Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
Email: | Twitter: @mperlstein

VIOLET, La. - Former St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro lists himself as lay minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Violet.

Taffaro's efforts on the church's behalf includes a building currently under renovation to become a meeting space. But the house wasn't built on church grounds.

Contractor Nicky Mones said he was contacted by former Parish President Craig Taffaro.

In fact, the house was built on another lot in the neighboring town of Poydras. It was built by Habitat for Humanity for a woman who lost everything in Katrina.

But when neighbors protested, the woman decided not to move in and Habitat donated the house to the church.

But now there are questions as to how the house got moved to the church grounds. Construction contractor Nicky Mones was hired to move the building.

'It was just a private favor, as far as I'm concerned. It was a personal favor,' said Mones.

According to documents obtained by Channel 4, Mones' company - N & N Construction - was paid $33,000.

The documents show that the first $20,000 came from a longtime Taffaro associate and political supporter, Jim Besselman.

Besselman is owner of Ernst Cafe, but is best known in St. Bernard for the hundreds of thousands of dollars he made as a caterer during the BP oil spill cleanup.

But Mones said he never met Besselman.

'I never spoke a word with him,' said Mones. 'Craig handed me the check. It was in an envelope.'

But that money wasn't enough to finish the job so Mones was paid an additional $13,000. The records show that money came in the form of two checks, both from St. Bernard Parish government.

Current St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta said there was no explanation of the parish's interest in the move.

Eyewitness News filed public records requests for any donations to the parish from Habitat for Humanity and parish officials found a check written some two months later from the house-building charity to the parish for $11,000.

Peralta, who defeated Taffaro in an election last fall, said he remains concerned about the unusual transaction.

'I have some real problems with this. I don't understand why government was involved in this type of operation at all.'

Peralta said his review of the arrangement raises even more troubling questions: Why parish employees and equipment were used during the move as seen in some photographs from the event.

Mones said he estimated seven parish employees helped him with the job.

Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino said the state has strict guidelines on the use of public resources for private purposes.

'The use of parish resources to benefit a private entity in which a public official was an officer or director.... that's flatly prohibited by the code of governmental ethics and, as I said, perhaps could constitute public payroll fraud,' said Ciolino.

Eyewitness News called the priest at the church - Father John Arnone - and he declined comment, referring us to the Archdiocese of New Orleans. So we contacted the Archdiocese, where a spokeswoman said the church did not solicit the house donation and had no knowledge of who paid for the move.

Taffaro, who now works as the state director of hazard mitigation, would not answer questions on camera. But he did provide a lengthy written response defending the move as 'a productive, legal and ethical resolution.'

'It was clear that completing the task was in the best interest for the neighborhood, for Habitat, and for the parish,' he wrote in the response. 'Just as our Public Works crews were used to eradicate a private blighted structure in neighborhoods and along our thoroughfares, the assignment was consistent with the parish's stated budget activity within the scope of recovery of St. Bernard Parish.'

Peralta has now launched a formal investigation into the matter.

'There's no explanation as to why government funds were used,' he explained. 'Hopefully our internal investigation and, if necessary, the sheriff's office investigation will determine the purpose. And at this point we really don't know what the purpose was.'

Besselman, the caterer who helped pay for part of the move, did not respond to calls.

In his statement, Taffaro wrote that the new church building will be a public benefit to hundreds of families in the church and Violet community.

Taffaro also accused the current administration of trying to discredit his work as parish president.

Read or Share this story: