker stands by DeViney, calling him a crucial part of the park's recovery after Hurricane Katrina and a model employee who made an honest mistake by hiring the vendors at his home.
"He has an excellent record of service to this community, to this park and he's a valued member of our management team," Becker said.