Lee Zurik Investigation: `Playing with Fire`... on the golf course

Firefighters Pension Board President Bud Carrouche
Firefighters Pension Board President Bud Carrouche

"We were hoping to get an interview with you," we tell Bud Carrouche.

His response is, "Oh no."

Carrouche heads the New Orleans Firefighter Pension Board.  He's the president -- a president who won't talk to us. Even Richard Hampton, the CEO and secretary-treasurer of the pension board, wouldn't answer many of our questions on camera in our latest interview attempts.

"I am not interested in doing any interviews on film," Hampton tells us.  "Because the board doesn't want me to give anymore interviews."

We wanted an interview with Carrouche and Hampton.  The topic: Lakewood Golf Club, which is owned by the Fire Pension Board, and in particular one of the golf club's employees, Rene Carrouche.  He happens to be the son of board president Bud Carrouche.

When we ask Hampton how Carrouche's son got the job, he replies, "He applied for it... Lee, Lakewood hired him.  They do all of that, and everything was done correctly.  Nothing was done improperly. "

Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino says Rene Carrouche's employment may be against the law.

The Fire Pension Board has a contract establishing an operator of the golf club, Lakewood Restoration Partners.  William "Bud" Carrouche signed that contract on behalf of the board.  Since Carrouche's son is employed by Lakewood Restoration Partners, Ciolino says Rene Carrouche is essentially benefiting from a contract signed by his father -- a likely breach of the ethics law.

"It does seem to present a problem because Mr. Carrouche or a member of his immediate family stands to reap some economic benefit from a contract that is under the supervision of the Firefighters Pension Fund," Ciolino tells us.  "And that seems to me to violate the letter of the State Ethics Code."

According to the Fire Pension Board, Rene Carrouche works in engineering and maintenance at the golf club.  Lakewood hired him in 2004.

We dug up an ethics opinion that relates to the Fire Pension Board issue we're raising.  The ethics opinion involves the RTA and Board President Barbara Major.  The ethics board advised the RTA that Major's son couldn't be employed by a company with which the RTA had contracted.

"So this is not a novel situation," Ciolino says.  "This has been addressed at least in an advisor opinion before by the Board of Ethics.  And it, to me, seems pretty close to on-point."

When we ask Hampton whether he thinks the hiring complied with ethics law, he responds, "Absolutely… because under the advice of an attorney, we were told it was ok.  And, once again, if you want to talk any more about this, I'd be glad to sit down with you."

Hampton confirmed that Lakewood Restoration Partners is the general partner in the Lakewood contract with the board.

Ciolino says the ethics law is basically common sense as applied in this case -- Carrouche's immediate family member can't be employed by any public entity or be part of any public contract that Carrouche himself oversees.

"We obviously don't want public officials, public employees, benefiting from contracts that they are supervising as public officials," says Ciolino.  "And whether that was done intentionally or not in this case, the simple fact of the matter is an immediate  family member of Carrouche is a beneficiary of a contract that is overseen by the Firefighters Pension Fund.  And that's what gives cause for concern."

The firefighters bought Lakewood in 2003 for $6 million.  Since then, the Firefighters Pension Board has spent almost $44 million on golf course construction, architects, engineers, feasibility studies, accounting, legal and maintenance costs and golf course operations – including salaries to employees such as Rene Carrouche.

But there's more.

We have other questions about the president of the Firefighters Pension Board.

In 2006, the firefighters decided to invest $3.5 million with First NBC Bank.  The board unanimously passed the resolution, meaning Bud Carrouche was for it.

Sometime after that vote, Carrouche joined the First NBC Bank board of directors.  He remains on the board to this day.  We know two members of that board receive compensation.  Through state ethics disclosure forms, we know that New Orleans Clerk of Court Dale Atkins and businessman Fenn French make between $5,000 and $25,000 a year from First NBC Bank.

By email, we asked Carrouche if he received any compensation.  We never got a response.

It's important to note state law does not prohibit Carrouche from being on the First NBC Board while he serves as President of the Fire Pension Board.  There is nothing wrong with that.

But the dual role may prohibit Carrouche from taking part in some Fire Pension board votes.

We also asked Carrouche when First NBC offered him that board seat -- we want to know if that happened before he voted on the Fire Pension Fund investment.  He didn't answer that question and didn't tell us if he's ever taken part in any other votes on First NBC while he's been on the Fire Pension Board.  If so, he could have violated state ethics laws as well.

The Fire Pension Board won't talk on camera.  They made it clear in a letter to all firefighters they're unhappy with our stories on questionable salaries, spending and investments.

Many of our questions ask whether the Fire Pension Board has broken state ethics laws -- the latest questionable decision, the employment of the son of the board president by a golf course owned by the public board.

"We trusted you to begin with and some of those interviews didn't come out quite as straightforward as they were given," Hampton tells us when we try to interview him again.

When we ask for cases in point, Hampton replies, "If you want to discuss board business, I will gladly talk to you, sit down in person."  And when we press him on the point, he says, "Lee, I'm not going to give any further discussion with you on that.  If you don't want to discuss things off camera, I understand, that's fine.  If that's the case, the interview is over."

We emailed the Fire Pension Board last Thursday with those questions for Carrouche.  Board CEO Richard Hampton told us he forwarded the questions on to Carrouche, who never responded.