GONZALES — Ascension Parish government spent about $10,600 so far on pre-trip expenses for Parish President Kenny Matassa, four of his top staff and one parish councilman to fly to Las Vegas and attend a conference while the parish was under a state of emergency because of Hurricane Barry.
The expenses cover at least $7,542 in hotel and flight costs and another $3,085 in conference registration fees for the National Association of Counties gathering in Las Vegas between Thursday, July 11, and Monday.
Alone in box where administrators sit before the council, Matassa on Thursday evening made his first appearance before the council since his absence amid the emergency became public.
He sat and listened as council members extolled the work of Rick Webre, his homeland security director, and other members of his department and other departments. Councilman John Cagnolatti called the emergency office a "well-oiled machine."
Matassa spoke briefly about the storm but did not address his absence.
The expense documents, obtained Thursday through a public records request filed Monday morning before The Advocate broke the story about the trip, leave an incomplete picture of the total expenses that parish officials might have run up in the nation's gambling capital.
It appears certain the final number will be higher. None of the receipts for daily expenses from the officials who went on the trip were made available Thursday.
By comparison, initial estimates for the cost of the parish response to Barry have topped $441,000 so far, including for parish labor, operating the parish's pumps, sand, food for employees, emergency generators and other expenses, a new tally says.
Under parish travel policy, the officials have 30 days to submit their expenses. Unless the parish president or chief administrative officer otherwise authorizes it, employees have up to $75 per day to spend on food.
The expenses must be supported with receipts, however. The parish does not reimburse alcohol expenses but does cover parking, use of taxis, and business services, like access to faxes or the internet.
The records provided thus far leave unclear how much money was ultimately spent on hotel rooms at Caesar's Palace.
Matassa has come under fire over his and his staff's absence from the parish during the run-up to Barry's landfall Saturday. He has defended his decision to leave July 11, a day after he declared a state of emergency. He had said at that time the emergency declaration was required to "to minimize the threat of life and property to the citizens of the Parish."
The parish's top executive had said he and other parish officials had prepared for the storm in advance, he was in regular contact with the remaining staff after he left and wasn't in physical condition to fill sandbags.
Matassa didn't return until Tuesday, well after Barry had shifted farther west than earlier projected and had pushed through the state with far less severe rain and wind in Ascension and the Baton Rouge region than once feared.
In a statement, Matassa had downplayed the severity of the storm reports he had been receiving, saying Barry wasn't as bad as the media reported.
But the homeland security director, Webre, who stayed behind to manage the response and with whom Matassa says he was in contact, warned at one point that flooding from Barry could rival a 1983 flood, the most devastating flood in the parish's recent history until the August 2016 flood.
"If you're old enough to remember the 1983 flood, it's somewhere in that range," Webre had said during a news conference July 12 at the parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales while Matassa and his administrators were in Las Vegas.
Parish out-of-state travel forms indicate the following people went on the trip in addition to Matassa: Ken Dawson, the parish's chief administrative officer; Thomas "Moose" Pearce, the parish director of facilities; Kemlyn Bailey-Lomas, Matassa's chief executive assistant; and Joan Shivers, the parish's purchasing director; and Parish Councilman Oliver Joseph.
Records showed a sixth parish administration official was booked for the trip, but she said Thursday evening she did not go due to a recent death in her family.
The records don't indicate if any of the officials took family members or guests.
The records show at least $5,074 was spent on five premium hotel rooms for five nights at Caesar's Palace, which was not one of the NACo conference hotels, for Matassa and his administrators. Another $730 was spent on a room at Bally's Las Vegas, which was a conference hotel, for Joseph for four nights.
But the records obtained show that Dawson and Bailey-Lomas booked six additional premium rooms for a total additional cost of $6,043. It's not clear if those rooms were used and, if so, by whom, or if they represented redundant bookings and the parish did not incur those costs.
If the rooms were used or went unused and could not be reimbursed, the added cost would bring the parish pre-trip bill closer to about $16,670 before additional expenses are submitted.
The records also leave other questions. While the flight itineraries and cost of the flights of all administrators and Joseph were made available, only Matassa's flight itinerary, but not the cost, was made available.
It's not clear what his direct flight on Southwest Airlines cost. It's possible Matassa made his own booking reservations and those expenses could be submitted later.
Joseph, the councilman, also had a direct flight on Southwest, and it cost $499. Parish staffers didn't have direct flights — they had one layover — and those flights cost $398 each.
Two councilmen canceled their trips: Randy Clouatre and John Cagnolatti. Clouatre canceled because of the storm, he has said, but Cagnolatti canceled his plans in late June, records show.
While both men were able to get full reimbursement for their flight costs, NACo reimbursed all but $75 of Cagnolatti's registration fees. The records were unclear if Clouatre, who canceled a few weeks after Cagnolatti, was able to get any reimbursement for his registration fees of $560.