Lee Zurik Investigation: Benetech sues, court watchers - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports, Social

Lee Zurik Investigation: Benetech sues, court watchers dumbfounded

New Orleans -- "Good luck. Take your best shot."

The Metropolitan Crime Commission's Rafael Goyeneche has few words to describe a lawsuit filed in a local courtroom last month.

"That's stunning," Goyeneche told us.

In a November 17th lawsuit, the company Benetech filed suit against the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office, demanding more than $2 million from a post-Katrina construction management contract.

It just so happens, it's the same contract that's been part of a federal probe where former Plaquemines Sheriff Jiff Hingle admitted to receiving kickbacks from Benetech owner Aaron Bennett in order to facilitate payments of the contract. Federal judges will sentence Hingle and Bennett for their crimes early next year.

"I can't imagine anybody in Plaquemines Parish stepping up and saying that they're going to pay this man money for the work that he did, when he is under federal indictment right now, and he's basically admitted to federal felonies in connection with the contract work that he did for that parish," Goyeneche said.

The lawsuit alleges Benetech hasn't been paid for work performed on a temporary and permanent prison.

In one instance, Benetech's attorney demands payment by writing, "Most significantly, the PPSO certified that Benetech had performed work."

So, since the sheriff certified the work, Benetech now wants to be paid.

But there could be a problem. Sheriff Hingle certified that work -- the same sheriff who admitted to receiving kickbacks from Benetech's owner to expedite and approve payments.


Goyeneche told us, "If a public official has committed a crime by accepting a bribe, he's not going to hold that vendor to any standard of doing their job in a professional, in accordance with the terms of the contract, because he's on the payroll. He's less than objective. He's basically sold his authority."

In August, FOX 8 uncovered evidence that Benetech may have overbilled the sheriff hundreds of thousands of dollars for this work, the same work for which Benetech is now demanding payment.

In fact, FEMA tells us Benetech only performed about $522,000 of reimbursable work. Benetech has been paid about $1 million, and demands $2.1 million more in the suit.

Aaron Bennett would not answer our questions about his relationship with Hingle, or his payments from the Sheriff's Office. But he did admit his guilt before a judge. Does this lawsuit contradict that plea?

"When you plead guilty in federal court, part of the thing that you try to earn is acceptance of responsibility," legal analyst Joe Raspanti told FOX 8. "And by that, you get some points off your time. But if you sue for the money that may have been involved with the bribe -- if that is the case -- that doesn't portray you accepting responsibility as someone who did something wrong."

And when Judge Stanwood Duval sentences Bennett, this suit could play into his decision.

I note that there's a different attorney handling civil then the criminal case, and that's of significance in my mind," Raspanti said. "If I'm representing him, I'm not going to have him file suit over the money that possibly could be construed as money that he got through ill-gotten means. That's undermining what we are trying to do to get him the best sentence possible."

Benetech did recently make ownership changes. Secretary of State records show Aaron Bennett's father now has full control of the company. But it's important to note that Bennett's father uses a Warehouse District address: the address, a penthouse condo where Aaron Bennett currently lives.

So technically, right now it's Bennett's father, not Aaron
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