The state Ethics Board has charged Clarence “C.J.” Savoie, who acts as the St. John the Baptist Parish engineer, with violating Louisiana ethics laws by improperly participating in nearly a dozen public projects with contracts worth almost $1.4 million while also serving as a paid adviser to the parish.
Savoie’s role as a parish consultant on engineering matters made him a de facto public official, creating a conflict of interest when he competed for other engineering work from the parish, according to the board.
Savoie’s private company, based in Assumption Parish, was hired to provide engineering services for 10 projects between 2008 and 2015, violating ethics laws, the state board said.
“It’s pretty simple. He was a public official responsible for engineering, and his company got an engineering contract under that (government) entity,” said Dane Ciolino, a Loyola Law School professor and expert on the ethics code. “When you’re a public servant, you cannot get a contract from the entity that you’re working for, for obvious reasons.”
Gray Sexton, an attorney for Savoie and his engineering company and a former longtime attorney for the Ethics Board, denies that his client broke any ethics laws. Because neither Savoie nor his firm has been appointed or elected to any public office, he is not a public official, Sexton said.
“It is patently manifest to us that the charges brought by the Ethics Board are completely groundless,” Sexton said. “The methodology the parish used to acquire engineering services is no different than that used by countless other government agencies, including school boards, police juries, municipalities and parish councils.”
A hearing has yet to be scheduled in Savoie’s case, which would be heard by the Ethics Adjudicatory Board, a body of administrative law judges.
That panel receives evidence on formal charges brought by the Ethics Board; should the judges determine that Savoie violated Louisiana law, they may remove, suspend or demote him. The ethics code also allows for a fine of up to $10,000, Sexton said.
Savoie and his wife, Penney, have owned C.J. Savoie Consulting Engineers Inc. since 1977, and he has acted as an engineering consultant for St. John Parish for about two decades. But it wasn’t until he began performing actual engineering work while also serving as an adviser on engineering matters to the parish that his role started getting blurry, in the view of the Ethics Board.
In December 2010, Savoie signed a contract to provide engineering consulting services for the parish through 2014 for a fee of about $121,000 a year. In 2014, the deal was renewed for another four years, with Savoie receiving a raise of nearly $15,000.
The contract specified that any construction or engineering projects the parish embarked on would go out for competitive bidding to protect public dollars and prevent corruption. Savoie would act as a third party between the bidders and the parish, ensuring that taxpayers get “the most for their dollars” by reviewing engineer plans and providing other services.
Savoie also was to prepare the scope of work for all engineering jobs in the publicly bid projects and evaluate proposals submitted by other firms, as well as prepare cost estimates for “in-house” projects. Other duties included assisting the parish’s public utilities director and public works director, monitoring construction projects and helping the parish develop procedures for street and road maintenance.
His contract also included water treatment work, helping the Utilities Department with sewerage problems, developing a solid waste program, evaluating pump requirements and acting as an adviser in the case of pump failures.
In addition to his salary, Savoie’s contract said he could “prepare plans and specifications for major construction projects” for additional fees, if authorized by the council.
But the Ethics Board said Savoie violated the law when he was paid to render engineering services on 10 projects of “substantial” economic interest between 2008 and 2015 while also serving the parish in his advisory capacity.
Six of those 10 contracts fell under the advisory umbrella of the parish engineer, namely Savoie.
According to the board, the parish in 2008 hired Savoie to do engineering services for an expansion of the Lions Water Plant, for a fee of $441,000. From that point forward, Savoie’s firm continued to land engineering work in connection with various St. John projects, including street and drainage improvements and sewer main extensions.
All told, the board said, Savoie was paid more than $530,000 for engineering work over and above the annual fee he earned through his consulting contract. The contracts had a maximum value of $1.4 million.
In an interview, Sexton defended Savoie’s actions, highlighting the portion of Savoie’s contract that specified he could do extra work for the parish. He also cited an advisory opinion issued by the Ethics Board in 2009 that he said helped define whether private contracting entities are considered to be public employees.
In that case, Sexton said, the board found no conflict of interest in a law firm, Taylor Porter, rendering legal services to LSU in anticipated negotiations with bidders seeking to run local hospital facilities, including institutions that Taylor Porter had previously represented in other matters.
Sexton said the Ethics Board generally aims to avoid creating unnecessary barriers to public service.
“It was never the intention of the Louisiana Legislature to subject individual, private non-government engineering firms to the far-reaching provisions of the ethics code,” Sexton said.
Although a hearing date in the case hasn’t been set, Savoie’s attorneys are due to discuss the charges during a status conference in early April, according to Cynthia Eyre, a lawyer with the state’s Division of Administrative Law.
The St. John the Baptist Parish Council has not taken any action against Savoie, and one member of the council said he is uncertain whether Savoie did anything improper.
“The question of charges brought before the Ethics Board is a matter between Savoie’s firm and the Ethics Board,” said Councilman Michael Wright, the council’s vice chairman. “They’re not a confirmation of wrongdoing.”
Sexton went further, calling the charges “unfounded.” He said the Ethics Board has never before tried to subject a private engineering firm in a similar situation to the provisions of the ethics code.
If Savoie is found guilty of the charges, the result “would be a dangerous and far-reaching result that could unravel the capacity of local government to acquire general engineering services,” Sexton said.