The long-simmering animosity between Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni and Council Chairman Chris Roberts spilled into public view Wednesday, as the two men traded accusations of ethical lapses that had previously been reserved for less visible venues.
After Roberts sent fellow council members a letter Tuesday describing a sex act Yenni purportedly offered to perform on a 17-year-old boy in 2015, the parish president fired back Wednesday with his own scorched earth missive.
Yenni described Roberts as reckless, vindictive, unfit to hold public office and a threat to the parish's financial well-being.
Then the two men had a heated 10-minute exchange at a Parish Council meeting in Elmwood that touched on controversies that have ensnared both Yenni, who formerly served as Kenner mayor, and Roberts, a longtime council member.
"Chris Roberts is an obstructionist who could potentially cost this parish millions of dollars due to his temper, conniving ways and vengeance,” Yenni wrote in his letter, which was given to council members at the beginning of a the meeting. “It’s time for him to be unmasked and unseated. In the many years I served the public, I’ve never experienced a more retaliatory, dishonest or deceitful politician (than) Chris Roberts. I truly believe Chris Roberts is not fit to hold public office.”
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Roberts has defended the graphic description of the sex act he included in his letter, saying it was meant to inform council members and constituents of what they need to know to properly judge what Yenni has described only as “improper” texts.
Some of the language in Roberts' letter echoed texts he sent days earlier to Parish Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken that also had to do with a controversy over whom to appoint to a vacant seat on the council.
Van Vrancken has said she found the graphic sexual reference to be “lewd and crass” and the texts in general to be vaguely threatening.
Roberts apologized to Van Vrancken during the meeting, but he also said that finding the content offensive was precisely the point. And if one does, he said, that revulsion is best directed at the source: Yenni.
The contempt Roberts and Yenni have for each other has long been public knowledge. But they have never before been as openly hostile toward each other as this week.
In his letter to the council, Yenni said Roberts’ “accusations against me are extreme and patently false.”
“Your colleague has blatantly misused his political influence to threaten others,” wrote Yenni, whose administration has been mired in scandal since the texting allegations involving a youth named Alex Daigle became public in the fall. “But he’s faced no consequences.”
Yenni made a reference to a lawsuit Roberts faced during his 2015 re-election campaign that accused him of filing his federal tax returns late and sought to disqualify him as a candidate in the race. A Jefferson Parish judge ruled in Roberts’ favor, and Roberts on Wednesday pointed out that the plaintiff in the case was named Kenner’s code enforcement director as Yenni was leaving to become parish president.
Yenni on Wednesday defended the hire, saying Stephen Petit was the most qualified person to replace an official who had joined the parish president’s staff.
“Yes, we did hire him,” Yenni said. “On my way out with one day left, I guess you’d say, so we’d have a code director in Kenner.”
“And that was just coincidence,” Roberts said, sardonically.
“That’s beside the point,” Yenni replied.
Referring to the council's call last fall for him to resign, Yenni said, “We’re going to call for my resignation over allegations when we have facts (about Roberts), and we’ve just ignored those facts on issues that pertain to you…”
Roberts interjected, “And all those issues have been settled through the proper channels in court, Mr. Yenni.”
Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts told fellow council members in a letter Tuesday th…
Yenni and Roberts also sparred over how Yenni has been paying consultant Greg Buisson, who has handled public relations for Yenni related to the scandal. Roberts asked how Buisson is being paid, but Yenni said only that he is not being paid with parish funds.
Buisson, meanwhile, has a pending federal lawsuit against parish government over an ordinance championed by Roberts that Buisson claims unconstitutionally targeted him as political revenge for working with one of Roberts’ 2015 challengers. Roberts has defended the ordinance as a legitimate good-government measure.
Yenni’s letter also referred to $5,000 worth of unpaid fines imposed on Roberts by the state Ethics Board for campaign finance reports filed late. Records show that Roberts has another $8,600 in state Ethics Board fines for late or unfiled personal financial disclosure reports.
Roberts said he will pay off all fines with personal money — not campaign funds — as soon as a property settlement pertaining to his divorce is finalized.
Yenni wrote, “He’s ignored IRS deadlines while the rest of us abide by the law, and he does it without shame or remorse. He’s violated state ethics — time and again — making a mockery of the system and putting himself above the law. He has retaliated against those who speak against him, putting the parish at legal and financial risk, all the while showing no regard for protecting the taxpayers from his contempt.”
Yenni also referenced a civil case in which Roberts is accused of bouncing a $6,500 check he wrote to repay part of a debt of more than $186,000 related to a personal loan from a major West Bank landowner. Yenni noted that, under Louisiana law, issuing worthless checks of more than $500 is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Roberts said the loan stems from his and a former business partner’s acquisition of a sandwich shop that the lender’s son didn’t want anymore. The business partner declared bankruptcy while Roberts battled cancer some years ago.
Roberts, who had signed a personal promissory note in his own name and didn’t declare bankruptcy, continued owing the debt to Joseph Marcello’s company, JCM Development. JCM accused the councilman of failing to make a single payment on the loan for more than a decade, triggering the lawsuit last year.
Roberts and JCM’s attorney, Pedro Galeas, signed a consent judgment in December affirming that the councilman owed $186,317.75, plus interest and legal costs. Roberts said payments are being made, and he has previously said the bounced check inadvertently drew from the wrong bank account.
Nonetheless, Yenni’s letter said, “Has anyone taken the time to look into Roberts’ financial troubles, specifically considering whether he has voted on measures that would benefit those to whom he owes significant funds? Will anyone ask Roberts to explain why he failed to repay a large loan or why he wrote a bad check for thousands of dollars? Did he commit fraud when writing that bad check?”
In mentioning measures that might benefit someone to whom Roberts owes money, it appeared that Yenni was referring to votes in 2014 and 2015 to facilitate building projects in the largely undeveloped West Bank tract known as Fairfield, a large portion of which Marcello owns.
Roberts said nothing in those measures mentions JCM or Marcello, and neither vote resulted in payments to the company or its principal. “I have no idea what (Marcello) owns or doesn’t own,” said Roberts, who in passing questioned whether it was appropriate for the parish-funded Council on Aging to have hosted a banquet at Kenner’s Chateau Country Club, which is managed by Yenni’s wife.
Yenni later countered that he has no control over parish tax money dedicated to the Council on Aging and has no say on where the nonprofit agency hosts its events.
Yenni’s letter continued, “Chris’ latest alleged outrage is a pitiful attempt by him to impair my ability to govern. But he has failed, and he will continue to fail because my focus is laser-direct on accomplishing the goals of this administration and parish. He has failed because I am governing, and it irks him that I am working with a majority of the council members to accomplish success after success for our parish.”
Yenni reiterated his contention that he didn’t violate his oath of office by sending his texts to the teenager, hasn’t been contacted by any law enforcement agency and hasn't misused his authority.
“I have apologized time and time again for my actions,” Yenni said during the meeting. “I have done nothing that has violated the law. I have done nothing that has violated my oath of office. … I’m sorry, I’m tired of being ambushed, but I guess in some ways it’s my fault. Chris, you know full well I’ve done everything in my power to work through this, to work with each and every one of you.”
Asked for a response to Yenni’s contention that Roberts is unfit to hold public office, Roberts replied, “Consider the source.”
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