Marshland leased for St. Charles Parish boat launch without land value assessment

ST. CHARLES PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Documents obtained by FOX 8 show the difference in what St. Charles Parish Councilwoman Mary Clulee bought marshland for in 2009 and how much the parish agreed in August to lease a portion of the property that now belongs to Clulee's nephew.

Clulee and her husband purchased 325 acres of marshland in 2009 for $202,500, according to parish records. The property is located off Highway 90 near Boutte and Lake Cataouatche.

On Aug. 10, Clulee sold the 325 acres to her nephew, Gerald Savoie Jr., for $100 plus "valuable consideration." Days later, 32 acres of that property were part of a lease agreement with the parish council to build a boat launch for taxpayers.

At the 2009 price, the 32 acres would be near $20,000 to buy the land. The parish's current agreement is to lease the land for $54,000 for 30 years - a total of $1.6 million.

"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 ethics obligations," Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman said.

State ethics law prohibit Clulee from doing business directly with the parish.

The Louisiana Tax Commission assesses the value of marshland. The agency says they have not been approached by anyone recently about the value of the property. When FOX 8 questioned the lease amount, Parish President Larry Cochran, who initially introduced the lease to the council, said he would ask the council to cancel it.

At Monday's meeting, however, the council tabled canceling the deal with Clulee's nephew because members were concerned Savoie would not allow them to enter into another agreement if his property turns out to be the best place for a boat launch.

"I think tabling this is probably the right option to go forward," Councilman Dick Gibbs said. "Obviously, the optics of this whole roll out was done poorly. A lot of us weren't informed or made ourselves informed of what was going on."

During the meeting, parish residents once again spoke out against the lease.

"This whole process the last five weeks has been a comedy of errors," resident Milton Allemand said.

"Being an avid fisherman, I can tell you that deal being considered was awfully fishy," resident Walter Pilie said.

Keeping the lease in place means Clulee's nephew will get $4,500 a month until the lease is canceled or the 30 years are up.

Clulee did not return our request for comment Tuesday, but two weeks ago she defended the deal.

"It doesn't make any difference what I sold it for. It's whatever the parish wanted to lease it for," Clulee said at the Sept. 18 meeting. "I work hard for what I have, and I'm sure you work hard for what you have, so why would I just give it away? I have kids, I have grand kids, don't think I'm entitled to something. So if I sell the property, I can at least reap that."

Clulee admitted that she worked with the parish to find a suitable location for a boat launch, but she could not say what other land she may have considered.

"The cost of this lease is what's the issue here. We are talking $4,500 a month for this piece of property that is no where near that value," Councilman Paul Hogan said.

Hogan said he is against the lease because he has never seen an assessed value of the marshland. Hogan, along with council members Terrell Williams and Traci Fletcher, voted down tabling the ordinance to cancel the lease.

Clulee voted in favor of tabling the ordinance, along with council members Gibbs, Wendy Benedetto, Billy Woodruff, Marilyn Bellock and Julia Fisher-Perrier.

In a written statement Tuesday, President Cochran said: "All land assessments will be done in conjunction with the citizen's advisory panel", meaning an assessment was not completed before Cochran presented the lease agreement to the council.

During Tuesday's meeting, the council unanimously agreed to create a Citizen's Advisory Panel to look at all land options for a boat launch.

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