BELLE CHASSE, La. -- When the Plaquemines Parish Port Harbor and Terminal District decided to add two new, high-ranking positions, several port employees with years of experience jumped at the opportunities.
Both jobs – director of security and director of administration – required candidates to go through a civil service hiring process. But according to critics, the objective ranking of applicants got steamrolled by politics and favoritism.
According to documents obtained by Eyewitness Investigates, qualified in-house candidates who were ranked the highest by civil service and were favored by the port manager were passed over by Councilman Anthony Buras.
Instead, Buras selected two outside candidates who have recently been fired from other parish jobs. And because Buras was the chair of the port commission at the time, Parish President Billy Nungesser was powerless to do anything about it.
“The disturbing thing to me,” Nungesser said, “is that the qualified people that work in the port were passed over. That’s why you have civil service. It’s so it’s not a political appointee and those people should be considered first.”
For the security job, the person selected by Buras – fired Plaquemines Sheriff’s Office deputy Patrick Becnel – was scored seventh out of seven candidates. In fact, Buras twice rejected civil service lists of the top three applicants before Becnel was even made the list of eligibles.
“To get a list of qualified people and then throw it in the garbage and get another list, and another list, until your friend makes the list, to me it’s horrible,” Nungesser said. “It’s obvious that Anthony is hand-picking these people, whether it’s for friendships or other reasons, and not following proper procedure.”
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog group Metropolitan Crime Commission, accused Buras of placing politics ahead of qualifications.
“This is a perfect example of Louisiana politics rearing its head and muddying up what should have been a rather simple process,” Goyeneche said. “You have, I think, a clear abuse of the port chairman, Mr. Buras, attempting to circumvent the intent, the spirit and intent, of the civil service system.”
After the losing candidates protested the selection process, the civil service commission rescinded Becnel’s job offer and launched an investigation.
But the matter did not get any clearer following the investigation. Instead, the controversy got even deeper with a recommendation to remove the job listing and simply hand the position to Pennison, the current port manager who ranked the earlier applicants.
While the security job is now in limbo, the commission did not undo the hiring the of the new port administrator, Christie Nielsen. She is familiar to many in Plaquemines government because just before she was selected, she was fired by Nungesser when she submitted a letter to give herself a raise without his knowledge.
Nungesser said Nielsen worked for him as a paralegal when she drafted a letter authorizing the pay increase, then tried to get him to sign it in August by placing it in a stack of other papers that needed to be signed during Hurricane Isaac.
Nungesser said he was surprised when Nielsen was hired by the port without anyone contacting him about the circumstances of her dismissal.
“I would think they would have made a phone to me or the legal department just to do some checking,” Nungesser said. “But it appears they had already made a decision on who they were going to hire before the interviews.”
Goyeneche said the fact that Buras overruled civil service recommendations for two different port positions shows it was not a mere oversight.
“When you look at one of them, it smells bad,” he said. “When you look at two of them, the smell is overpowering.”
In Goyeneche’s opinion, Buras replaced civil service rules with favoritism.
“It’s an abuse of civil service, is what it is,” Goyeneche said. “It’s cloaked as a civil service merit-based appointment, but it’s anything but that.”
Buras has not responded to several calls for comment.
Eyewitness Investigates also contacted Christie Nielsen at her new job, where she is being trained, in part, by the woman she beat out for the position. She did not call back.