East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court Doug Welborn spends more than $100,000 a year in public dollars for storage space on Wooddale Boulevard for old records. But more than half of the rented space is empty, while other areas are dedicated to a comfortable office with a TV and a workshop for tools.
A tour of the space in November, requested by The Advocate, found that much of the 11,000 square feet is either unused or is dedicated to lawn equipment and tools even though the clerk of court does not bear responsibility for maintaining vehicles or properties.
A man who says he has been to the warehouse several times, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that on Saturday visits, he saw a group of people sitting on two couches, watching sports on a large 50- to 60-inch flat-screen TV in the main open area of the warehouse. The visitor said he had been inside the warehouse about five times as recently as six months ago and was able to accurately describe its location and contents to a reporter who also had toured the space.
He recalled seeing two motorcycles and a boat in the storage unit but added he didn’t know whose they were. He said the boat was “nice sized with a motor on it. It was not a small fishing boat.” The visitor said he didn’t realize the building had a governmental purpose.
“I thought it was somebody’s workshop,” the man said.
No boats or vehicles were inside the warehouse during The Advocate’s recent tour.
Asked whether any private boats or vehicles were stored or worked on in the warehouse, Jeffrey Cody, an attorney for the Clerk of Court’s Office, responded in a prepared statement: “Our office has no knowledge or record of personal vehicles being stored in the clerk of court’s warehouse.” The statement does not address whether vehicles or boats were worked on there.
The statement notes “boats and other vehicles are regularly parked” on part of the property adjacent to the warehouse. “However, this portion of the property is strictly under the ownership of the property owner,” it says.
The Clerk’s Office statement also says that while the warehouse has a television, it “has never been authorized or used to our knowledge as a leisure area.”
Welborn — who is a fisherman and has been an avid motorcyclist — declined interviews with The Advocate, deferring to Cody.
Cody answered only limited questions by email, citing an ongoing investigation into the office by the State Inspector General’s Office. The investigation was initiated after an earlier Advocate report detailing $93,000 in credit card purchases made by the clerk’s administrators over the past five years.
In addition to frequent restaurant outings and expensive travel bills for conferences, the credit card statements detail numerous trips to Lowe’s, Home Depot, National Welding Supply and other hardware stores. Welborn’s office said the purchases were for maintenance needs.
The warehouse at 444 Wooddale Blvd. is three storage units that sit behind a sturdy security gate.
From the outside, it looks like typical climate-controlled storage space, with pre-fabricated exterior walls and roll-up garage doors. The main unit is 9,000 square feet. During the visit by The Advocate, boxes of files filled about a third of the gymnasium-sized room.
The space is outfitted with two large refrigerators and a smaller one in a kitchenette. There’s also a commercial-sized ice machine and about 10 ice chests, at least two of which were Yeti brand, a high-end cooler company. Receipts show two coolers were purchased for a total of $750 at Cabela’s sporting goods store. Clerk of court spokesman Fred Sliman has said the ice chests are used for events, including office dinners, as well as for election activities.
The warehouse has a separate office for Welborn, who also has an office downtown in City Hall, where most of the clerk of court’s business is conducted. The clerk of court also has archive facilities downtown and a branch on Coursey Boulevard.
The office in the warehouse is furnished with a heavy wooden desk and a large, brown leather couch. The office has a trophy cabinet filled with sports hats and memorabilia. A large ram’s head is mounted on one wall and a framed fish mounted on another. Camouflage and LSU baseball caps decorate the walls. A placard bearing his name is on the wall.
An en suite bathroom has a shower, and the shower had a bath towel hanging over the curtain rod.
Behind a set of double doors across the warehouse from the office is a room filled wall to wall with heavy-duty tools, including a variety of power saws and drills, a large drill press and clamps. There is a metal tool cabinet with scores of containers for nails, screws and other hardware, in addition to a long work bench and an industrial sink.
Also stored in the warehouse is outdoor lawn equipment, including multiple mowers, weed eaters and leaf blowers.
In a statement forwarded to The Advocate by Cody, Sliman said the staff is responsible for “support, maintenance, light construction and repair in several areas of our office, including areas in City Hall, Archives and the off-site storage facility.”
But the Clerk of Court’s Office employs no maintenance workers, Sliman has confirmed.
The clerk of court’s downtown and Coursey facilities are provided by the city-parish government, which takes care of maintenance and requires no lawn care be done by the Clerk’s Office, public works officials said. The Clerk’s Office also doesn’t own or manage vehicles — aside from two that are rented — that would require repairs, Cody said.
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for the city-parish, said the Public Works Department maintains all of City Hall’s offices, including the clerk of court’s suite in that building.
Stephanie Rivers, director of buildings and grounds, said the city-parish is also responsible for the clerk’s facility on Coursey and for the Archives Department, which is located near the River Center.
