Zurik: Councilman hands out dozens of contracts to businessman in inner-circle

Zurik: Councilman hands out dozens of contracts to businessman in inner-circle

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Government watchdog Al Morella is committed to what he does. He rarely misses a council meeting in Jefferson Parish.

In fact, he said the only meetings he has missed in 10 years are the ones in Grand Isle, which are held once every year.

“I try to make it my business to stay on top of what's going on,” Morella said.

That includes knowing the way the Jefferson Parish government is different than most. Many of its contracts are controlled by the council members, not the parish president. If a project is slated for a council district, the selection of the contractor is done by that district council member. FOX 8 reviewed every engineering contract handed out by the parish in the past six years - hundreds of contacts worth millions of dollars.

Morella said the findings are, “something that needs to be investigated.”

On some projects, the parish forces engineers to hire a resident inspector to represent the parish’s interests on job sites, such as monitoring and documenting who is there and who is working.

Technically, they are paid by the engineer but hired by the parish. The review of every contract found a resident inspector is frequently hired in District 3, the district of councilman Mark Spears.

Morella said that is not a coincidence.

Since Spears took office in 2012, a company called Exceptional Inspections has been hired 43 times in Jefferson Parish. The work was done in the third district 41 times.

Here is the connection: You need to know three people - Councilman Mark Spears, his predecessor and mentor Byron Lee and Lester Dunn, the owner of Exceptional Inspections.

Dunn used to serve as Lee’s campaign manager and sources said he raised money for Spears' campaign. In April, Spears helped secure a suite at the Zurich Classic golf tournament.

The suite was labeled Jefferson Parish Council, but five council members did not even know about it. A FOX 8 undercover camera caught Spears and Lee in that suite.

Dunn was also there.

"I think it is an arrangement to where this one company is going to consistently get that contract for District 3 all because of who they are connected to and who owns them,” Morella said.

When you break this down by contractor, it may show why it raised questions:

  • Since 2012, Digital Engineering had 44 contracts in Jefferson Parish. They hired Exceptional Inspections three times.  All three times were in Council District 3, which is Mark Spears' district. 
  • Meyer Engineers had 38 contracts. The firm hired Exceptional Inspections seven times, and all seven times were in Spears’ district.  
  • Shread-Kuyrkendall had 11 contracts, four which were in Council District 3. This firm never hired Exceptional Inspections for any of the work outside of Council District 3, but for all four contracts in Spears' district, Exceptional Inspections was hired.  

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One engineer who spoke to FOX 8 anonymously said their firm did not pick Exceptional Inspections, instead it was "assigned to us by the council,” which appears to be true.

Dunn told FOX 8 in an email that the district councilman has the authority to choose the inspection firm and he is thankful for the work awarded to him.

Spears never selected a different resident inspector in District 3.

Spears declined a request for an on-camera interview, but told FOX 8 by email, "It is not remarkable for my colleagues or myself to use firms we are comfortable with."

Spears said he recalled two projects that he did not select Exceptional Inspections as a resident inspector. FOX 8 asked him to provide the contract numbers, but he never did.

Dunn has a checkered past in Jefferson Parish. We aired a report in 2010, detailing a scathing legislative audit on Dunn’s non-profit, the Jefferson Sports and Scholastic Foundation. Dunn formed the foundation to give uniforms to needy kids and hold free summer camps and after school tutorials, but the auditor found the foundation possibly violated state law.

Among the findings was $96,000 in questionable spending, including a board retreat to a golf course in Florida that cost nearly $8,700. The non-profit also paid $2,000 for Dunn’s membership to the TPC golf course. Lee directed $170,000 of parish money to the foundation. The auditor said Lee may have violated state law because his relatives worked for the foundation. After that audit, Morella said he does not understand how the parish can still give Dunn’s company contracts.

“Yes, it does infuriate me,” Morella said.

Exceptional Inspections can make big money. FOX 8 found documents that show Exceptional Inspections made $47,000 on one project and $264,000 on another.The arrangement has Morella concerned for taxpayers. If one company gets repeatedly selected in one council district, Morella questions if Spears is looking out for the taxpayers he serves, or the businessman in his inner circle.

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