Michael Dezura is surprised, frustrated, and a 10 year resident of New Orleans neighborhood of Gert Town. The developer considers himself a community activist, and boasts a job well done on the rebuilding of 8 Gert Town homes over the last 8 years.
Yet, it's the work of a nearby non-profit, the Gert Town Revival Initiative, he's concerned about. The group's executive director, Reverend Lois Dejean, refuses to release details over how she spent hundreds of thousands of dollars she received from the city to help revitalize the Gert Town community.
"I haven't seen anything she's done in the area to really improve it at all," Dezura said.
Records from the Landrieu administration show that GRI received $404,000 from the city of New Orleans to "implement a strategic plan to improve the Gert Town neighborhood."
It's money that traces back to a now empty lot in Gert Town, along Earhart Boulevard—it's where the Thompson-Hayward Chemical Company once operated. But after being blamed for years of causing health problems in the area, it was shut down, and in a lawsuit settlement 15 years ago, the company dolled out $51.6 million dollars in damages—$500,000 went to the city. It was former Mayor Ray Nagin who agreed to give $404,000 of it to GRI.
The money began flowing to the nonprofit in 2005 with the remaining portion released by Nagin on April 29th of last year—just 4 days before he left office.
So FOX 8 caught up with Dejean at the GRI office in order to ask her about the money trail.
"I'm not going bill by bill to tell you how I spent it," a visibly agitated Dejean told FOX 8. "That's unethical and you know it."
Dejean found specific questions about how she spent the money offensive, and would only speak in broad categories.
"I gave some people money to buy certain things for their house, to take care of certain personal things, we pay light bills, we pay telephone bills, bought clothes," Dejean said. "We provided a whole lot of things for people, and that's just Katrina."
But she wouldn't provide any documentation proving those expenses.
"I don't have to show you my records, I can show you my records, I have nothing to hide, but not based on what somebody said," Dejean said.
"Wouldn't that make for just a better process to be transparent and let people know how you spent the money," WVUE reporter Bigad Shaban asked DeJean. "No," she replied. "Because you went out into the community first, if you wanted transparency, you would have come here first."
Documents obtained from a former GRI board member show Dejean received more than $200,000 in salary payments from GRI over the last 5 years. Over the same time period, GRI also paid out $22,300 in rent for its office space inside part of a Gert Town residential building, the same one Dejean uses as her home.
The same document showed $1,090 dollars in expenditures for Hurricane Katrina assistance, $10,484 dollars for toys, and $15,527 dollars for phone services.
City hall, however, couldn't provide a similar line by line budget for how all of the money was used, and Dejean refused to provide one to FOX 8 despite concerns from neighbors she may not have spent the $404,000 properly.
"Why not just put it to rest by telling people how you're spending the money," Shaban asked DeJean. "It's not rest, this is mess," Dejean replied. "I can't defend myself against what anyone else is saying, and that's unfair to me."
"Wouldn't releasing how you're spending the money put the facts out in the open and let people decide for themselves," Shaban asked. "No," Dejean replied. "It's not democratic at all."
Charities or non-profits like GRI are required to make its tax returns public, but Dejean wouldn't provide FOX 8 or The Lens with hers. The website Guidestar.org
, which posts IRS records, shows no filings for GRI since 2005.
Dejean was adamant that the people of Gert Town know exactly how she spent the money. But neighbors FOX 8 and The Lens spoke with say while GRI did help organize volunteers to gut homes, the only expenditures from the non-profit they know of are for house paint and holiday baskets for neighbors, and a donation to Gloria's Restaurant.
Neighbors didn't want to go on-camera for fear, they say, of crossing the well known Gert Town reverend.
"If what you're saying is true, why not get on camera," Dejean said. "I'm 75 years old, who can I hurt?"
Dejean first started receiving funds from the city in April 2005, and despite being selected by the Nagin administration to receive the money, even the then-Recovery Czar Ed Blakely noted that Dejean's plan "appears to be unrealistic" and that the city and GRI should meet "to work out the logistics of how the project would be monitored."
The Landrieu administration, however, couldn't provide any documentation showing how, or if, the city monitored the spending. Instead, the mayor's office directed us back to Dejean, and so it's unclear if those goals were ever met.
"We have no idea what that money was spent on, yet the city continued to dole out money," said New Orleans Councilwoman Stacy Head, who represents the Gert Town community. "This is though unfortunately a problem that was within the housing department that potentially continues today."
Head says Anthony Facione, a then-Nagin administration official, was instrumental in giving the money away to GRI. And while he remains a top official in the Landrieu administration, head says she's never received detailed information on how the GRI money was spent.
"I repeatedly requested that in emails and in meetings with the housing department, with Mr. Facione, email letters, etc. and I never received it."
FOX 8 requested an interview with the Landrieu administration about GRI's money trail, but instead Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant provided a written statement via e-mail saying, "We have scheduled a monitoring visit to review their program." The statement did not mention when such a visit would take place or what it would entail.
The Landrieu administration, however, did provide our investigative partners at The Lens with a 5 page letter from the reverend, where she describes matching a $25,000 donation to the owner of Gloria's Restaurant in hopes of getting the Gert Town staple back open after Hurricane Katrina.
But the owner of the restaurant, Gloria Caulfield, says while GRI did pay for certain fixes at her restaurant, she was never provided any receipts for the completed work.
"Tile on the floor, wood on the walls, the toilets and things like that," Caulfield said.
She also tells FOX 8 there's no way GRI came close to paying the full $25,000 the reverend claims to have matched.
It's a convoluted story of names and agreements that leaves Dezura wondering what if.
He had hoped to turn this rundown block into office space for the Dominican Friars, but the project fell through because of a lack of funding, all while the reverend, to his shock, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the city.
"I'm sure we could have made the deal happen with the Dominican Friars," Dezura said. "We could have been done or close to being done."
Dezura says all the revered gave his community is a hard time, including her opposition to changing the city zoning to allow the project.
"When I asked her for her support, she basically thought it was a good idea if I made a donation to her organization, which I don't know enough about it," Dezura said. "I told her I wasn't going to do that, I just needed her support for the rezoning."
Dejean tells us she's never even spoken to Dezura, even though he's the man who renovated her home and office. She calls him a garbage mouth liar, but he just wants to know what she did with all those dollars.
"There should be some kind of accountability for that," Dezura said. "I mean $404,000 is a lot of money."
For more on this story visit TheLensNola.org.