“If they had a request for maintenance, we would respond within three days if they put in a maintenance request,” Rivers said.
Sliman said the grounds maintenance equipment is used for the area surrounding the warehouse. But the Clerk’s Office rents only part of the property, which sits on a concrete pad behind a gate, and the lease makes no mention of the tenant being responsible for groundskeeping.
Several video monitors are mounted inside the warehouse and are connected to surveillance cameras monitoring the property. Public record requests for any video from them were denied.
Cody initially said the surveillance equipment belongs to the property owners, not the Clerk’s Office. Cody later clarified that the Clerk’s Office does own some cameras at the warehouse but added that the video system is live streaming only and does not record footage. An owner of the warehouse told The Advocate that they do not provide video surveillance for the property.
Cody said that, prompted by the public records request, “the clerk of court may look into the possibility in the future of either recording or monitoring the video that is captured on surveillance cameras.”
The property is owned by TBT Properties. The Clerk’s Office pays $8,000 a month for all 11,000 square feet of storage space — $6,000 for the largest unit and $2,000 for the two smaller units.
The largest unit, including the office and tool shed, was built at the request of — and to the specifications of — the Clerk’s Office, said Brandon Rogillio, an owner of TBT.
Commercial real estate appraiser and market analyst Wesley Moore said the average rent per square foot for warehouse space in the Wooddale area is $3.50 to $6 on the high end for gross leases like the arrangement the Clerk’s Office has with TBT. But Moore said additional amenities, such as air conditioning, customization and additional security, could warrant higher rental rates.
According to Welborn’s lease, the Clerk’s Office pays $8 per square foot for the main storage unit and $12 per square foot for the two smaller ones.
Gordon Rogillio, another owner of TBT, said their property is high-end warehouse space. He noted it is climate controlled, has a custom office in the warehouse and operates on a month-to-month lease, which contributes to the higher value.
Brandon Rogillio said the market rates for warehouses in the corridor don’t apply to TBT’s facility. He said the rental rates for the property give the Clerk’s Office access to amenities and to other space on the property that is not specifically outlined in the lease, such as a secured parking area outside the warehouse.
“The property in question is not a standard warehouse, as such the market rate for a standard warehouse would not apply to it,” he said in an email.
Asked about vehicles stored in Welborn’s warehouse, Brandon Rogillio said in an email, “I don’t recall ever seeing boats or motorcycles in the rented warehouse space for the Clerk of Court’s Office.”
Cody, Welborn’s attorney, said the Clerk’s Office was not required by law to use a public bid process to lease the storage space.
In May of this year, Gordon Rogillio, whose address on campaign finance reports was the same as the warehouse location, donated $5,000 to Welborn’s 2015 re-election campaign.
Eugene Rogillio III, another owner, made in-kind donations of more than $1,000 between 2013 and 2014 to Welborn, according to campaign finance reports.
From 2004 to 2014, Welborn rented only the single, larger unit for $6,000 per month. In 2014, he added the two smaller ones.
Tours of the units found that one of the small ones was filled wall to wall with file boxes. The other was empty, except for a small flat-bed trailer. Sliman said the space was rented beginning in 2014 with the expectation the Clerk’s Office would eventually need to move more boxes in.
The city-parish is statutorily required to provide reasonable work space for the clerk of court. Asked if the clerk of court had approached the city-parish government about providing storage space, Daniel declined comment. He said the Mayor’s Office would not get involved with potential conflicts relating to the Clerk’s Office.
In a statement, Sliman said the city-parish “has not been forthcoming with any additional space” for the clerk of court and recently reduced space for operations.
In total, Welborn’s office has paid about $800,000 to the Rogillios since 2004 for the Wooddale storage space. Before renting at Wooddale, Welborn’s office had a lease with the Rogillios from 1998 to 2002 for a storage facility at 8941 Jefferson Highway. He paid $2,000 a month for 3,000 square feet.
In addition to the cost of the current lease, records show the Clerk’s Office has other monthly bills associated with the property, at times almost $1,000 a month.
Monthly electric bills for the property over a four-month period ranged from $588 per month to $785. Other bills include security system costs for the building, a monthly Internet bill of $37 and a monthly pick-up fee of $92 per month from a company that specializes in industrial construction and demolition disposal.
Last month, Welborn, who earns more than $135,000 a year, easily won his seventh term as clerk of court.
His lone challenger, Sarah Holliday-James, made a campaign issue of his office’s credit card purchases, which included frequent lunches at restaurants and stays at casino hotels. Sliman previously stated all of the meals were to discuss public business and the hotel stays were business travel to conferences. Welborn’s office responded to the criticisms of the credit card spending by saying it stands behind its yearly audits, which did not flag the purchases.
The clerk of court is responsible for processing lawsuits and traffic tickets for the 19th Judicial Courthouse, and issues marriage licences and passports in the parish, among other duties.