VACHERIE — For six years, the Port of South Louisiana has been marketing about 230 acres of agricultural land in St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes owned by the port's executive director and members of his family.
Along with running an airport and a port facility, the three-parish state agency has the mission of promoting industrial development and jobs tied to the Mississippi River in St. James, St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes.
The port's executive director, Paul Aucoin, and his brothers and sisters — along with other relatives — stand to benefit if the port can attract interest from industrial suitors looking for a foothold in the 54-mile river region. If all the family's property were sold at the low end of the going price, $45,000 per acre, the land could bring in nearly $10.4 million.
Broken up in two tracts, the Aucoin family acreage in the Vacherie area sits along the west bank of the river. Since 2009, Paul Aucoin has held a one-seventh share in the two Aucoin tracts — known as Goodwill and Succeed, after plantations that once operated there — through a limited liability corporation, land records show.
He, his brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews inherited the parcels, which are each more than 100 acres, from his mother after her death, succession records show.
The Aucoin parcels constitute parts of two of the large riverside sites highlighted on the port's website and in its quarterly publication, Port Log. Those industrial sites, which number about two dozen, are sometimes shown by commission employees to interested buyers.
In at least one case, several sites, including an Aucoin tract, were deemed to match a prospect’s needs and were shown by a port employee at the urging of the state, a port attorney said. No one entered the Aucoin land, officials said, but did drive by or get a look from the nearby river levee.
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Kathleen Allen, administrator for the state Board of Ethics, said that under state ethics law, a public servant can't participate in a government transaction in which he or his immediate family members have an economic interest. Immediate family members include brothers and sisters but not nephews, nieces or cousins.
Allen, who cannot comment on specific situations, also said a public servant, his immediate family or a legal entity in which he has an interest greater than 25 percent can't enter into contracts or other transactions in which the governmental entity plays a part or has an interest.
Aucoin and the board's attorney, Peter Butler Jr., maintain Aucoin hasn't violated state ethics law in marketing his family's properties.
Both say Aucoin has stayed out of port employees' work identifying properties and linking them with industries. The promotion of Aucoin family land through port-financed media outlets — the website and Port Log — does not rise to a prohibited “transaction” under state ethics law, Butler and Aucoin argued.
“Under the facts at issue, no one has bid on or entered into any contract or subcontract, or other ‘transaction’ with the Port,” Butler wrote in a six-page letter to The Advocate on Friday. “The Port merely identifies available sites within the Port’s geographic district available for commercial use in support of the Port’s economic development mission and publishes that identification.”
Allen, the ethics official, said that the term "transactions" has a broad definition. She said it includes any contract, claim, application, submission or other matters in which the governmental entity has a part or interest or is subject to the governmental entity's actions.
Aucoin said the port typically learns about available sites from landowners or governmental officials. Aucoin said neither he nor his staff earns commissions or fees when an industrial client selects a site. He added there is no written agreement between landowners and the port to market their properties.
"Our goal is to create jobs," Aucoin said. "That's all we're interested in."
A fixture in St. James economic development circles for many years, Aucoin has served in the past decade on regional tourism and planning boards, the St. James Parish Economic Development Board and the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors.
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The port's recent moves involving another large tract near the Aucoin properties have drawn an outcry from local officials. The port has bought nearly 1,700 acres that was once set to become a tank farm in the Vacherie area.
After being courted by local officials more than a decade ago, the proposed Petroplex tank farm drew opposition from residents and later from a new parish administration. The port now has major plans for that site and has threatened to sue to make sure it doesn't have to abide by St. James Parish's residential land-use rules. School officials have opposed the port's plan for the site, which was earmarked as residential in part to keep industrial facilities away from homes and schools.
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Last week, the port's board of commissioners agreed to hire a financial firm to vet two prospects for the former Petroplex site. Who they are or what they plan to do with the property remains confidential, port officials have said.
One of the two Aucoin tracts now being marketed abuts the old Petroplex site.
