Lee Zurik Investigation: Public cash for pricey drinks? You've been swiped again

Published: Jul. 10, 2014 at 9:53 PM CDT
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Lucien Garner
Lucien Garner

"Alcohol was not purchased?"

" Absolutely not."

It was a simple question, and a questionable answer, from a former public official who gives himself a gold star for his oversight of public funds.

"It's like my badge of honor," said Lucien Gunter.

Gunter spent seven years running the economic development arm of Jefferson Parish.  He retired as executive director of the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission at the end of last year.

"One of the things I'm proudest of is how prudent I have been with the use of JEDCO funds," Gunter told us.

Yes, Gunter says, he'd put his credit card charges up against anyone else.

"I would match what we spend at JEDCO with any other company or any government entity," Gunter said.  "And if we're not far, far below that, I would be shocked."

So, according to Gunter, that would mean he charged less than the mayor of New Orleans.

"If I've used it more than three or four time, I'd be surprised," Mayor Mitch Landrieu told us in a previous interview.

Gunter sometimes charged that to taxpayers in one week, like in late July 2009.  He charged a July 27 lunch at Andrea's, and went there the next day for another lunch.  The next day, July 29, he had lunch at Crescent City Steaks. And the next day, yet another lunch at Fausto's -- for the last two, he did not submit an itemized receipt.

We reviewed four years worth of charges and found many questionable ones by the former executive director.

When Gunter needed to meet with his staff to discuss a shortfall in collections from the board and employees, he took them to Ralph's on the Park and spent $112 -- public dollars.

He took a field trip with staff to Avondale; afterwards, he stopped at the TPC golf course and had lunch for $78.

He spent public money to discuss the feasibility of a board retreat, and to pay for a $104 meal, eaten while discussing a strategic plan.

When Gunter needed to have a meeting on furniture for the new office building, he couldn't do that at the office.  Instead, he went to New City Grille and spent $95.

Gunter had government relations lunch meetings with council members: $124 with Elton Lagasse, $80 with Louis Congemi.

Last year he had a lunch meeting to tell someone their contract was not being approved -- it cost you $62.

When Rafe Rabalais left the private company GCR and Associates, Gunter took him to lunch to discuss his last day.

Many of Gunter's meals were with employees of JEDCO.  When we asked him why such meals could not be held at the office, he responded, "Hindsight is better than foresight.  But at the time, it seemed that the subject matter was that important that this was a convenient way to get it done…"

Gunter continued, "Right now, you are suggesting to have an important discussion of an important item with one or two staff members at a very moderately-priced restaurant may be wrong.  Well, technically that is."

"According to the attorney general," we reminded him.

"Well then, in that case, I would have to say that we wouldn't do that again," he said.

An internal auditor actually agreed.  In our research for this story, we came across a report that found "several issues" at JEDCO -- most notably, Gunter charging meals with parish council members, JEDCO's board of commissioners, parish employees and JEDCO employees.

When we asked Gunter if he would return any public money found to be improperly spent on such expenses, he told us, "I don't see any reason to."

Many of the charges were at Andrea's Restaurant.  Gunter actually had a charge account there under the JEDCO name.  Shortly after the audit, Gunter cancelled it.

Gunter said,  "I don't mind telling you, when you look back, dotting i's and crossing t's… is there a better way?  Maybe.  But at the time, I thought that was absolutely appropriate."

JEDCO is a public entity, defined by state law.  And that brings us back to our opening question -- something clearly against state law.

"Alcohol was not purchased?" we asked Gunter.

" Absolutely not," he answered.  But the receipts show something different.

Gunter paid for two glasses of Chardonnay at Commander's Palace, two Bud Lights at Acme Oyster House, two Absolute-on-the-rocks at a lunch meeting at Andrea's.

At Ralph's on the Park, Gunter paid for four glasses of wine; another time at Andrea's, three glasses of wine during lunch.

He had an early lunch -- 11:39 in the morning -- with West Jefferson Hospital CEO Nancy Cassagne and state Senator David Heitmeier.  The public footed the bill for three glasses of wine.

In 2010, Gunter had a late lunch -- 2:00 in the afternoon -- with the former head of the JP School System, Dianne Roussell.  Gunter paid for two glasses of Chardonnay and one glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

And Gunter had another lunch at Ralph's on the Park, this one costing $152.  There, he paid for three glasses of wine.  At that meal Gunter was joined by former state Senator Julie Quinn and former JP Councilman John Young, who's now the parish president.

These are all examples of alcohol being paid for by a public entity.

When we presented these findings to Gunter, he told us, "No, that is not correct.  Anybody that would say that, that is incorrect."

Gunter says one of the things he did to keep costs down was to have all of those meals at breakfast and lunch, and that is true.  Most of his entertainment came during the day.

Also, some of his spending was justified because, as an economic development group, the law would allow for him to spend money on meals to recruit business, under certain circumstances.

We talked to the current head of the board at JEDCO, Stan Salathe, and he says they are working on changing their policy.