The latest squabble in Jefferson Parish government circles concerns a lousy conflict of interest.
Not so long ago, the arguments there were over which crooked politicians should go to prison — indeed, former Parish President Aaron Broussard is doing time right now — and a conflict of interest would have hardly raised an eyebrow. But these days, Jefferson can make a federal case out of one.
The row pits a politician against a political consultant, so it may not be easy for the public to take sides. The consultant, Greg Buisson, has filed a lawsuit against Parish Councilman Chris Roberts, so we can leave U.S. Judge Jane Triche Milazzo to decide who is right or, more likely, who is less wrong.
Roberts was just re-elected to an at-large seat on the council after a most acrimonious campaign. One his two challengers, former Kenner Mayor and Parish Councilman Louis Congemi, was particularly aggressive, running TV ads, for instance, that accused Roberts of failing to pay his taxes for many years. Congemi’s campaign manager and media man was Buisson.
Roberts, in turn, ran commercials claiming Congemi has been the subject of a federal investigation, and the parties wound up in state court accusing each other of defamation. It was a pretty standard Louisiana election; the case was settled when both sides agreed to take the offending commercials off the air.
Roberts was evidently not in a mood to forgive this and other rough-and-tumble campaign tactics, however.
In the dead of night after the election, Buisson claims Roberts called to gloat profanely over the result. He also sent a text reading, “We’re coming. Lawyer up,” Buisson’s lawsuit alleges.
This was no idle threat, for Roberts promptly introduced an ordinance decreeing that no Jefferson Parish government contracts be held by any firm that has been paid to run campaigns for the council or the parish presidency in the most recent election cycle, which runs from one year before the primary until the term of office is over.
Buisson says there is only one firm that will be affected by the ordinance, which was adopted by a 5-2 vote. That firm supplies Mardi Gras reviewing stands for the parish, does PR and event management for the Jefferson Convention and Visitors Bureau, and runs the Lafreniere Park Fourth of July shindig, known as Uncle Sam Jam. It belongs to Buisson.
Roberts says his ordinance was not an act of retaliation but an exercise in good government. Considering that Roberts has approved Buisson’s dealings with the parish until now, it is unlikely, however, that anyone will believe this sudden access of ethics is unrelated to the bruising campaign that just ended. Clearly, Roberts is out to punish Buisson.
But good government measures do not always arise from purely altruistic motives, and the four council members who joined Roberts in voting for the ordinance presumably thought he had a point.
Roberts says the scales fell from his eyes during the election campaign when the Convention and Visitors Bureau was planning to host a forum for the parish president’s race.
The forum was called off at Roberts’ urging because one of the candidates due to appear was Buisson’s client, Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni. That made no difference, as it turned out, because Yenni won the election.
Still, according to Roberts, “Those running and promoting campaigns should not be running and promoting publicly funded events.” Perhaps he is genuinely eager to prevent the use of taxpayers’ money for partisan advantage, but he may get even more satisfaction from sticking it to Buisson.
Whether this ordinance will achieve Roberts’ ends will depend on whether the judge accepts Buisson’s constitutional arguments. Buisson claims that a memo to the council from Parish Attorney Deborah Forshee supports his contention that the ordinance violates his rights to equal protection, freedom of speech and freedom of association.
This row is pretty mild stuff by historical standards, but at least Jefferson Parish, one way or another, hasn’t given up the fight against good government.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.