Zurik: Security firm’s pay for NOLA monument removal raises questions

Zurik: Security firm’s pay for NOLA monument removal raises questions
Updated: Jun. 19, 2017 at 10:10 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In New Orleans City Hall, it didn't take much written proof for one contractor to get paid plenty of money.

"I don't understand it," says Tulane law professor Joel Friedman in response to that proof. "I don't know how that is possible."

One line - "strategic advisory and support services" - was sufficient proof that the contractor, Trident Response Group, did enough work to warrant a $175,000 check.

That $175,000 is just one invoice submitted by Trident.

The city hired the Dallas-based company for risk assessment, surveillance, intelligence gathering and extra security at three of the Confederate monument sites, as the Landrieu administration prepared to remove the monuments.

"No one would deny that [the removals were] controversial," Friedman says. "And so, when the public is concerned about whether to have the project done or not, seems to me the city should have gone overboard, in making sure that it had detailed specification as to what it would pay for and under what circumstances - for a project that many people didn't want them to do in the first place.

Overall, the city paid Trident $710,000. But their invoices - which you can view at this link - supply little explanation of the work they performed for the money.

"There's no explanation as to what these people did," Friedman notes. "There is an explanation of the nature of the person, the title of the person and how many hours, but no explanation of what they did in those hours, why those number of hours were required. It seems to me a huge number of hours over a very short period for, quote, 'security'."

Following the removal of the Liberty Place monument - the first of four to be removed - the city says it needed additional resources.

"What we wanted to make sure was that we were prepared for, had all the resources necessary and that we weren't overlooking any risks that could have been associated with what was taking place," says Aaron Miller, the city's director of homeland security and emergency preparedness.

The city says Texas-based Trident was one of the only ones with an expertise and willingness to do the work.

"Think about the absurdity of what we actually had to do to keep people safe in this instance," says Ryan Berni, the deputy mayor of external affairs. "And luckily it was a team effort of the New Orleans Police Department, the FBI, the State Police - we'd engage National Guard if necessary, throughout that effort - and of course, Trident, and really every federal/state/local resource at our disposal."

City leaders say the invoices are purposefully vague. "Because of some of the particulars involved and some of the locations, some of the number of individuals involved in these things, we don't want to put anyone at risk," Miller tells us. "And so, some of these invoices contain what we believe to be the appropriate level of information. And we verified it through our meetings with them, through the discussions that we've had in the threat analysis and through receiving... sort of the risk information that they provided to us. "

The city signed the contract with Trident on May 4; the final monument was removed on May 19. The city's homeland security department says its representatives worked hand in hand with Trident, and monitored their work daily.

But apparently, a line-by-line account of employees' hours and duties doesn't exist. For one week, all we know is that an average of six field operators worked 345 hours - their rate, $250 an hour.

"Gary" was a strategic adviser for 68 hours - his rate, $250 an hour. And "Bob" worked 83 hours at a $275 rate. So, in seven days, "Bob" worked 83 hours as a strategic adviser at $275 an hour.

Friedman says we can't confirm whether "Bob" worked those hours. "We don't know if he did it," he says. "We don't know what he did. We don't know whether what he did was necessary or is just padding. And I'm not saying that it was improper - my point, in response to your question, is we don't know. That's the problem. It's the lack of monitoring in a situation where they're using public money when the city is strapped for funds."

"We believe that the invoices are sufficient, knowing that the homeland security office has gone over the details before processing payment," Berni tells us.

Our review of the Trident invoices found one of them, a May 16 invoice for $150,000, includes payments made for security on May 23.

"Either that's a typographical error, which I doubt... But normally you would not get billed for anticipated labor until you know what's been done, what service has been provided," Friedman says. "It's hard for me to understand how they could bill for what they anticipate."

In fact, they city paid the bill on May 19, four days before much of the actual service took place.

Friedman calls that shocking. "I cannot explain why they would pay in advance for service," he says. "It doesn't make any sense. Who gets paid in advance?"

We ask the deputy mayor if the city typically pays vendors before they do the work. "Again, there is nothing typical about this project," he responds, "because of the threats and the nature of everything involved. I think, again, this was not anything like anything else that city government has ever had to do."

There's more. Trident earned a total of $1.1 million for about three weeks of work. The company also made $400,000 from the non-profit Foundation for Louisiana, which received private donations to take down the monuments.

The two invoices submitted to the foundation also have few details. We found the first invoice to the nonprofit dated May 12 - but it's stamped paid one day earlier, May 11. The other is dated May 12, but Trident says it received payment four days before it sent that invoice.

"That's very strange," Friedman says. "I don't know how you could pay a bill before you received the bill. I don't know how that is possible."

Clint Bruce founded Trident Response Group. One online article says the former U.S. Navy SEAL helped evacuate 900 people when Hurricane Katrina hit the region. That led him to start Trident in 2005.

Friedman says Trident followed the language of its contract. But he wishes city officials were able to give taxpayers a better account of exactly what $700,000 of tax money paid for.

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