Baton Rouge attorney Jordan Monsour’s law firm has received three contracts, earning about $190,000 in total, representing clients who brokered deals with the publicly funded redevelopment agency run by his father, Walter Monsour, records show.
The transactions raise questions about whether the father and son duo might have violated the Louisiana Code of Ethics by engaging in public business too closely. But Walter Monsour, the executive director of the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority, said there are protocols in place at the agency to ensure he never exerted any decision-making authority over deals involving his son.
Redevelopment Authority officials acknowledged the relationship could be problematic when they submitted a request to the Ethics Board last year to weigh in on the business arrangement. But the Redevelopment Authority withdrew its request, before the board ever issued an opinion on the matter.
Walter Monsour said they initially made the request out of an abundance of caution. The request was ultimately withdrawn, he said, because the Ethics Board was taking a long time to respond and the staff felt comfortable with the protocols that were in place to distance him from his son’s work.
“Any and everything he may or may not have been involved with would go directly to (former executive vice president) Mark Goodson,” Walter Monsour said. “Any decisions he didn’t have the authority to make would go to (board chair) John Noland. I was never in the loop with those matters.”
Because the request for an opinion was withdrawn, there was never any formal guidance provided by the Ethics Board on whether it would pose a problem for the RDA to do business with a law firm employing the son of the agency’s head.
Gray Sexton, who served as the general counsel for the Ethics Board for 40 years, said parties who requested opinions were typically informed ahead of time if they were going to get an adverse opinion back from staff.
“During the time I was with the board, it was not unusual for a request to be withdrawn for a number of reasons. And one of those reasons was because after the consultation with staff, it became manifest that the opinion may not produce the desired result,” Sexton said. “We allowed anyone to withdraw a request for any reason or for no reason, prior to the meeting.”
Sexton also noted that the Louisiana Code of Ethics prohibits government officials from entering into contracts, subcontracts or other transactions with immediate family members in areas they supervise or over which they have jurisdiction.
“Recusal by that family member is not sufficient to avoid a violation of the code,” Sexton said.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority, which has been up and running since 2009, subsists on mostly federal grant money and local funds. The agency is tasked with eliminating blight, creating affordable housing and stirring economic activity, particularly in low-income areas.
Jordan Monsour is a partner with Butler Snow law firm and has worked there since 2011. Since that time, Butler Snow has brokered three deals with firms that received funds from the Redevelopment Authority. Jordan Monsour was the acting attorney for two of the three projects.
The first deal, the one in which Jordan Monsour was not serving as acting attorney, involved the Hampton Inn & Suites downtown. The project received $17 million in New Market Tax Credits, a federal tax credit program targeting investment and real estate in low-income communities. Butler Snow’s legal fees were $48,500, according to fund disbursement statements.
Jordan Monsour said that while he was employed by the firm at the time of the Hampton Inn deal, he did not participate because of a question about possible ethics issues. Those concerns were later satisfied after protocols were put into place distancing the two Monsours during business dealings.
Butler Snow subsequently represented Honeywell International Inc., which received $17.5 million in New Market Tax Credits allocated from the Redevelopment Authority. Butler Snow’s legal fees were $95,000 and Jordan Monsour was the acting attorney on that deal. The Hampton Inn and Honeywell were named as recipients for the tax credits before Butler Snow was approached for legal representation, the younger Monsour noted.
Butler Snow also represents the Model Block project, a midcity project aimed at rehabilitating a block of local businesses near Baton Rouge Magnet High. That project received $700,000 in gap financing from the Redevelopment Authority. Jordan Monsour estimated Butler Snow will receive about $50,000 in legal fees from the transaction.
Jordan Monsour also served as legal representative for the proposed Circa 1857 redevelopment project on Government Street, which was slated to receive more than $8 million in New Market Tax Credits. However, that project lost financing, so no public funds were ever allocated.
This is the second time the issue of a possible ethical conflict has arisen for the father and son.
When Walter Monsour worked for Mayor-President Kip Holden as the mayor’s chief administrative officer, the Ethics Board approved a “disqualification plan” that allowed Jordan Monsour to represent clients doing work with the city-parish as long as his father did not participate in matters.
Redevelopment Authority officials, their legal counsel and Butler Snow representatives ultimately decided that applying the same protocols would resolve potential ethics issues.
Jordan Monsour noted that he is not compensated based on commission or “anything tied to client generation,” so there’s no direct financial gain for representing clients working with the Redevelopment Authority. He also pointed out that the Redevelopment Authority has its own legal counsel in the Jones Walker law firm.
Jordan Monsour said both his former law firm, where he was employed at the time, and Butler Snow applied for the contract and lost to Jones Walker, illustrating the absence of favoritism.
Jordan Monsour said the legal field dealing with tax credits is highly specialized and there is a smaller pool of attorneys to choose from who offer expertise in that arena which makes it hard for him to avoid crossing paths with his father’s public business dealings.
The Redevelopment Authority has been in the hot seat in recent weeks, after Walter Monsour and the board announced that the agency is out of money and would seek $3 million in recurring funds from the city-parish.
Holden, who has been critical of the elder Monsour for not effectively and efficiently running the RDA, has said he will not include funds in the 2015 budget for the agency.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council could reassign the money in Holden’s proposed budget, but doing so would require a super majority vote of the council at its December budget meeting.