Part of a federally funded business loan to Marcus Bruno, a senior aide to Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, was intended to pay the salary of Bruno’s wife, Traci Bruno, according to information in attachments to the administration’s legal opinion on the loan released Wednesday.
The opinion, authored by assistant city-parish attorney Stephen Oats, is meant to clear Marcus Bruno of any violations of federal regulations concerning conflicts of interest, based on two findings:
- Marcus Bruno did not participate in the city-parish's authorization of the 2001 grant to Lafayette Neighborhoods' Economic Development Corp., which administers a revolving loan fund for small businesses.
- Bruno also did not participate in Lafayette Neighborhoods' decision to give him the loan in 2016, after he joined the Robideaux administration.
Marcus and Traci Bruno secured the $35,000 loan for their business, LA Consultants LLC, with a mortgage on their home as part of Lafayette Neighborhoods’ standard application process, according to Oats’ opinion.
Regulations stipulate that city-parish employees are not allowed to benefit from activities supported by U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development block grants when they are in a position to help make decisions or gain inside information regarding those activities. The prohibition generally applies to those who “exercise or have exercised any functions or responsibilities with respect to CDBG activities,” the regulation states, referring to the block grant program.
Bruno actively participated in the Robideaux administration’s successful initiative to steer additional grant money to Lafayette Neighborhoods three months after obtaining the loan, the city-parish’s first such authorization to the nonprofit in 16 years, according to public records. Bruno communicated directly with Lafayette Neighborhoods staff and a board member about the organization’s business, emails show.
Bruno’s loan application shows one full-time employee — the office manager — receiving a salary of $46,000. An LA Consultants solicitation letter marketing the company’s services identifies Traci Bruno as the office manager.
Marcus Bruno requested a $48,000 loan, with $20,000 going to employee salaries and the remainder going to computer equipment and office supplies. Lafayette Neighborhoods approved a $35,000 loan in October 2016. There are no invoices, receipts or other documentation of how the money was used in more than 100 pages of attachments to Oats’ opinion.
Bruno presented LA Consultants as a service provider for recent criminal court defendants, who are directed to the company by judges or attorneys. Services offered include curfew monitoring, drug test notifications, appointment reminders and check-ins and interviews, according to a company profile.
The Lafayette Neighborhoods board chair, Regis Allison, previously told The Advocate that Bruno helped spearhead closer ties between the organization and city-parish government.
“He was suggesting that the administration and LNEDC should form a relationship that would be beneficial to both sides,” Allison said.
As part of that effort, Bruno also helped come up with recommendations for appointments to the nonprofit’s board who are responsible for making sure he is current on payments. Bruno’s payments on the loan were returned in three consecutive months last year, according to Lafayette Neighborhoods bank statements. It’s not clear what, if any, remedial actions the board considered. Robideaux and Bruno maintain that he is current on the payments.
Lower-ranking city-parish staffers, meanwhile, are responsible for ensuring the Lafayette Neighborhoods loan files are in order. Their responsibilities include ensuring that grant money for economic development loans achieves a “public benefit,” defined in HUD standards as supporting one job for every $35,000 of grant money spent.
HUD instructs local officials to request a waiver from the regulations when faced with potential conflicts of interest. Bruno did not seek such a waiver for his loan. Asked if Bruno should have, Robideaux replied “no,” without elaborating, during an impromptu meeting with reporters on Tuesday night.
A Washington University government ethics expert, Kathleen Clark, has noted previously that the wording of the regulation is broad and open to interpretation. Local administrations are responsible for ensuring employees don’t violate regulations, she said.
“The city would have to be on the cautious side and would need to put in place guardrails, or training, on this specific conflict-of-interest standard,” Clark said.
Clark was addressing the federal regulation, not specifically the Bruno case.
Bruno previously told The Advocate he was not aware of any federal regulations concerning conflicts of interest, or that the loan was funded with federal grant money. Yet a city-parish employee provided Bruno with detailed information about the Lafayette Neighborhoods loan fund, including that it is “capitalized with CDBG funds,” in May 2016, a few weeks before he applied for it.
Robideaux repeatedly attempted to end the meeting with reporters on Tuesday when asked if his administration has training on conflicts of interest. When pressed for a yes or no, he replied, “We all have to take ethics training.”