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Zachary Mayor David Amrhein

After an audit found the City of Zachary paid two vendors nearly $4 million for work without having a contract in place, some on city council are calling for a criminal investigation and for the mayor to resign — but Mayor David Amrhein says he didn't break the law.

"I think he needs to resign and there needs to be full investigations by the State Police and Department of Justice," council member and Mayor Pro Tem Lael Montgomery said Wednesday about the audit's findings. "He gave away $4 million without a contract. Without any paperwork. That means we're having to go back and do paperwork on the backend. That's criminal!" 

Amrhein defended his actions, saying the money paid to the vendors was formally priced and agreed upon upfront, despite there being no formal contracts in place at the time of the review. 

"There was no criminal wrongdoing or fraud — that was the first words out of their mouths when [the state auditors] sat down with us," Amrhein said. "These were not findings, they just gave us recommendations. Every time you get an audit they find something and give recommendations." 

In addition to flagging those payments, made between July 2019 and May 2021, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor dinged the city's administration for inadequately reviewing invoices before it paid one of its vendors for services rendered. 

The audit has Councilwoman Laura O'Brien pushing the rest of the council to hire its own outside attorney to represent their interests should the matter escalate in any way. 

O'Brien tried leading a discussion around hiring outside counsel at the City Council's meeting on Tuesday — before the audit's findings went public — but that erupted into a heated debate between the mayor and several council members. 

"If we need (legal) coverage, I want someone who has me in mind, as a councilperson, and not just the mayor and city as a whole," O'Brien said. "The council hasn't received any information on anything hardly. I only got calls here and there from influential people in the community that recommended we get counsel for ourselves." 

O'Brien said it has been commonplace for the administration to present vendors invoices for the council's approval after vendors have been paid. 

"We should be approving bills and then mailing them out," she said. 

Montgomery added, "The mayor needs to understand this is not his business, this is the city's business. The money belongs to the people." 

Amrhein asserts its not the council's place to weigh in on the day-to-day operations at City Hall. 

Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack, in a letter to Zachary officials dated Nov. 8, zeroed in on two vendors that were paid $4.1 million for maintenance and utility services between 2019 and 2021. Auditors said the city paid $3.5 million to the vendors for water meter reading, utility maintenance and equipment repair and lift station and water well maintenance and repairs without a contract. 

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Waguespack's letter goes on to say a vendor's invoices for utility location services were paid without the city requiring the vendor to submit timesheets or activity reports to confirming the hours billed to the city were correct.

The audit did not name the vendors in question.

Montgomery and O'Brien alluded to one of the vendors being a close personal friend of Amrhein's. 

"I know everybody in Zachary," the mayor responded. Amrhein added the vendor "does the best job" and "is normally cheaper than everybody else." 

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Auditors also reviewed other records and found the city had issued purchase orders for utility maintenance work that were issued after the work was completed, instead of beforehand, which is standard.  

Among the state auditor's list of recommendations:

  • The city should have written contracts that clearly outline the terms and conditions of work vendors perform before any are paid to minimize the city's liability. 
  • Advertise and obtain periodic proposals for service contracts to determine the best and cheapest vendors are being selected when outsourcing city services. 
  • Require vendors to submit detailed invoices, time sheets and activity reports prior to payment. 
  • Issue purchase orders ahead of contracted work. 

In his prepared response to the audit, Amrhein said the city has adopted signed contracts with the vendors. In the cases where no contracts were in place at the time auditors were reviewing city records, the city had specific pricing sheets on hand detailing the work and materials both sides had agreed upon, he said. 

Amrhein said the city will consider issuing Request for Proposals for outsourced services as the "situation allows" going forward. The mayor claimed the city has improved its protocols around processing vendor invoices since the findings were brought to light and his office will reevaluate how it issues purchase orders as well. 

"We've already done them all," Amrhein said Wednesday about the state's recommendations. "We've always checked invoices and everything, we have more safeguards there now."

Montgomery said the City Council will revisit the discussion around hiring outside counsel at its next meeting Nov. 23. 

"I know that if the FBI and State Police came in and investigated they'll find criminal elements in this," he said. "You can't give away $4 million without paperwork."

Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com