BELLE CHASSE -- Critics say Plaquemines Parish’s government has wasted hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and unfairly tarnished residents’ reputations in a “witch hunt” aimed at former parish president and current Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser.
Last month, the last of four lawsuits filed by the parish in 2016 alleging Nungesser’s former aides and allies committed fraud and misused public resources was dismissed by a state court judge for lack of evidence.
Debate over whether the lawsuits were justified could factor into a contentious parish president’s race, with incumbent Amos Cormier III defending them and his leading challenger, Parish Councilman Kirk Lepine, calling them a waste.
And money isn’t all that was lost in the futile lawsuits. Several defendants say their reputations were tarnished in service of a political vendetta against Nungesser.
“We ought to cherish the fact that he's our lieutenant governor. But this government and this administration and certain councilmembers even right now, they're so adamant and there's such a hatred here,” said Keith Hinkley, a former parish councilman who was sued, along with his family’s businesses, for allegedly using his power as an elected official to get public roofing work.
The parish claimed Hinkley’s firms were paid, improperly, for work performed while he was on the council, starting in 2007. But Hinkley produced checks and invoices showing the payments were made in 2005 and 2006, before he was elected. Judge Kevin Conner threw out the case against Hinkley in April.
Some of the defendants named in the parish lawsuits say they are collateral damage in a political fight they had little to do with.
“I am not a very politically motivated person at all,” said Logan Lott, a bakery owner whose father, Scott Lott, was Nungesser’s director of operations from 2007 to 2014. “So, the whole Nungesser thing, I don’t know about it much.”
One of the parish lawsuits accused Logan Lott of using his father’s position to get kitchen equipment delivered from parish property for free for use in his bakery.
The case against Logan Lott; his wife, Kirsten; and their business, Royal Bakery, was dismissed in December. Judge Michael Clement found the parish had failed to establish a cause of action against them.
“You hear whispers, when you’re out eating and stuff,” Logan Lott said. “And I get it, they want to know what’s going on. And I think it’s been time for people to really know the truth: We didn’t steal anything.”
The parish presented the court with affidavits from parish employees alleging they had been ordered by Scott Lott to load various pieces of kitchen equipment from the old Belle Chasse State School – which was purchased by the parish in 2010 to be converted into a new government complex – and deliver it to Scott Lott’s house. Meanwhile, Logan and Kirsten were building their bakery nearby and it opened in 2013.
WWL-TV visited the bakery and reviewed invoices and proof of payment from 2013 for large ovens, dough dividers, ranges and refrigerated display cases totaling more than $138,000. WWL-TV confirmed with a major restaurant supplier that it received payment for more than $87,000 in equipment and freight costs, and a reporter was able to match the invoices to each major piece of equipment in the Royal Bakery kitchen.
Scott Lott admitted he took a refrigerator from the school property that was being discarded. But he denied ever directing employees to take working kitchen or laundry equipment or having any of it delivered to his property. Earlier this month, Clement dismissed the rest of the lawsuit against Scott Lott.
But Logan Lott is afraid the allegations will leave a lasting stain on his business.
“At the end of the day, I ultimately feel that I will be labeled a criminal until I am 6 feet under, just because of the accusations that were made,” he said.
Another former Nungesser administration official, former Public Works Director Byron Williams, was also sued, accused of arranging parish hauling jobs for his family’s trucking companies. Clement dismissed that case in June, finding the parish had presented “no genuine issues of material fact.”
Hinkley is so angry about how he was treated that he intends to collect at least $83,000 in sanctions the court ordered the parish to pay him in June to cover legal fees and court costs. The parish has appealed Conner’s decision dismissing the case, and Hinkley says that will push sanctions for him over $100,000, not including another $44,000 to cover legal fees for another contractor named in the lawsuit, Cuzan Services.
“The whole eight years I was on the council, I was very adamant that our family’s companies – Louisiana Roofing and Westbank Roofing – not do any work for this parish. Because I knew it wasn’t legal, it wasn’t right,” Hinkley said. “And then, all of a sudden, I get out of office and they’re going to fabricate all these lies?”
