NEW ORLEANS -- The state launched an investigation this week after Eyewitness Investigates questioned the hours billed to taxpayers by an employee of a state housing program a subcontract employee who is also a state legislator.
State Rep. Girod Jackson, D-Harvey, got Ethics Board approval in February 2012 to work as a project manager on the state's Small Rental Property Program, as long as he didn't deal directly with state officials.
Eyewitness News asked for Jackson's correspondence with state officials and the billing records of Jackson's employer, Louisiana Community Capital Fund, or CapFund. CapFund is a subcontractor to the Shaw Group, and Shaw administers the federally funded Small Rental program for the state.
The state said there was no correspondence between Jackson and state program officials, but what we found on the time sheets and in corresponding legislative records raised questions and immediately caused the state to refer the case to federal investigators.
57 days of double duty
Our review showed that Jackson was at the Capitol for committee meetings and sessions on the House floor on 58 days last year. On all but one of those days, Jackson also claimed eight hours worked for CapFund on the Small Rental program, a comparison with the time sheets indicated.
The state was billed $117 an hour for Jackson's time on Small Rental, according to Office of Community Development spokeswoman Angela Vanveckhoven. So, that's about $53,000 that federal taxpayers paid for Jackson to work on a state program on the same days that he was conducting official legislative business at the Capitol.
On many of those days, the legislative records showed that the business in Jackson's committees or on the House floor took just a few hours. And Jackson says that as a manager in the Small Rental program, he doesn't have to work between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Rather, he says, he often works odd hours to meet his eight-hour-a-day responsibilities for CapFund.
But in our review of thousands of pages of public records, we also found 18 days where Jackson spent at least six hours at the Capitol while also claiming to have worked eight hours on the Small Rental program. That becomes a very long day.
And on 10 of those days, the legislative work extended beyond eight hours, pushing Jackson's total time spent on public business to 16 hours or more.
Eyewitness News specifically confronted Jackson about the longest day of the session: March 22, 2012. The House Journal for that day shows Jackson was on the floor voting from 9 a.m. until just five minutes before midnight and then actually voted present during a re-adjourned session in the first hour of March 23.
Jackson claimed on his CapFund time sheet that he also worked eight hours on March 22 for the Small Rental program.
He would have had to start his day before 1 a.m. to get in a full eight hours before 9 a.m., when the legislative work began. By the end of the session at 12:45 a.m. on March 23, he would have spent 24 straight hours on these taxpayer-funded jobs.
And Jackson said that's exactly what he did.
'That's not the only day that I've done that,' he said. 'I do that multiple days, multiple days. Because I have a job and responsibility to get done on both things, so I take it seriously enough that if I have to miss some sleep, fine, I miss some sleep.'
He bristled at any suggestion that such a feat was impossible. When I said it would have been 'Herculean,' he said, 'Well, then, give me credit for the herculean effort then. Give me that credit instead of assuming that it's not being done.'
There were also times when Jackson's time at the Legislature and his hours on his time sheets would indicate that he worked back-to-back days of more than 15 hours each day.
On May 23, for example, his duties as chairman of the House Municipal Affairs Committee brought him to the Capitol at 10 a.m., and following a four-hour committee meeting he voted on the House floor for another five hours. The next day, he did it all over again with a 9 a.m. start on the floor, more than seven hours of votes and another eight hours on his Small Rental time sheet.
Taxpayers paid Jackson about $30,000 in salary, stipend and per diem for the 2012 Legislative Session. At the same time, they also paid Shaw $234,000 for the 2,000 hours Jackson claimed to have worked as a project manager on the Small Rental program.
Jackson said he worked every single hour he claimed, and that he actually performed the work on the exact days he put down on his time sheets.
'I don't claim hours that I don't work,' Jackson said.
We asked Jackson's boss at CapFund about his timesheets, but CEO Ernest Johnson said he does not discuss private employee information. Jackson said the amount he actually gets paid per hour is private, but suggested it was 'close to minimum wage,' and nothing near the $117 an hour the prime contractor, Shaw, bills the state for Jackson's time.
Shaw did not respond when we asked them how much they, in turn, pay CapFund for Jackson's time.
Other billing investigated
Back in October, we used a public records request to uncover similar questionable billing by another subcontractor in the same Small Rental program: Lago Construction. We found key Lago personnel, people in a family with close ties to Gov. Bobby Jindal, were working on other federally financed projects and even their own private jobs during large chunks of days when they were also billing the state for a full eight hours monitoring construction work under the Small Rental program.
The state was slow to respond to our request for those records last year, but launched an internal investigation and triggered a federal HUD inspector general's probe when we ran our story. This time, when we asked for Jackson's timesheets, the state didn't wait. Before they even provided the records to us, they launched an investigation and referred the case to the HUD inspector general, the state inspector general and the state attorney general.
'As always, we take reports of possible fraud or misuse within our program very seriously,' said Pat Forbes, executive director of the state Office of Community Development. 'In light of previous billing irregularities from other vendors related to this program, the Louisiana Housing Corporation strengthened oversight of the billing practices of subcontractors as well as our main contractors to ensure that all invoices are accurate. More specifically, as the facilitator of the Small Rental Property Program, the LHC instituted measures to ensure that main contractors and subcontractors provide detailed information regarding time worked and work completed.'
Forbes said the CapFund billing records we asked for were submitted before the stronger LHC oversight measures were put in place. He said those records are now part of an internal LHC review, and once that's done, all contractors' past billing records will be audited.