Zurik: Jefferson Parish councilman questionably spends public money

Zurik: Jefferson Parish councilman spends BP settlement money on parade, festival, golf

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - When the Jefferson Parish Chamber of Commerce urged the Parish Council to spend BP settlement money on flood protection, one council member went against that request.

The parish received a $54 million payoff for the BP oil spill destruction that happened in 2010. Last year, West Bank Councilman Mark Spears directed $51,000 of that money to the Jugs Social Club and the Krewe of NOMTOC for a Christmas parade.

“I think it’s outrageous,” said government watchdog Al Morella. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s unacceptable.”

After giving the Christmas parade the money, the club made Spears the grand marshal.

“He’s spending $51,000 that can be better spent somewhere else,” Morella said.

Spears used another $47,000 of BP money to hire an executive assistant.

Every council member knows Morella. He said he tries to stay on top of everything that is going on and regularly attends council meetings.

“We’re not seeing accountability,” Morella said.

Jefferson Parish council members control several discretionary funds, like the BP settlement fund, that critics call slush funds - public money the council members can direct to projects or for a cause.

But Morella says Spears is spending some of that money to benefit himself and people in his inner circle.

In late April, FOX 8 sent an undercover camera into the Zurich Classic Golf Tournament. That’s because every year Spears sends money there out of his discretionary tourism fund – this year $75,000.

In return, it would appear the council gets a suite. But four council members had no idea the Parish Council even had it. Cynthia Lee-Sheng, Chris Roberts, Paul Johnston and Dominick Impastato all said they were not aware of it. West Bank Councilman Ricky Templet said he didn’t know about the suite until after the tournament and was “surprised.” One council member, Jennifer Van Vrancken, didn’t answer questions about the suite.

Back in April, FOX 8 watched that suite for three days of the tournament and found Spears and some of his closest advisers in it. Among the suite guests were Spears’ predecessor, former Councilman Byron Lee and Lee’s son.

Morella said Lee is Spears’ mentor.

For the three days, FOX 8 didn’t see any other council members in the suite, despite the fact that it’s labeled “Jefferson Parish Council.” It raises the question: If it’s a council suite, why would Lee be there but five current council members not even know about it?

“They shouldn’t be using taxpayer money for none of that,” Morella said. “They want to attend something like this, like I told you, they should be using their own money, not ours.”

Last year, Spears sent $253,000 out of his tourism discretionary fund to the West Bank Heritage Festival. That festival has ties to Lee and another person in Spears' inner circle, Carol Smith.

Take a step back to 2010 and a scathing legislative audit on a non-profit healthcare provider Jefferson Community Health Care Centers. The CEO was Carol Smith. The audit found the nonprofit used public funds "for personal purchases, loans to employees, and other gifts and donations."

In 2012. the auditor released another report. This time it detailed nearly seven years’ worth of payments from the parish to the nonprofit totaling $2.25 million. At the time, former Councilman Lee proposed many of the resolutions authorizing the payments and voted on all but one of those resolutions.

At the same time, the audit found Lee’s family members worked for the clinics, earning a total of $117,000. The auditor concluded that may violate state law.

The audit also found Smith paid herself $17,000 in unearned leave benefits, invested $92,000 in a for-profit business and made an improper donation to Lee’s campaign fund.

In conclusion, the auditor found the center may have violated state law and IRS regulations.

Smith also consulted for Spears’ campaign. Her company, Optimum Management, earned $40,000. Smith also opened a consulting business with Lee.

The West Bank Heritage Festival submitted stacks of records to the parish to justify the $253,000 payment. In those records, a letter that shows Lee lined up the insurance for the event.

The records show Optimum Management also made money off this festival for three months of 2017 - $21,000. Smith appeared to use public funds for this event to purchase a birthday cake, a bottle of wine, Coors Lite, Corona and a corkscrew.

“Taxpayer money ... that’s illegal,” Morella said.

So, Spears directed $253,000 of taxpayer money to an event associated with Lee and Smith, the same people who have been the focus of several scathing audits.

“I think it’s misappropriation of taxpayer money, yes, I do,” Morella said. “How is it representing the best interest of the people?"

Spears declined a request for an on-camera interview, but he did send an email defending his spending.

In the email, Spears touted the money he sent to several organizations and events. He left out the Zurich Classic and the Christmas parade where he was grand marshal. Spears said his spending ”Is consistent with the way district improvement funds are spent in every other council district.”

Some council members do give money to similar organizations, like the Gretna Heritage Festival and the Krewe of Adonis. And Spears noted some of his discretionary money has funded “walking trails, tot lots, community centers, parks and recreation, summer camps, roads, sewerage and drainage improvements, efforts to reduce crime, and other initiatives for the betterment of the parish.”

But Morella said some of Spears’ spending raises questions when you combine the money with the people who may be benefiting from it.

Byron Lee told us by email: “I ask that you not foster an environment through your reporting that seeks to destroy the good will that I’ve accumulated in my private and professional life. Although I’ve not been in public office for nearly 7 years, I continue to volunteer my time and resources in my community.”

Carol Smith told us: “While I respect your journalistic reporting, I am merely asking for accuracy and fairness.”

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