Zurik: Business ties of Lafitte mayor raise ethical questions
JEAN LAFITTE, La. (WVUE) - In a recent interview on “William Wallis for America,” Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner Jr. criticized government operations in what he called the swamps of Baton Rouge and Washington DC, referring to them as “rule by power” and emphasizing the need to halt the influence of certain families and individuals securing government contracts.
However, Dillard University political analyst Dr. Robert Collins says a recent deal involving Kerner raises questions as well.
“I think any, any voter that lives in the city, would be concerned,” Collins said.
In July 2021, Green Tree Homes LLC of Nevada purchased a building across the street from Jean Lafitte’s town hall. Mayor Kerner and his father, State Representative Tim Kerner Sr., were silent partners in the deal. The partnership wasn’t disclosed in public filings with the State Ethics Board, raising potential conflicts of interest concerns.
“I don’t believe public officials should be silent partners in anything, because it just increases the probability that they’re going to enter into a situation where they have a conflict of interest,” Collins said.
During the same period, Mayor Kerner had a silent business partnership with Green Tree Homes. He awarded $154,000 in government work to the company, which is connected to Green Tree Contractors.
Law professor and legal analyst Dane Ciolino called the arrangement questionable.
“The ethics code is set up to make sure that public servants, like the mayor, aren’t giving city contracts to people with whom they have regular business dealings or people who owe them money,” Ciolino said. “The problem with this deal is it has all the appearances of a contract going to a business associate of the mayor. And that certainly violates the spirit and policy -- if not the letter -- of the code of governmental ethics.”
Green Tree Contractors got money from Lafitte to do roof work at the town hall, the tourism center and the Anytime Fitness building, which is owned by the town.
Michael Benvenuti, an owner of Green Tree Contractors, said his company hired subcontractors for most of the work. But records indicated the company was not registered as a corporation until 2023, despite its operations in 2021.
Following Hurricane Ida’s impact on Lafitte, the town sought a temporary replacement for the destroyed town hall. Evans-Graves Engineering recommended a property partially owned by Kerner.
Kerner told Fox 8 that state official Casey Tingle reviewed the options and said the building was the best place for the temporary town hall. When Fox 8 asked Tingle if that was true, his spokesperson said Tingle never determined that the building would be the best option.
After receiving the report from Evans-Graves, Mayor Kerner, his father, and another business partner formed a new company called Restore Lafitte. That group then bought the property from Green Tree Homes, essentially eliminating Benvenuti from the partnership. Restore Lafitte purchased the property for $124,000.
Mayor Kerner then asked the State Ethics Board if he could put the temporary town hall in the building that he owned. When the Ethics Board determined that could be a problem, Restore Lafitte sold the building for $225,000 just months later.
Fox 8 started communicating with Kerner by email and phone in mid-September. We requested an interview, and on Sept. 13, Kerner scheduled one for Sept. 20. Kerner asked what we would cover in the interview, and Fox 8 sent him a list of topics.
Kerner never gave a location where the interview would be held. On Sept. 20, the date of the scheduled interview, Fox 8 went to the temporary town hall in Lafitte, but Kerner wasn’t there.
A spokesperson later called and said Kerner wanted to talk. However, the spokesperson later told us Kerner was declining an on-camera interview with us.
“Generally speaking, it’s never a good thing for an elected official to hide from members of the media ... to hide from reporters,” Collins said. “Because whether they’re actually hiding something or not, it’s going to give the appearance of impropriety. It’s going to give the appearance to the voters that they’re hiding some activity and that they’re doing something wrong.”
Through text messages, Kerner asked, “What’s the story?” He went on to say he followed the law and tried to do what’s best for the area, adding he’s “one of the good guys.”
Kerner told us through email, “I proactively requested advice from the Board of Ethics and as a result, I immediately divested my interest in the building so the town could utilize it.”
However, Lafitte still has not utilized the building.
In June, the state treasurer’s office questioned the deal, writing that repair costs going to the owner of the building would outweigh the benefit going to Lafitte.
In a recent interview on “William Wallis for America,” Kerner talked about draining the swamp of politicians making questionable decisions.
“When you’re in the swamps in the Lafitte area, you know you want people to make a living and do well and live off the land,” Kerner said. “When you’re talking about the Baton Rouge swamp and the D.C. swamp, we don’t want people getting filthy rich in the swamp. And that’s the big issue right now. It’s rule by power, where you see certain families and people getting big government contracts. That’s in government, and that’s something we need to put a stop to.”
Collins says Kerner should be answering questions about his business dealings with a town contractor.
“Some people would argue that that’s cronyism,” Collins said. “And if you believe in good government, an elected official should not be doing business with his friends, because that’s sort of just cronyism.”
While Kerner declined an interview, he did send several documents to Fox 8, including his letter to the Ethics Board, personal text messages, payment receipts through Venmo, and a timeline of his involvement in the property before and after Hurricane Ida. He told FOX 8 he made a profit personally of $28,000 on the property sale.
“I did everything by the book,” Kerner told us through text message. “I was trying to bring that place back and then gave it up for much less than we believed it was worth to try to help the town.”
He added in a statement, “I love the town of Jean Lafitte and the people of the Westbank. Our town is a little one, where everyone knows each other. And I’m proud of the unity and resilience we’ve shown over the challenging time period we’ve all seen.”
After Fox 8′s first request for an interview, Kerner said he would like it to be “full access” without any portions cut out. Fox 8 responded that wasn’t possible since the interview could be 20-30 minutes, which our station would not be able to run in full during a newscast. We added that we do post some full interviews on our website.
On Wednesday, Kerner’s spokesperson sent an email saying in part, “Mayor Kerner is completely open to a public interview where we can invite the community to come out and partake. I believe the mayor suggested that type of interview to ensure full transparency between both you and the mayor, as we know at this point that the questions you have been asking about the mayor have been in a negative and accusatory manner.
“So not refusing to interview but drawing parameters, which in this instance, makes the most sense based on the tone. Following your communication with the mayor, his PR team (myself at the forefront) advised him against a one-on-one interview, which I told you numerous times during our phone calls. The open forum interview with community involvement still stands.”
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