|LPTFA attorney Richard Becker, left, and board member Jimmy Stagg are among those who allowed Greg Gachassin to sign lucrative development contracts with the public trust while he was chairman of its board. The Louisiana Board of Ethics has charged Gachassin with violating the state’s ethics code. Photo by Robin May
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
By Leslie Turk
Now that the Louisiana Board of Ethics has filed charges against development consultant Greg Gachassin, it’s time for Lafayette government’s leaders to turn their attention to the complicity of the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority’s attorney and board members. And it appears that’s about to happen: Last Friday Lafayette City-Parish Council Vice Chairman William Theriot asked City-Parish attorney Mike Hebert for guidance in requesting that the Legislative Auditor be called in to audit LPTFA.
The Independent was first to report that on June 14 the Louisiana Board of Ethics voted to charge the Lafayette developer and his Cartesian Co. with violating the state’s Code of Governmental Ethics while he was a member of the LPTFA’s board of trustees and again after he resigned from the LPTFA board. The Ethics Board’s action is much like filing a civil lawsuit against Gachassin; within the next four to six months the Ethics Adjudicatory Board, a three-member panel of administrative law judges, will conduct a hearing on the charges, determine whether they should stick and assess a penalty based on the Ethics Board’s recommendation.
In filing the charges, the Ethics Board spells out how the local developer laid the foundation for lucrative work with the LPTFA while he was serving as an appointed board member from November 2003 to November 2009. His alleged violations involved Villa Gardens, a single-family low-income development on Patterson Street, and Cypress Trails, a low-income apartment complex on Sophie Street in north Lafayette. In both cases, Gachassin’s Cartesian Co. signed $500,000 consulting contracts with partnerships associated with those projects, which were backed financially and/or initiated by the LPTFA, a public trust organized by the state in 1979 primarily to help develop low-income housing in Lafayette. Gachassin has a similar consulting contract with the controversial Joie de Vivre development (that Thursday changed its name to Uptown Lofts), a gig he’ll make about $1 million on, and the Lofts at Olivier, two downtown projects spearheaded by the LPTFA.
Late last Thursday night, Tea Party of Lafayette member and community activist Carol Ross sent an email to the Lafayette City-Parish Council asking the council to do everything in its power to get to the bottom of this ethical dilemma that — at least for now — appears to officially be limited to Gachassin’s role. “It would be in the best interest of Lafayette Consolidated Government and the taxpayers to get to the bottom of this sad affair,” Ross writes. “I strongly urge that the council ask for the Legislative Auditor to come in and get all the facts, just as they did with regard to Mr. Gachassin. It would go a long way toward assuring the public that programs are being run for the good of the people, not just those who stand to profit from them.”
We could not agree more. The Independent also was first to question whether Gachassin should have ever been allowed to step into the role of development consultant on these projects in its April 2011 cover story, “How Gachassin Games the System.” Here’s a snippet from that story:
Notably, no one — not one of the trustees, John Arceneaux (who replaced Gachassin as chairman), Julius James Stagg IV, Ryan L. Marine and D.E. “Dusty” Dought, or longtime LPTFA attorney Richard Becker — raised any questions about Gachassin returning as a paid consultant, according to the minutes of the meeting. Nor did anyone bother to check with the Louisiana Board of Ethics on whether Gachassin going to work for the LPTFA’s own development would constitute a violation of the state’s ethics laws. ...
Becker says because of the 2008 ethics revisions he wanted assurances from Gachassin that — “in [Gachassin’s] opinion” — his serving as a consultant on the project would not violate the law. Becker believes such ethical considerations were Gachassin’s alone, saying he asked that Gachassin perform the necessary due diligence and report back to LPTFA: “In a subsequent conversation with Mr. Gachassin, he advised me as counsel to the LPTFA that he had indeed performed such due diligence and that after consideration and review concluded that the proposed consulting agreement with [Cypress Trails Limited Partnership] was not a violation of the Louisiana Ethics Code.”
In a review of years of the LPTFA’s minutes for that 2011 story, The Independent could find no documentation of any such conversation. Because he did not protect the best interests of the LPTFA in this matter by doing his own due diligence, Becker should answer for his inaction, too. As should the LPTFA board members at the time.
We also need to keep in mind that each of these projects was partially financed through federal low-income housing tax credits awarded by the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, taxpayer money, and we hope the feds are also taking a look at whether there was any impropriety on the part of any of those involved in pulling these deals together.
“I have followed the unfolding events at LPTFA and the ethics charges against Mr. Gachassin with considerable interest and dismay,” Ross continues in her email. “Comments made by several of the principals in these very unsettling events lead me to question who is really calling the shots at LPTFA and should there be expansion of the investigation. First, the published quotes by the current chairman of LPTFA make it sound almost as though the trustees are observers in this troubling episode waiting to receive more information from the Board of Ethics, when in actual fact, the LPTFA trustees are participants and signatories to the very documents which form the basis for the ethics charges. ... There are very complex issues involved and with the filing of the ethics charges against the former chairman, Mr. Gachassin, I believe a thorough investigation of LPTFA and its activities is clearly warranted, especially in light of the recent proposal for LPTFA to take over programs and receive the funding to run them from LCG.”
There is no question that the housing opportunities LPTFA provides are desperately needed in this community, evidenced by hundreds of residents showing up at the Domingue Recreational Center Tuesday morning to apply for Section 8 Rental Assistance Program vouchers from the Lafayette Housing Authority. The LHA was so overwhelmed by the need that it later announced it would move to a lottery system for the program. The LPTFA is doing good work, but at what cost? It’s time for Lafayette government, the beneficiary of this public trust, and the Lafayette City-Parish Council, which appoints its board of trustees, to stop turning a blind eye to what is indeed a sad affair.
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