Lee Zurik Investigation: Big campaign donors get big contracts in JP

The Jefferson Parish group Citizens for Good Government has strong words for the way government contracts are handed out in the parish - how your tax dollars are being spent. When they explain it to friends in other parts of the country, says CGG's Margie Seeman, "They can't believe it's legal."

Jefferson Parish awards two types of contracts, bid and non-bid work. For bid work, the parish automatically has to take the lowest or best priced bidder. For the non-bid work, officials can select any company they want - and the choice is left up to the Parish Council.

It's a system that's unique, found nowhere else in Louisiana. And we've found a stark difference in campaign contributions between companies seeking that bid and non-bid work in Jefferson Parish.

"The discretion of elected officials is too wide-ranging, way too wide-ranging," says Janet Howard of the non-profit Bureau of Governmental Research.

When the council met on June 12 of this year, the parish awarded a similar amount of bid and non-bid contracts. But the companies seeking bid work – again, where the parish has to award the contract to the lowest-priced bidder - only contributed $20,500 to campaigns over the last four years. The companies trying for non-bid work - where it's up to the council to decide the winner of the contract - gave $512,526.

So, when the council has discretion to pick any company, the companies being chosen are giving big money to campaigns.

"In that case, evidently, it would certainly appear as though those that are non-bid are replying more than those that are bid," acknowledges Parish Councilman Chris Roberts. "There's a lot of discretion in that process, one would say. And I think you would find it would be consistent, both in Jefferson and anywhere else where that would be the case."

Each meeting we looked at gave us a similar picture - the big money contributions followed the non-bid work.

We compared donations to council members, from 2009 through 2012, by companies going for bid work and by those seeking non-bid work. Some examples stand out.

Donations by companies seeking non-bid work at the council's July 24, 2013 meeting totaled $599,166; donors seeking bid work gave just $26,400.

The firms that sought no-bid contracts at the August 28, 2013 meeting contributed $286,000 to council members; the bid work firms, just $9,700.


"If you want to get a contract with Jefferson Parish, and a councilman solicits you for campaign contributions, how can you say no?" asks Seeman. "You know that they get to select the winners of the contracts. And they can select anybody they want. They don't have to pay any attention to the evaluation committee's rankings. They have complete discretion in selecting the winners of the contract."

The Bureau of Governmental Research has urged the parish to tighten its rules.

Howard says, "They're basically able to choose anyone they want who meets certain minimum qualifications. They don't have to choose the highest-ranked contractor, the second highest-ranked, third, fourth, fifth. They're able to just take anyone who… puts in a bid and makes a minimum score, basically."

BGR suggests not only having a selection committee rank the contractors, but also forcing the parish to select the highest-ranked bidder.

"Clearly there has not been a lot of appetite for contract reform," Howard tells us.

Parish President John Young wants the council to adopt BGR's reforms.

"We have the responsibility for executing the contracts," says Young. "So if the executive branch has the responsibility, they ought to have the authority."

Councilman Roberts has proposed an ordinance that would take into consideration some of BGR's recommendations. But he wants the council to have some discretion, picking from those firms ranked in the top 3.

"We have to ensure that the scoring is consistent, that we have independency on the technical evaluation committees, and that individuals who are responsible for sitting in these evaluations and that are scoring understand the importance and complexity of the job that they've been tasked with," insists Roberts.

Roberts agrees, the system has to change. The Jefferson Parish Performing Arts Center is one example of why.

The council picked an architect ranked fourth among five firms to design the arts center. The selection of architectural firm Wisznia and Associates was based solely on the recommendation of then-Councilman John Lavarine, Jr. Wisznia and Associates was a frequent contributor to the campaigns of Lavarine and his son, John Lavarine III, then a city councilman in Kenner.

The project was supposed to cost $26 million when it began in 2007. But the cost has ballooned to $54.4 million, and the project remains four years behind schedule. Critics say architectural design flaws helped lead to the overages.

"That is a situation that's a case study for contracting reform," Young tells us.

Architect Marcel Wisznia has not responded to requests for comment. Lavarine Jr., though, made his first public comments about the issue in years, telling the Times-Picayune that he never considered Wisznia's contributions when choosing the firm. "They've got to blame somebody, and I'm no longer there," says Lavarine, referring to current parish officials.

In 2010, FOX 8 News showed a questionable no-bid grass cutting contract. After our stories, the parish re-bid the work and saved $5 million.

The no-bid technology contract held by Barowka and Bonura for 16 years offers yet another example. The contract started in 1993, and was never competitively bid again.

In September 2011, John Young wanted to solicit new bids for the work. The council rebuffed his request, and in the subsequent weeks Barowka and Bonura contributed $12,500 to council members' campaign accounts.

In the fall of 2011, company owner Walt Barowka spoke to the Times-Picayune about campaign contributions and said, "We pretty much support all the incumbents because it's the nature of the beast. I'm just glad there are limits."

Months later, the council flipped and voted to hand that tech contract to another firm.

"The contractors feel pressured to contribute to the council if the council is getting to choose the winners of the contracts," says Seeman.

For his part, Councilman Mark Spears denies the accusation, telling our investigators, "I don't sit and look at it like, 'This contractor gave me that amount…' Contributions have nothing to do with it."

And Councilman Ben Zahn takes issue with our analysis, highlighting contributions given in the same years in which contractors received parish work. In a statement, he writes, "To blanketly impugn the reputation(s) of entire industries, when qualified professionals submit their proposals for consideration publicly, and such proposals are graded by independent committees, then ranked for council selection, is simply unfair," Zahn said.

Roberts says he doesn't pressure any vendors to contribute, but he knows some instances where former colleagues did pressure donors to attend a fundraiser.

"I know that in some cases some elected officials, after an event is over, will call people and say, 'Well, you RSVP-ed but you didn't show up,'" he tells us, declining to name the officials. "That's never been a practice that I've engaged in… To me, it gives the appearance that you're keeping track of who is and who is not responding to a solicitation. That's part of the reason why this council, within the last year, put in a solicitation requirement that required any vendor who did business in Jefferson Parish to state by affidavit if they had been contacted by an elected official, specifically asking for a contribution."

These vendors are contributing in large numbers. FOX 8 News and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune have spent four months combing through campaign records. We compiled a list of the top 100 contributors to Jefferson Parish Council members. What we found was that the top 100 - just 4 percent of the more than 2,560 contributors in the four-year period - contribute half of all money donated to the council members' campaigns – in fact, most members get the majority of their money from those companies.


Councilman Spears, for example, raised 75 percent of his money from the top 100; Elton Lagasse, 71 percent.

Nine of the top 10 contributors are engineering firms, the type of company that competes for that no-bid work.

"When these companies or businesses contribute, we pay," says Margaret Bair of the Citizens for Good Government, "They just add that to the cost of their contract. We, the taxpayers, are basically paying for it."

Government watchdogs say the system is out of whack. If you follow the campaign contributions, they lead straight to no-bid contracts.

“You have a conflict of interest when you have campaigns that are funded, to a significant degree, by contributions from contractors, and you have elected officials who have the discretion to award contracts,” warns Howard. “The question becomes, without some kind of objective system, are they just giving contracts to people who make campaign contributions, to what extent is that influencing their behavior, or is the contract going to the person who, in any circumstance, would be considered the best qualified.”