ZURIK: Kerner’s late-night call raises questions over construction contracts
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A late-night call from Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner, Jr. to a contractor who bid on town projects has raised concerns surrounding contract awards in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.
The topic of the call was whether the contractor, Daniel Pastrana, was too busy to do some of the work his company had bid on.
Pastrana was the lowest bidder on two jobs following Hurricane Ida, but the work went to a different company, Green Tree Contractors.
Kerner told FOX 8 that one of the owners of Green Tree Contractors, Michael Benvenuti, is a lifelong friend. Kerner and Benvenuti were also business partners at one time.
In July 2021, Green Tree Homes 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.
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.
Records obtained by FOX 8 show for two of the jobs, Green Tree Contractors wasn’t the lowest bidder. Records show Pastrana had the lowest bid, but the documents have notations written that he was unable to do the work. In an email, Kerner told FOX 8 that Pastrana was too busy to do the work.
However, Pastrana told FOX 8 by phone that he didn’t recall ever saying he was too busy for the work.
Lee Zurik: “So you were not awarded the job?”
Zurik: “They did not ask you if you were too busy? Or you didn’t tell them you were too busy?”
Pastrana: “To be honest with you, Lee, I don’t remember me saying that. Or anything like that. I don’t. But I mean, I don’t think I would say that. If it was a job of that, you know nature.”
Zurik: “So you would have taken the job?”
Pastrana: “I would assume, yeah.”
Zurik: “I mean, did you need the work back then?”
Pastrana: “I always need work.”
On September 21, FOX 8 sent a public records request to the town of Jean Lafitte requesting all bids from Green Tree Contractors for work that was ultimately awarded to the company since 2020. The same day we sent that request, Pastrana got a late-night phone call from Mayor Kerner.
Pastrana says Kerner tried to remind him that he said he was too busy for the work, despite being the lowest bidder, and that’s why the work was given to Green Tree.
Zurik: “Did the mayor ask you last night to say you were too busy?”
Pastrana: “Um, he was he was trying to say that I said that I was too busy. I don’t recall that. Put it that way.”
Zurik: “And you were never awarded the job?”
Pastrana: “No, no, no … He was telling me that I said that at that time.”
Zurik: “Would you have remembered if you were awarded a job, right?”
Pastrana: “Oh, if I would have been awarded the job I would have remembered, but I was never awarded the job.”
The owner of Green Tree Contractors told FOX 8 his company didn’t do the work. Instead, he said he hired the jobs out to a subcontractor.
Records from Lafitte show during the same time when Kerner and Benvenuti were partners, the town wrote 17 checks to Benvenuti’s company for roof repairs and other expenses. Benvenuti told FOX 8 he operated his construction company almost exclusively during the time he was business partners with Kerner.
WVUE asked the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors if Green Tree Contractors was a licensed contractor between 2020 and 2022. An investigator for the board responded, “No record of licensure was found for Green Tree Contractors.” However, a commercial license may not have been required for some or all of the work, and Green Tree Homes LLC of Nevada, also owned by Benvenuti, had a home improvement registration, for residential work.
Kerner sent FOX 8 two letters signed by town employees who work under him claiming Pastrana couldn’t be reached after the storm. Kerner also sent a screenshot of a text message from Pastrana after the work had already been done, in which Pastrana asked for the addresses of the buildings to look at. However, Pastrana says the text was inquiring about two other buildings he looked at, not the roof repairs he bid on.
Political analyst Dr. Robert Collins says voters and town residents may be skeptical about the bid awards.
“Well, I think most people are going to believe the low bidder. People are going to say, ‘Okay, well, why didn’t the low bidder get the work?’” Collins said.
FOX 8 requested a one-on-one interview with Kerner. His spokesperson said he would only attend if it was “full access” and open to the public.
“If the mayor didn’t do anything wrong, then it seems like he should have no problems simply explaining his actions. And you know, in explaining why he took these actions, why he did not award the contract to the lowest bidder. And why he decided to award the contract to his lifelong friend whom he also has had business relationships with in the past,” Collins said.
Kerner issued the following statement to FOX 8 Thursday afternoon:
“As Mayor, I have always followed a competitive bid process where the lowest, available, credible bidder was awarded taxpayer-funded work. Period. I followed this process even during Hurricane emergencies when it is not required. Green Tree was awarded several projects, out of a countless number of contracts after Hurricane Zeta and Ida devastated our community. Text messages, and official statements by both the Capital Projects Director and our Town Clerk show that Daniel Pastrana - while being the lowest bidder on some of those projects- was non-responsive when the work was awarded to him. In fact, he did not respond to his award until nearly a month after the project was already completed by Green Tree, the second lowest bidder. Daniel’s unresponsiveness was not unusual post-hurricane, as contractors become overloaded with the sheer volume of work facing them. Daniel has been a life-long friend who deserved to know that he was being brought up in this political attack, and I wanted to confirm his recollection of the facts during this crazy time period. Fortunately, I was able to recover our old text exchange which validates his unresponsiveness.”
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