A divided Jefferson Parish ethics committee has recommended the Parish Council strip a Harvey construction company of its approved-contractor status and ban it from doing any work for the parish for two years.
The recommendation against Le’ Nouveau Construction Co. came from the parish’s Governmental Ethics and Compliance and Audit Committee on Thursday and stems from a state Legislative Auditor’s Office report issued late last year.
That report included findings that Anatola Thompson, the former head of the parish’s Community Development Department and wife of Le’ Nouveau owner Eric Thompson, authorized payments to Marshall Builders, a contractor that worked in partnership with her husband.
The law prohibits any contractor from knowingly engaging in a transaction that would cause a parish employee to violate the code of ethics, and the committee voted 2-1 on the recommendation of the Parish Attorney’s Office to strip Le’ Nouveau of its approved status and ban it from parish work.
Jefferson Parish President John Young and Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Van Vrancken Dwyer voted for the sanction, while Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng dissented. She said she didn’t have enough time to fully process the response from the Thompsons, who made their case at the hearing Thursday.
Councilmen Chris Roberts and Mark Spears were not present for the vote.
The Thompsons did not provide the media with a copy of the rebuttal they handed to the committee members, but Anatola Thompson read a letter on behalf of her husband.
In it, Eric Thompson said Le’ Nouveau was never a participant in any invoice and contended that a close examination of the timeline of events shows he could not have knowingly caused an ethics violation because his wife did not work at the Community Development Department until March 8, 2006, after the relevant partnerships were formed.
Anatola Thompson resigned from her post a few months before the audit was released.
The Thompsons also characterized the findings of the Legislative Auditor’s Office as simply a different interpretation of the documents available.
Lee-Sheng said she wanted more time to examine the timeline of events the Thompsons laid out, while Young and Dwyer went with the parish attorney’s recommendation.
“I was not persuaded” by the Thompsons’ arguments, Young said.
Le’ Nouveau is an approved subcontractor on two parish contracts that are still active, but it is not currently doing any work for the parish.
The Jefferson Parish Council is expected to vote on the recommendation at its Sept. 17 meeting.
The state audit that spawned the hearing focused on the work of Thompson-Thibodeaux Community Development Corp., a nonprofit established by former Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee.
The audit found that the nonprofit took in more than $1.5 million in public money and then doled it out to companies owned by Lee family members and politically connected contractors doing home restoration work. They overbilled Thompson-Thibodeaux, the audit found, and in some cases charged for work that was never performed.
The report rapped Spears, one of the council members who were not at the committee meeting Thursday, for serving on Thompson-Thibodeaux’s board and doing work for the company while he worked in the Jefferson Parish Attorney’s Office.
Spears worked in that office from 2007 to 2011. He left to run to succeed the term-limited Lee, who supported Spears for the council seat.
The audit said Spears passed on a request from Lee to the parish’s accounting department asking that a $100,000 payment to Thompson-Thibodeaux be expedited.
It also said he contacted the Community Development Department to ask how his mother could apply for Thompson-Thibodeaux’s house-painting program. She applied and got her house painted as part of the program; the audit said that might have been a violation of state ethics law.
It was similarly wary of $4,000 Spears was paid for legal work on behalf of Thompson-Thibodeaux in 2007 — work he apparently used a parish-owned computer to do and which he may have done during parish work hours.
Lee and Spears have called the audit misleading and potentially politically motivated.
Spears said he was not affiliated with Thompson-Thibodeaux when he helped his mother, who he said met the age and income requirements for the painting program.
He said passing on the request for an expedited payment was within his duties at the Parish Attorney’s Office and that his private work for Thompson-Thibodeaux was allowed by parish policies at the time.