GRETNA, LA (WVUE) - Jefferson Parish has paid a hospital privatization consultant almost a million dollars over the last year and a half. But what is he doing to earn that pay? The parish didn't want you to see the consultant's invoices but we got them anyway, and we're left with more questions than answers.
"That is really irritating," says Joel Friedman, a Tulane law professor who says he's frustrated after he reviews documents that Jefferson Parish refused to turn over. "Why are they hiding it?"
The parish says these documents are private. Friedman counters, "The only reason to keep this from your vision is because it's embarrassing."
The records we're talking about are supposed to detail payments made to a consultant who's being paid $650 for every hour of work.
"That's a lot of money," says Chris Roberts, who chairs the Jefferson Parish Council.
In a year and a half, Jefferson Parish has paid Pennsylvania-based Nemzoff and Company $921,884. Nemzoff is advising the parish on its privatization deals at East and West Jefferson Hospitals. The head of that company, Joshua Nemzoff, gets paid $650 an hour. And each month he has to submit invoices to the parish to justify his work.
According to Nemzoff's contract, "All invoices shall be supported by documentation of time spent and services performed." It clearly states invoices need to be detailed.
But these invoices are not detailed.
"No, it's not," Roberts confirms. "And that's a problem."
On July 1, 2014, Nemzoff billed the parish for two hours. The reason: "Communication with client."
On December 9, he billed for 12 hours; "CEA, lease, client" were the only details included with the invoice.
"It's so basic, it's a one-word description of a thing," Friedman says. "If I were receiving this, I would not view this as sufficient under the contract and I would not pay these bills."
Every invoice we reviewed has little detail of why Nemzoff worked as many as 12 hours in one day.
"If I ever sent a client something like this, they'd laugh at me," Friedman tells us, "and they should. And I'm not the government. That's what makes it worse."
The Jefferson Parish attorney's office is responsible for approving these invoices.
"It's ridiculous," Friedman says. "They should know better."
We filed a public records request asking for the invoices, and we were denied. The parish attorney's office cites a part of state law that prevents the release of specific public hospital records that involve "any marketing strategy and strategic plan." It's called the "Enhanced Ability to Compete Act."
But Friedman says the invoices are so vague that nothing in them would hurt the hospital's ability to compete.
"These are not trade secrets," he insists. "This is not attorney-client privilege. This is not any kind of information that would potentially be subject to some sort of privilege from public scrutiny. This is exactly the kind of information that the public should not only have a right to have but demand to have, and should be publicly available. You shouldn't have to go around searching for it. "
We eventually obtained the invoices from a Jefferson Parish source.
"They're hiding it because they don't want you to know that this is the kind of invoice they're receiving," Friedman says. "It's not what's in here they don't want you to know, it's what's not in here. They don't want you to see that these invoices are so barren."
Nemzoff bills in full hours. In other words, everything that Nemzoff bills is rounded to the hour.
But Friedman tells us, "You put in at least in quarter-hour increments."
The law firm Hogan Lovells is also working on the hospital deal; it also bills with invoices. But instead of rounding to the hour, they bill every six minutes. So 5.10 hours of work would be five hours and six minutes of billing.
"Suppose I worked for one hour and two minutes," Friedman says. "How do I know when this guy puts eight hours that it's not seven hours and one minute? Now maybe it's eight hours and 59 minutes. I don't know. It strains credibility to believe that, just fortuitously, every single job was exactly a certain amount of hours and no extra minutes. It's just not realistic."
But there's more. When you compare the invoices of that law firm and Nemzoff, you find stark differences. For instance, on August 22, 2014, Hogan Lovells billed 1.4 hours - that's 84 minutes. The law firm noted it participated in a conference call with Nemzoff and did one other billable duty.
When you compare every invoice, it's clear that the law firm provided detail and the adviser, Nemzoff, did not.
The council chairman tells us he's concerned about who's overseeing Nemzoff's contract, who's authorizing him to bill.
"Who is saying it was necessary to communicate or do those things?" Roberts wonders. "Someone ought to be providing direction to a vendor when they're doing work so that there's oversight on what is [permissible] as billable hour."
According to these invoices, these vague descriptions allow Nemzoff to be paid taxpayer money. Consider December 31, when Nemzoff billed for two hours. His reasoning? Just three letters: "NWC." For that day, Jefferson Parish decided that explanation was good enough to pay him $1,300.
"They shouldn't be doing this; they are doing this," Friedman. "Why are they doing this? No responsible person would do this. It just can't be because they're too busy. They have a fiduciary responsibility to the people who are paying these fees, which is you and I as taxpayers, not to be paying these kinds of invoices when they are so blatantly insufficient. And I just don't understand why they accept it. Why?"
Occasionally, taxpayers paid for Nemzoff to fly first class, and stay at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New Orleans, even though he was doing work in Jefferson Parish.
Nemzoff declined our request for an on-camera interview. He did, however, send the following email in response to our questions to him:
Hi Lee. I would suggest that you be very careful in what you report.
You should talk to Ben, Mark, Cynthia and Paul. And perhaps Deborah Foshee or Newell Normand. I have no idea what your angle is nor do I care. What I can tell you is my expense reports have a review process that includes many people. You can have your minutes in front of the camera saying whatever it is you want to say. But the truth of the matter is when certain members of the parish council ran HCA off they lost $430MM. When the IG refused my fixed fee offer of $625,000 and insisted that I work on an hourly basis that cost them another $400,000. And although you can comment on my flying first class and staying at the ritz you should check your facts carefully. I don't always fly first class but sometimes I do. The parish attorney and the IG both know that from Philadelphia a first class ticket costs about 5% more than coach or about $50. And with the discounts I get at the ritz, all of which have been explained to the IG and the Parish Attorney, if you were diligent you would find that I can stay at the ritz for less money than you can stay at a holiday inn.
So I have no real interest in talking with you. I simply assume that some of the people in Jefferson Parish that don't like me have put you up to this. Fine with me. If I did not have the confidence of the majority of the Council I would have been gone a long time ago.
So check your facts. Josh
The parish attorney's office also declined our request for an interview.
The parish council hired Nemzoff; the parish attorney is hired by the parish president.