The tract is located primarily behind a neighborhood along River Road that was built on land sold off by Aucoin’s family years ago but also includes valuable riverfront area on the other side of the river levee. The other Aucoin tract, which is nearby in St. John the Baptist Parish, is where Paul Aucoin and his brothers and sisters grew up next to their cousins. Aucoin still has his law office there.
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Aucoin said his family's land interests have played no role in the port's purchase of the former Petroplex site. He said the decision to buy the land was up to the port's board of commissioners, though he said he did support it because the land is a great industrial site. Paul Robichaux — the chairman of the board, which oversees Aucoin — has not responded to calls for comment.
The port’s prospective industrial locations often are an assemblage of several long, narrow pieces of land, stacked like flapjacks along the river, that can have multiple owners. The parcels are throwbacks from the old French colonial arpent system of land division along the river.
Butler, the board attorney, has pointed out that the Aucoin properties were first promoted by the port a year before Paul Aucoin became executive director in 2013. Because of that, Butler said, Aucoin had no say in publicizing them. At the time, Aucoin was the port’s attorney.
Earlier this month, when first asked about his level of involvement in having the property marketed by the port, Aucoin said he stayed out of it. But he also said he initiated talking with his family members about it several years ago. Aucoin said he believed that happened about the time he became executive director but wasn't sure exactly when.
"I was talking to my family, I said, 'You know, the port lets people know if you want your property sold for an industrial site,'" Aucoin said.
When asked who gave the OK to have their property listed on the port website, Aucoin said it was his family.
Aucoin also said the Petroplex tank farm developers had talked to him about buying some of his family's property along the river, called "batture", for an expanded dock. Aucoin said Petroplex’s backers often told him “don’t sell your property. We need that batture.”
"But I said, ‘Yeah, but when you buy the batture, you’re buying the whole thing because the rest becomes worthless once you sell your batture," Aucoin said. “But it never happened. That’s what the value is, in the batture.”
Aucoin also said he is not aware of any interest in that land from companies now looking at the former Petroplex site.
As of last week, online promotional materials on the port's website for the Goodwill and Succeed sites showed Aucoin as the point of contact and listed his cellphone number. Butler said on Monday, after those facts were pointed out by The Advocate, that Aucoin is not the contact for his family's properties but one of his brothers is. Aucoin's information was erroneously displayed on the site and would be taken down, Butler said.
Aucoin and Linda Prudhomme, the port’s longtime director of business development, said she handles the site promotions, matching industries’ various needs, like total acreage and river frontage and pipeline access, with available land.
R. Gray Sexton, a lawyer and former longtime state ethics administrator, said Aucoin could file a disqualification plan that, if approved by the Board of Ethics, could recuse him from the port's activities and cure state prohibitions on governmental officials participating in actions by their agencies in which they have an economic interest.
It’s not clear if Aucoin has filed such a plan, and Butler, the port lawyer, said he is not aware of whether Aucoin has filed one.
But Butler has pointed to a 2013 ethics opinion that Aucoin sought when he became director. Though it involved a separate matter in which he had a financial interest, the opinion said Aucoin could avoid an ethics violation by recusing himself. Butler believes this opinion also applies to Aucoin's properties with respect to the ethics code's prohibition on participation, as long as Aucoin, in fact, doesn't work on the properties on behalf of the port.
But Sexton said recusal won't cure the prohibition on government officials entering into transactions with the entities they work for.
While Aucoin and the port attorney have maintained what the port is doing doesn’t rise to the level of a transaction, a landowner seeking help in selling a large site for industry would pay a hefty commission on the private market.
Beau Box, a commercial real estate broker, said the typical fee for that type of industrial property is 6 percent to 10 percent of the sale price for full services, from initial marketing to helping close the sale.
Port officials said, however, that they aren't involved in closing the sales of the private lands that the agency helps promote.
The question, Sexton said, is whether what the port has done for Aucoin and his family amounts to a “transaction” under the ethics law — a legal term of art filled with nuance.
“That’s the central area of interest. Is there a transaction?” Sexton asked.