Zurik: JP Councilmember charges taxpayers for thousands in out-of-state travel

District 3 Councilmember Mark Spears accounted for more than eighty-percent of the council’s out-of-state travel

Zurik: JP Councilmember charges taxpayers for thousands in out-of-state travel

JEFFERSON PARISH, La. (WVUE) - A Jefferson Parish Councilmember’s taxpayer-funded out-of-state travel seems to stand out when compared to his colleagues.

An analysis of Jefferson Parish accounting records shows District 3 Councilmember Mark Spears has spent more than $25,000 on taxpayer-funded out-of-state travel. Second on the list is the parish’s highest-ranking official, President Michael Yenni at $2,700.

“When one individual is spending ten times as much money as every other individual, that certainly raises red flags,” political analyst Ed Chervenak said.

Eighty-percent of the out-of-state travel by Jefferson Parish Councilmembers was spent by Spears, according to the parish’s own accounting reimbursement paperwork. Spears had taxpayers pay for a yearly Congressional Black Caucus Conference twice held at a Mississippi casino and nearly $3,000 for a trade mission to London, where he learned about the British economy. According to the list of participants on the trip from the New Orleans area, Spears was the only councilmember, parish president or mayor to attend.

“Certainly when we see these types of disparities these individuals will come up with a way to justify these expenses,” Chervenak said.

FOX 8 analyzed Jefferson Parish accounting and reimbursement forms showing out-of-state travel spending by council members and the parish president. District 4 councilmember Dominick Impastato spent $825 on a conference for himself and staff members. Impastato said he reimbursed the parish for the cost.
FOX 8 analyzed Jefferson Parish accounting and reimbursement forms showing out-of-state travel spending by council members and the parish president. District 4 councilmember Dominick Impastato spent $825 on a conference for himself and staff members. Impastato said he reimbursed the parish for the cost. (Source: Cody Lillich, WVUE-TV)

In late October, we e-mailed Spears, requesting an on-camera interview. He initially scheduled it for Nov. 7. A few days before the interview, we sent an e-mail confirming the interview and he wrote back, “okay.”

We told him we would send him additional information to prepare for the interview and did so on Tuesday, Nov. 5. About 24 hours later, Spears canceled our interview because of pending litigation.

Eighteen hours before our interview, Spears filed suit against FOX 8 for defamation related to the stories on Spears in 2018. In the stories, FOX 8′s Lee Zurik reported on Spears’ use of a suite at the Zurich Classic Golf Tournament, contracts he awarded and discretionary funding he sent to non-profits.

Spears told us by e-mail: “...as it relates to my travel, the Parish has long set a budget for travel expenses for each council member and any travel reimbursement I sought from the Parish for my attendance at conferences was economical and consistent with the Parish’s policies. I have attended conferences that focus on economic empowerment and development, education, health, and other quality of life issues, which have proven beneficial and inspired projects for the betterment of Jefferson Parish, such as the Farmer’s Market in Marrero, the Golf Driving Range, to promote economic development, and innovative summer camps programs. I was able to see firsthand projects other municipalities have implementing that may be done locally to improve and beautify Jefferson Parish and attract new families to the Parish. Furthermore, Jefferson Parish Council District 3 has had the most new single family home constructions the last two years with 278 as a direct result of these innovative ideas.”

We asked Spears for a copy of the budget that relates to travel expenses. He did not send it to us, but we tracked it down. The parish budgets $22,250 a year for council and staff training and travel. The 2020 proposed budget shows in 2018 the council only spent $7,554. Spears’ travel that year cost taxpayers $6,100 -- 81 percent of the total council spending.

His most frequent destination -- Washington D.C.

For four of the past five years, taxpayers in Jefferson Parish paid for Spears to attend D.C. Mardi Gras.

“The fact that Jefferson Parish leaders would allow somebody to go to the Mardi Gras in Washington -- and get reimbursed by the government.... but really where is the legislative business in attending the Mardi Gras in Washington? It’s a social event... A party, ” Friedman said. “If his campaign donors want to pay for him to go, that’s fine, but why should the taxpayers pay for him to go? Really?! ”

Other elected officials in the area do have taxpayers pick up the cost for Washington Mardi Gras, but not for any Jefferson Parish councilmembers. Parish President Mike Yenni pays for the trip out of his campaign account.

Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman said none of the spending appears to be illegal, but the differences raise questions.

“There ought to be some accountability,” Friedman said.

On a 2016 Washington D.C. trip for drainage and flood damage discussions, Spears and Parish President Yenni attended.

Spears’ trip cost $2,000, while Yenni was nearly half that price.

Yenni found a hotel that cost $179 a night. Spears stayed at the J.W. Marriott, at a nightly rate of $359.

The Parish President’s flight cost $608, compared to $1,000 for Spears.

Councilmembers Jennifer Van Vrancken and Cynthia Lee-Sheng had minimal out-of-state travel.

District 4 Councilmember Dominick Impastato told us by e-mail, “I have no, and will not, have taxpayer dollars used to pay for out of state travel expenses.”

District 5 Councilmember Van Vrancken said, “If I am going to seek government reimbursement for travel/training, I ensure the purpose is something that would help me do my job or do my job better. I ensure the agenda is primarily substantive/learning based rather than primarily social. I ensure the location of the training/travel is ‘expected’ rather than ‘exotic’ (ex. Baton Rouge or DC, not Paris or Rome). I ensure flight and hotel accommodations are reasonable and/or part of a package offered to all attendees."

Van Vrancken also said she paid her ”own way to attend the DC Washington Mardi Gras Ball where the majority of the scheduled events are social in nature."

In 2016, Spears attended the yearly Black Caucus Conference in Washington, D.C. The trip cost $3,700, among the charges, $1,300 on registration.

Spears said that expense is justified, but a trip where the cost almost equals what the rest of the council spent on out-of-state travel in four years.

“Certainly what he’s going to say is 'I’m attending conferences that will make me a better representative so that I can serve my constituents better, that’s always going to be the fallback position,” Chervenak said. “The question is why do you need to spend ten times as much as other officials to carry out your duties?”

Spears is term-limited on the Jefferson Parish Council and will finish his term at the end of the year. In 2020, Spears will become Justice of the Peace after winning an October 2019 election for that office.

FINANCIAL DOCUMENTS

Explore the documents requested and reviewed by FOX 8 relating to out-of-state travel by District 3 Council Member Mark Spears. Click here to view a larger form of the documents.

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