The 23rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office has decided not to investigate whether the St. James Parish Council chairman violated the state's open meetings law when he privately called some council members to discuss whether to accept payment for parish work then under grand jury scrutiny.
Council Chairman Alvin St. Pierre testified April 10 that on the advice of the parish attorney he called each council member in late September about not accepting payment for a new gas line built for the Millennium Galvanizing plant north of Convent. He said the council was unaware of the project and the cost of it, and he wanted to investigate it.
Parish President Timmy Roussel and his director of operations, Blaise Gravois, were charged Sept. 28 with malfeasance in office over the parish’s alleged free installation of the gas line, as well as over other allegations of parish work being done for free on private property during a heated re-election campaign for Roussel in 2015.
St. Pierre’s telephone calls were made at about the same time as the grand jury indictments and after a parish invoice for the work had been sent to Millennium for payment.
The disclosure of the council’s alleged secret decision to not accept payment for the project until it conducted an investigation has led to questions from the public. In addition, some council members have since said they never received a phone call from St. Pierre, and Gravois’ attorneys have accused a prosecutor of misconduct.
Gravois’ attorneys have argued the criminal charge related to the Millennium gas line resulted from prosecutor's misconduct because it was Assistant District Attorney Bruce Mohon, the parish attorney, who had advised St. Pierre to not accept payment, pending an investigation into the cost.
The advice, the attorneys argued, essentially set the stage for the criminal malfeasance charge over nonpayment for the gas line. A judge is weighing whether to throw out Gravois’ indictment.
Despite St. Pierre’s admissions, though, lead prosecutor Charles "Chuck" Long said prosecutors won’t be looking at the opening meetings issue but are interested in other court testimony that came to light at the hearing and in recent pleadings filed by Gravois' attorneys. Those disclosures, Long said, have increased prosecutors’ interest in pursuing additional obstruction of justice charges over Gravois’ and Roussel’s actions related to the gas line.
Long has already charged in court that a $26,000 parish invoice for the gas line installation — about $7,000 less than what prosecutors think it really cost to install the line — was part of a cover-up that came after Roussel and Millennium officials found out about the grand jury investigation.
Long has claimed that the parish invoice was back-dated to Sept. 1, which was about a month before the grand jury issued the indictment.
Long said this week the testimony demonstrated that the parish administration didn’t seem interested in collecting payment for the gas line until after they became aware of the grand jury probe.
Roussel had originally proposed in 2014 to have Millennium pay for the line through a gas supply contract but that deal, which was never finalized in a contract, fell through and the company went with another supplier on the publicly built line.
Millennium's attorney, Bradley Myers, testified that company officials met with Roussel and Gravois in July about payment for the line, three months after the company was notified the grand jury was looking for records. The parish utilities department ended up sending Millennium an invoice for the job sometime in September 2016, Myers added.
Though not introduced in court because the judge would not allow it, Long added that prosecutors have obtained emails between the parish and Millennium that show discussions for payment of the gas line broke down and went quiet after the company hired Gravois' daughter.
"It just stopped. It evaporated until eight months later or so after the grand jury investigation, they ran up there (to Millennium), 'We need you to pay something. Y'all need to pay something. Y'all need to pay something,'" Long said this week.
Millennium officials have said they had every intention of paying for the gas line after negotiations on the gas supply contract with the parish broke down.
Gravois and Roussel have pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges brought against them but declined to comment Wednesday on Long’s most recent comments, except to dispute any obstruction occurred.
Gravois did say, however, that even though he was working with Millennium officials on the payment for the gas line, he never told them his daughter had applied for a job with them. He added that emails in prosecutors’ possession back that claim up.
In light of St. Pierre’s admissions about the private phone calls, Councilman Jason Amato and some other councilmen called on St. Pierre Wednesday night to be more transparent and to work to improve communications among the council members.
Amato noted that nowhere in the home rule charter does it say that the council chairman has more authority than the other six councilmen. Councilman Ken Brass added that recent news accounts have led members of the public to question how the council conducts its business.
“I have had constituents approach me after reading these series of articles and question my integrity, question why I’m doing things secretly, question why we’re conducting business not in an open forum,” Brass said.
He called for unspecified changes to send the right message to constituents.
In later interviews, Amato and Councilman Clyde Cooper disputed that St. Pierre had called them about not accepting payment from Millennium. Their denials were in addition to Councilman Ralph Patin's who testified at the hearing April 10 that St. Pierre didn’t call him either. Brass declined to say whether St. Pierre had called him.