Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni for the first time on Wednesday confronted the scandal that has engulfed his administration at a Parish Council meeting, pleading for a chance at redemption in overtly religious terms but ultimately failing to avert a unanimous vote of no confidence and another demand for his resignation from the council.

Yenni's appearance at the parish government's headquarters on the West Bank in Gretna made for one of the most dramatic scenes in recent political history. 

 

Trouble seeing the video? Click here

Facing council members with a packed room behind him, Yenni spoke calmly from prepared remarks, asking forgiveness for admittedly sending what he he has dubbed "improper text messages to a young man," but also offering a measured defense of his actions and touting the accomplishments of his first few months in office. 

"I can only grow stronger as a husband, a father and a public servant from the immorality that once weakened me," said Yenni, as his mother, Peggy, watched from the audience. "Now, it is my job to move this parish forward, and I humbly ask you to let me do my job."

Behind him, people held up signs that read "Take a Hike Mike," while others outside gathered signatures for a petition filed last week seeking to forcibly remove Yenni from office, something the council does not have the power to do on its own.  

A small contingent of supporters showed up in T-shirts that read "Keep Yenni" and quoted from the biblical book of Proverbs: "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice."

Yenni told council members that he had considered stepping down but had been convinced by members of the local Catholic clergy to instead admit his fault and try to win forgiveness.

Without discussion, all seven members of the council then delivered a unanimous vote of no confidence in Yenni's ability to lead the parish. In the same vote, they formally asked him to resign, having already called on him to do so in a pair of public letters almost two weeks ago. 

Two recent public opinion polls have showed an overwhelming majority of Jefferson Parish voters want him to resign and favor the idea of ousting him through a recall petition if he won't quit.

Those polls indicate that statements Yenni has made since WWL-TV first reported on his texts three weeks ago have not improved his standing among constituents.

Yenni on Wednesday made some points that he has not made previously. For one, he called the teenager at the center of the scandal — who reportedly was 17 when he began receiving Yenni's texts last year — "a college-bound, legal adult."

Under Louisiana law, 17-year-olds can be considered adults for legal purposes, though WWL-TV reported that federal authorities were trying to decide whether the texts violated a federal law that prohibits sending obscene materials to people younger than 18.

Further, Yenni — who is raising a daughter with his wife, who is now expecting a second child — disputed reports that he met and first spoke to the teen at a function hosted by his alma mater, Jesuit High School.

He also reeled off a litany of successes he said the parish has enjoyed during his nine-month tenure, such as uncovering waste related to a public hospital lease deal with a private operator and pressuring the Port of New Orleans to explore more business opportunities for the parish.

Otherwise, Yenni again avoided addressing other allegations in the WWL-TV report, among them that he solicited the teen for group sex and made him a potential job offer.

 

Trouble seeing the video? Click here

Yenni also doubled down on points he's previously made about the scandal: that the texts predated his parish presidency by several months, that he didn't misuse public assets in thrusting himself and his family into what he calls a personal situation, and that he has apologized to everyone affected, including God and voters.

Yenni has found no public supporters outside of his immediate family and staff, but on this day he got a vigorous defense from Aubrey Wallace, pastor of Heavenly Star Missionary Baptist Church in Marrero.

Wallace is familiar to local politicos. State campaign finance records show that Yenni's camp paid at least $500 to Wallace to be an election day worker on the day Yenni beat four opponents last year to be elected parish president.

Other Jefferson Parish politicians who have paid Wallace for similar duties include former Parish President John Young, School Board member Cedric Floyd and state Sen. Danny Martiny. Kenner Councilman Keith Reynaud, who is running in that city’s mayoral election next month, recently paid Wallace $600 to distribute door hangers.

Wallace told The Advocate he had not been paid to come to the meeting but was simply helping a friend to avoid being wronged.

“This is what I do,” said Wallace, who has known Yenni since the latter’s first bid in 2010 for Kenner mayor, an office he held for nearly six years.

At the podium, Wallace told council members that while Yenni may have sinned, no one had the right to judge him.

“Each one of you sitting up there is going to have your day,” he warned. “Y’all opened up a Pandora’s box. You want to be the moral code for Jefferson Parish and say what’s a sin and enumerate what sin is the Lord’s? The day is going to come where one of y’all is going to be confronted and I pray to God and hope … you think about his wife and his daughter, that you think about what you’re doing.”

Wallace, who is also the founder of the Louisiana Coalition for Change, invoked the name of the late Harry Lee, the parish's former sheriff, in saying council members had overstepped their bounds.

“I don’t think that Sheriff Lee would stand here and ask that this man resign. Privately, he would blast the hell out of him, but publicly, I don’t think the sheriff would take that stand,” he said, prompting a negative shake of the head from Council Chairwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, Lee’s daughter, as well as murmurs of disagreement from the audience.

“Mr. Yenni, I’ll tell you right now, don’t resign,” Wallace said. “Stand. Stand in the midst of this. ... No charges have been brought against you. Until that happens, stand. And those who want to work with you, work with them. And those that won’t, work around them. You represent the people of Jefferson Parish and until they tell you to resign, stay on your job.”

Yenni also received an assist from a woman identifying herself as Terry Green of Marrero. She said she took it upon herself to ask about a dozen relatives and friends to wear “Keep Yenni” shirts Wednesday because the parish president had been good “holding that seat.” That group applauded Wallace's remarks.

Others who spoke were less charitable toward Yenni.

Waggaman resident George Peterson said a recall, if ultimately successful, would take more than six months to complete, “and all this time our parish is going to languish. And as our parish languishes, you’re going to be holding on to this (office) selfishly while the citizens of Jefferson Parish suffer. Please, Mike, listen to the people of Jefferson Parish, the … citizens who want you to resign.”

Ed Lancaster, head of Citizens for a Better Kenner, a civic group that often butted heads with Yenni during his years as mayor, told him that his last act in politics should “not be that you refused the will of the people ... and had to be pitched out on your ear."

Kenner resident and mayoral candidate Al Morella, a longtime critic of Yenni’s, said the recall “is the only solution there is.”

“You’re not sorry for anything, man,” he said, his voice rising. “You know what you’re sorry for? You’re sorry that 17-year-old came forward and exposed you for who you are.”

The audience erupted in applause.

“You can stay in that seat if you want to, because the people are gonna get you out of that seat,” Morella continued. “And I can tell you something else. I’m going to demand your resignation at every meeting ... until you’re gone. You are going to hear it every council meeting, my friend, and I’m glad you showed up here today so I could tell you to your face.”

Soon afterward, the council went into executive session on unrelated matters. When the members returned, Yenni had left, and his chair sat empty for the rest of the meeting.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

(504) 636-7433