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Sunday, September 16, 2018



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DA gives parish president investigation to Ethics Board

DA gives parish president investigation to Ethics Board

The Lafourche Parish district attorney is asking the state Board of Ethics to review malfeasance, bribery and extortion allegations against Parish President Jimmy Cantrelle after he could find no criminal wrongdoing.

District Attorney Cam Morvant II also determined that a former finance and human resources director violated civil service procedure and may have left the parish vulnerable to a lawsuit by placing an employee on a random drug screen list without authority to handle the employee's file.

Morvant submitted two letters Wednesday to the Parish Council, Cantrelle, Parish Administrator Reggie Bagala and Council Clerk Carleen Babin. The letters were provided to The Courier and Daily Comet on Thursday evening.

One letter includes information from interviews with Cantrelle, Bagala and parish Public Works Director James Barnes. Bagala said Cantrelle had him call council members Armand Autin and Luci Sposito and say Cantrelle would propose certain health insurance provisions if they would support raises for two employees and a change in two employee assignments.

In another letter, Morvant discusses the council's request for him to determine if activities related to the parish's drug testing policy were criminal. He says from what he can tell, civil service procedure violations and possibly a civil rights violation occurred regarding an employee's drug screen.

CLAIMS AGAINST CANTRELLE

Bagala reported that on Nov. 15, he, Barnes and Cantrelle met with Parish Councilmen Jerry Jones, Corey Perillioux and Armand Autin and Accounting Manager Renita Jackson to discuss parish health insurance. The agreement was that Cantrelle would submit the same provider and agent, but employee contributions would increase by 5 percent.

Cantrelle reportedly went to Bagala's office the next day, said he wasn't happy about "giving in and not getting anything in return" and asked Bagala to call the council members and tell them Cantrelle would submit the current insurance with the 5 percent increase. In return, they should agree to a $5,000 raise for Deputy Communications Director Caroline Eschette, a $3,000 raise for Plans and Permits Director Tony Breaux and a position switch for Eschette and Communications Director Doug Cheramie.

Bagala said he asked if Cantrelle was sure that's what he wanted him to do, and Cantrelle said yes. But after speaking with Sposito and then Autin, he told Cantrelle he was uncomfortable making the calls and would not make any more.

In his interview, which supports Bagala's statement, Barnes said he went to Bagala's office and was invited in as the above conversations took place. He said Cantrelle used the term "bargaining chips" in making his request to Bagala and that Bagala asked at least twice if Cantrelle was sure that's what he wanted him to do.

"Barnes says he's not sure how it was determined which council members to call, but he says Jimmy said he wanted enough to get a majority," Morvant writes in the letter.

According to the letter, Cantrelle said he was in the room at the time but didn't tell Bagala to discuss raises when making the calls.

"He says that all he wanted from the council members was a 'yes or no' on the insurance," Morvant writes.

Sposito emailed Morvant Dec. 5 asking for an ethics opinion. At the council's Dec. 13 meeting, Jones proposed requesting an investigation from the district attorney, and it was approved.

"I hope Jimmy Cantrelle will sit down at the table at the council and start from scratch," Jones said of the letter. "The morale of the employees is so low right now. Anytime you have people who'd rather work than go sit down at a Christmas luncheon, something's wrong. Mend the fence with your employees, mend the fence with the council. Everything's laid out. Move from there, correct the problem and move forward. Get it right, or resign."

SIGNS OF WRONGDOING

In a phone interview Friday, Morvant said malfeasance doesn't stand alone as a crime and another criminal act would have to have been committed. He said officials regularly bargain with one another and he doesn't believe Cantrelle's actions constituted bribery.

"If it becomes personal, it's a different story," he said. "I did not look at this as being anything personal for the parish president."

Sposito said she understands negotiations may be held over projects like ditches and roads, but talks involving health care and raises didn't seem normal or appropriate to her.

She said she never wanted to have to vote for Cantrelle to be investigated, but she did for the people she represents. As an elected official, she said, Cantrelle must fulfill his promise to the voters who trusted him to do the right thing.

Autin, who voted against asking Morvant to investigate the claims, said he didn't know when the matter was brought before the council that it had anything to do with him. If he had known, he said, he likely would have argued more aggressively for the issue to be dropped because he didn't see any wrongdoing.

"At no point in time did I feel there was bribery," he said. "I was never promised anything. I was not bribed. I hope that we all grow from this. A lot of times things will come up on the agenda and we don't have the full story. There had been so many different accusations made on so many different people that I thought it was another false alarm."

Regardless of the Board of Ethics' decision, he said, the administration and council must still work together, and he hopes they can eventually put the matter to rest.

Bagala did not respond to voicemail and Facebook messages asking for comment. Cantrelle and Barnes declined to comment.

DRUG TESTING WOES

Morvant does not mention Tommy Lasseigne by name in his letter, but says a finance and human resources director purposefully placed an employee on the random drug screen list. Lasseigne last held that position.

The director was not authorized to handle the employee's file but still made decisions regarding the employee, Morvant says. Months later, a memorandum was produced purporting to give the director status as the employee's appointing authority.

"Neither the civil service director nor the parish administrator were given a copy of this memorandum at the time it was allegedly generated and were not even aware of its existence until months later," Morvant writes. "While these violations of civil service procedure are certainly troubling and potentially have exposed the parish to civil litigation regarding the employee at issue, it does not appear as though any criminal laws were violated in this instance."

The council approved Carrel Hymel III's appointment as finance director at its Nov. 22 meeting. The human resources director position has not yet been filled.

Sposito said she hopes the administration and council can get back to caring for the parish and doing business ethically.

"I don't want the parish to be put in a position where we could be sued," she said. "We just need to do what we were elected to do, and that's do right by the parish, do right by the employees. ... You have to have qualified people in these positions because when someone unqualified is in a position, our taxpayers are vulnerable. That HR person is supposed to know the HR laws, work hand-in-hand with civil service and behave ethically. Our employees need to be treated fairly, and they cannot be treated fairly by someone who doesn't know the laws, doesn't know HR."

Lasseigne declined to comment on the letter, saying he didn't have all the information Morvant used to make his decision.

-- Staff Writer Bridget Mire can be reached at 448-7639 or bridget.mire@dailycomet.com. Follow her on Twitter @bridget_mire.