Councilwoman possibly violated state ethics laws for 'sweetheart deal' to nephew

ST. CHARLES PARISH, LA (WVUE) - A St. Charles Parish councilwoman may have violated state ethics laws when she sold land to her nephew for $100 and then that land was involved in a more than $1 million deal with the parish.

"This was not in what we say in the law as an arm's length transaction between disinterested parties. Far from it," Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman said. "This is what you would call a sweetheart deal."

On Aug. 10, Councilwoman Mary Clulee sold more than 300 acres of marshland off of Highway 90 in Boutte for $100 and other "valuable consideration" to Gator Cove Marina LLC.

Gator Cove Marina is owned Gerald Savioe Jr., who Clulee admits is her husband's nephew.

On Aug. 28, St. Charles Parish President Larry Cochran introduced the ordinance to lease 32 acres of Savoie's newly acquired land for a location to build a boat launch. The lease called for the parish to pay $54,000 a year for 30 years, a total of $1.6 million.

Council members Benedetto, Gibbs, Woodruff, Fletcher and Fisher-Perrier voted to approve the lease. Council members Hogan and Wilson voted against it. Councilwoman Mary Clulee abstained.

On Aug. 31, Cochran signed the lease agreement.

"Is this really a fair dealing? Is this really above board?," Friedman asked. "It just smacks of inside dealing...The taxpayers of St. Charles Parish are paying, indirectly, for the cost of this lease agreement."

At the August meeting, Cochran said work on a lease agreement of this property had been ongoing for sometime.

"We vetted this project for a year. There's a lot of work that's been done on this property," he said to the audience.

Last year, Clulee wrote a letter to the Louisiana Ethics Commission asking if she could lease the property to the parish herself. The commission responded, saying the state code of ethics prohibits her from leasing property to any department within St. Charles Parish Government. Friedman believes that shows Clulee knowingly went around the ethics code, which he said is a violation in itself.

"She knew about this potential business arrangement that she, in fact, had been working on herself while she owned the land that was under discussion. But before the deal was consummated, she made the transfer. To a reasonable person, that suggests that the purpose and the sole purpose for this alleged transfer of ownership was not to transfer ownership, it was to avoid the ethics obligations."

The commission also warned Clulee if she had a "substantial economic interest" she must disclose "that conflict or potential conflict."

At the August meeting, Clulee discussed the transfer, but not that she sold the land to her nephew for $100.

"As to the recent transfers of the property the reason why it was delayed for so long, there was no reason to transfer if the parish wasn't going to go forward with the lease," Clulee told the council.

At the meeting, Councilman Paul Hogan suggested leasing the land for one year is more than the land is worth.

"Throwing our taxpayers dollars away. I strongly urge y'all not to do that to do that to the taxpayers of our parish," Hogan said at the meeting.

"If you're renting it for more than the value of the land every year, that doesn't sound like the fair market value," Friedman said.

After FOX 8 started asking questions about the lease and its price tag, Cochran announced he would ask the council to cancel the lease.

Clulee denied FOX 8's requests for an on-camera interview and would only release a statement saying:

"The parish administration in its attempt to provide a public boat launch in the vicinity of Lake Cataouatche recognized the potential of the Gator Cove Marina site.

"She should know better than to do this. The coincidence of the transfer is beyond coincidence. It's just beyond coincidence," Friedman said.

FOX 8 asked Clulee specifically about the timing of the land transfer to her nephew, but she has not responded.

Last week, Clulee said over the phone the land is "worth what someone will pay for it" when she was asked how much she believed the land was worth

The Louisiana Ethics Commission would not deny nor confirm if the agency was involved in an investigation into Clulee's actions.

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