But Robert Barnett, the outside attorney who investigated the various allegations of self-dealing and filed all four lawsuits, stands by them. He was hired by Nungesser’s successor as parish president, the late Amos Cormier Jr., in April 2016. By that time, Cormier’s law department had already filed a lawsuit against Nungesser himself.
When Barnett arrived, he drafted an amendment to that lawsuit laying out dozens of specific claims of fraud against Hinkley, the Lotts, Williams and about two dozen other parish officials and Nungesser allies. But that amendment was never filed, and Cormier decided to withdraw the entire lawsuit against Nungesser.
Barnett said he was handed 168 files to investigate, from which Cormier selected nearly 50 potential lawsuits. But before any cases were filed, Cormier died in office in mid-2016. His top deputy, Ed Theriot, later testified in court that Cormier “only wanted to go forward with four cases.” Theriot filed those four just a few days after he became interim parish president.
The Parish Council approved those cases, but public sentiment soon shifted against them.
District Attorney Charles Ballay owns a marina with Nungesser and one of the lawsuits that was filed alleged they received taxpayer-funded improvement work on a private road leading into the marina.
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Court records show that after that, Ballay opened a criminal grand jury probe into corruption in the parish government.
After Cormier’s administrative assistant reported her computer hard drive had been seized, Barnett’s draft lawsuit, which was on the device, was leaked to the press. Residents whose names and properties appeared in the draft were furious.
Lepine, a longtime Nungesser ally, made it to a runoff to succeed Cormier as parish president in November 2016 and is challenging him again, along with Councilman Burghart Turner, Nov. 6. Lepine called Barnett’s investigation a “witch hunt.” Nungesser used the same term and said Barnett was wasting taxpayer money on the cases.
Lepine was ultimately defeated by Cormier’s son, Amos Cormier III, in late 2016. When Cormier III took office in January 2017, he almost immediately began clashing with Ballay, who sued the administration over plans for a new DA’s office. Cormier hired Barnett to defend him against Ballay’s lawsuits.
In an interview with WWL-TV, Cormier stood by the decision to pursue the failed lawsuits, some of which the parish has appealed.
“Look, it’s easy to second-guess people, you know, and play Monday morning quarterback,” Cormier III said.
Public records show the parish has paid Barnett $338,000 to investigate claims of fraud, to bring the four failed cases, to defend Theriot against Williams’ defamation claim and to defend Cormier against Ballay’s lawsuits.
But last year, the Parish Council voted to turn the cases Barnett filed over to in-house attorneys led by the parish attorney, Peter Barbee. Barnett said that prevented him from making sure all relevant evidence was presented to the court.
“I think there’s sufficient evidence to give a governmental agency reason to believe there’s a problem that has cost the parish a very large sum of money that may or may not be able to be recovered,” Barnett said this week.
Barbee still has some hope for some of the cases on appeal.
“I’m not sure we’ve been actually given a fair shake on all of it. But that’s why we’re taking an appeal on some of it,” he said.
But Barbee also questioned the wisdom of some of the cases filed when Theriot was interim president.
“I think the interim president got kind of pushed into doing it and was told this is a good idea and I think it was probably something that got rushed into,” Barbee said.
He also questioned why the parish ever brought a case against Hinkley.
"Even if somebody did this while they were a councilman but (the parish) got what we paid for, where are the damages in this?” Barbee said.
But Barnett said he, Cormier Jr. and Theriot were so concerned with what they found that they delivered evidence to the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office for potential criminal investigations. That’s why Barnett still holds out hope his investigation will end up making a positive impact on the parish.
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“I think the work that was done was of value to the public and if acted upon, not just by the local government, but by the state or feds, would be beneficial,” he said. “And there have been no questions raised that any employees have done anything wrong since the initial investigation began in April 2016.”
But that means little to Logan Lott.
“We’ve been through a lot for absolutely nothing. And again, I ask why?” Lott said.
David Hammer can be reached at email@example.com.