ST. CHARLES PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Depending on who you ask, a controversial land lease to build a public boat launch may - or may not - be in place in St. Charles Parish.
"The price was just not reasonable. It had nothing to do with the fair market value of the land," Councilman Paul Hogan said.
Hogan has fought against the lease ever since the parish council approved it on Aug. 28. The lease was a part of a deal that included Councilwoman Mary Clulee, who sold 300 acres of marshland off Highway 90 near Boutte to her nephew for $100 plus "valuable consideration" on Aug. 14.
The lease agreement used 32 acres of Clulee's nephew's newly acquired marshland, and called for monthly payments of $4,500 for the next 30 years, a total of $1.6 million.
State ethics code prohibits Clulee from doing business directly with the parish. She said that is why she sold it to her nephew.
"Why would I just give it away?" Clulee asked at a Sept. 18 meeting. "I have kids, grandkids. Don't you think I'm entitled to something? So if I sell the property, I can at least reap that."
Tulane Law professor Joel Friedman said going around the state's ethics code is a violation in itself.
"To a reasonable person, that suggests that the sole purpose for this alleged transfer of ownership was not to transfer ownership, it was to avoid ethics obligations," Friedman said.
When FOX 8 starting asking questions about the lease and its price, Parish President Larry Cochran introduced an ordinance to cancel the lease. The parish council tabled the cancellation ordinance twice, and never brought the measure up for a vote.
FOX 8 uncovered that the parish government never assessed the value of the land and showed that Clulee purchased it for much less than the parish lease agreement price called for.
Cochran also wrote a letter of cancellation to Clulee's nephew in September. Parish attorney Bobby Raymond told the council that was sufficient to end the deal.
"The provision allowing the cancellation of the lease was properly executed by the parish president," Raymond said during an Oct. 17 meeting.
The agreement states that the lessee can cancel the lease without penalty, and the cancellation would take effect in 60 days. But the contract states that the parish is the lessee, according real estate attorney David Halpern.
Halpern, who has more than 30 years of experience in his field, looked over the lease and believes the president can execute the lease - but not cancel it without council approval.
"Typically, a parish president or a mayor is an administrative officer. The right to buy and sell real estate, to lease real estate, and in fact under this charter, the right to deal with immovable property vests in the parish council, not the parish president," Halpern said.
Halpern believes as long as the lease is not canceled by the council, Clulee's nephew is entitled to $4,500 a month.
"If it was me and I wanted to do this as carefully and perfectly as necessary, I would seek out the council's permission to do so," Halpern said.
FOX 8 has attempted to reach Clulee's nephew to see if he plans to bill the parish, but we have not been able to reach him.
Councilman Hogan has requested that the council hold a special meeting to cancel the lease.
FOX 8 reached out to Council Chair Terrell Wilson, but we have not gotten a response.