As unpopular as the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board is these days, it took a jury only 15 minutes to acquit one former agency foreman on allegations that he sold city-owned metal to a scrap yard.
There apparently was little doubt that Cedric Beaulieu, an 11-year employee who was fired two years ago, was innocent in the eyes of the law.
A six-person jury in Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter's courtroom acquitted Beaulieu on March 28.
Yet Beaulieu, who keeps his uniform neatly pressed and stored in a closet, is still fighting to get his job back. He will appear before the city's Civil Service Commission on Monday to push for reinstatement.
“It’s about going back to prove everybody wrong,” he said.
Beaulieu, 39, followed other family members when he got a job at the board in April 2005. A few months later, Hurricane Katrina swamped his house in New Orleans East, but he stayed at work to fill up tanker trucks with purified water over 12- or 24-hour shifts, he said.
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“We barely got sleep; we didn’t have any clothes. Sometimes we went without food. I didn’t know where my family was,” he said. “Some people left. I chose to stay, because that’s how much I loved the job.”
He remained fond of the job despite the threat of snakes, leaky gas lines and staph infections.
"He was one of the best foremen we had," said Lynn Freeman, a 40-year S&WB veteran who supervised Beaulieu. She retired in March.
Beaulieu maintained his solid work record up until two years ago, when he was one of 19 water board employees ensnared in a probe by the New Orleans Office of Inspector General. Beaulieu and many others named in the investigation worked in the Networks Division, which maintains meters and pipes in the ground.
Officials said the probe, which began in January 2016, found that more than 34,000 pounds of brass intended for residential water meters had been stolen since 2013, resulting in a loss to the city of about $526,000. The employees earned just $41,000 by selling it.
Even before the August flood that further tarnished the water board's reputation and led to the hasty retirement of Executive Director Cedric Grant, the OIG investigation painted a picture of an agency overrun with corruption and mismanagement.
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Low-level board employees regularly sold brass fittings from the agency at area scrapyards, according to the OIG. Grant said he was "shocked and appalled."
The case against the men seemed airtight. Some admitted to selling the brass. Others were caught presenting their ID cards on scrapyard surveillance videos.
Beaulieu was interviewed by the OIG staff in June 2016 and acknowledged selling old brass from work sites.
The board fired him in August 2016, and he was booked on counts of malfeasance and theft of copper or other metals that December. Investigators said he received just under $2,500 for 2,000 pounds of brass.
Yet Beaulieu and other former employees said that selling old brass from work sites — which could not be reused by the agency anyway — was common practice, not a malicious scheme.
“The investigation just wasn’t done properly,” Beaulieu said. “It was like they just came in there just bullying a lot of employees.”
Bealieu’s attorney, Rachel Conner, said the OIG investigation failed to account for whether employees were slipping new brass out of warehouses — a clear case of theft, in her eyes — or selling old, dirty fittings.
Beaulieu had told the investigators that it would have been "crazy" for him to sell new brass.
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Although the board said a policy on recycling "surplus" material applied to scrap, even Grant acknowledged in testimony to a Civil Service hearing examiner that the policy was never communicated to workers.
Freeman, the former supervisor, said she did not believe the policy applied to scrap brass regardless.
"When (new workers) came there, this is what they were taught. This is what they had seen," she said.
Freeman said that after the board disseminated its policy on "surplus" brass in August 2016, she tested it by trying to turn in some old brass at a warehouse. A supervisor told her it was "trash" and refused to accept it, she said.
In Freeman's opinion, the board fired loyal employees to protect its image.
"Whoever was selling the new brass, they got what they deserved," she said. "But these guys who was out there selling the scrap materials, that was just totally wrong."
The board's top management was almost completely replaced by an interim team after the Aug. 5 flood.
Rich Rainey, a board spokesman, said employees are expected to conduct themselves "professionally and with integrity when working for the board."
He said the interim management team "is working to improve the S&WB’s guidelines for employees to encourage sound judgment when carrying out the S&WB’s mission."
For more than a year and through countless court appearances, Beaulieu agonized over whether to plead guilty.
“I went into a depression stage,” he said. “I’m just like, 'I’m done. I can’t come down here no more.' ”
Of the other nine workers accused of selling brass at the same time as Beaulieu, one pleaded guilty as charged, one admitted to a misdemeanor under a plea deal, and five others’ cases are still pending. Two cases are not in the court's online docket.
Beaulieu decided to take his case to trial because he did not want a felony conviction. As prosecutors called witnesses from the water board and the IG’s office, he was convinced he would lose.
But after Beaulieu and Freeman took the stand, Conner, the attorney, argued that the brass had been legally abandoned by the board and thus its sale was not a theft. The jury did not take long to return its verdict of not guilty.
“Tons of weight just fell off my shoulders,” Beaulieu said.
The OIG — which like the board is under new management after a period of internal turmoil — referred questions to the District Attorney’s Office.
"When you take property that you know does not belong to you and sell it, we believe that constitutes theft,” said Ken Daley, a spokesman for that office. "In this case, the jury did not find the defendant guilty, and we must respect the jury's decision."
Although Beaulieu’s prospects for finding work elsewhere have brightened with his acquittal, he still wants his old job back. On Monday, he and his attorney will ask the Civil Service Commission to reinstate an appeal of his firing, which had been placed on hold after his arrest.
Other employees making similar appeals have fared poorly. Commissioners have shown little sympathy while rejecting at least two appeals.
In an opinion about one 22-year veteran, commissioners said that “there should be no need for a policy that prohibits S&WB employees from personally profiting from the sale of S&WB property.”
Rainey said the board will consider rehiring Beaulieu if instructed to do so by the commission.
Beaulieu maintains his optimism.
“I hold no grudges,” he said.