Zachary City Hall

An ugly fight over an audit that found the city of Zachary paid two vendors $3.5 million without having contracts in place has died down some, but the city councilman most upset about the matter has made clear he is not giving up on his quest for answers.

“We’ll find out the truth eventually,” vowed Councilman Lael Montgomery.

The vendors that were collectively paid $4.1 million for maintenance and utility services between July 2019 and May 2021. Of that, $3.5 million was paid out without a contract; the city has since entered into contracts with both companies.

The vendors were doing water meter reading, utility maintenance and equipment repair and lift station and water well maintenance and repairs. Zachary supplies gas, sewer and water to its residents.

Tuesday night’s Zachary City Council meeting was Montgomery's first chance to question Mayor David Amrhein and his top staff in person about the investigative audit since it was released Nov. 10.

The audit revived a longstanding feud between Amrhein and Montgomery.

Montgomery immediately called for the mayor to step down and criminal investigations to be launched.

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

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.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office, which conducted the audit, found no indication of anything illegal and District Attorney Hillar Moore agrees.

The feud escalated on social media with Montgomery waving a handgun seemingly in response to heated exchanges he got in with Amrhein's son on Facebook. The son said he was weighing whether to file a criminal complaint against Montgomery, but to date has not. Montgomery said he felt threatened and was making use of his constitutional right to protect himself and his family.

By contrast, Montgomery and the mayor were on good behavior Tuesday night, but there was clearly little love lost.

The primary new information that emerged were the names of the vendors: H&H Projects, owned by Wade Holden of Denham Springs, and McLeod Electric, owned by Alvin McLeod.

“They’ve been doing business with the city for the better part of 20 years, the both of them,” explained Deanna Mankins, chief financial officer for the city, who fielded most of Montgomery’s questions.

“Any of these businesses or persons donated directly to the mayor’s campaign?” Montgomery asked.

“Yes,” the mayor responded.

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“Who? Both of them?” Montgomery followed.

“Yes,” replied Amrhein.

A review of campaign finance records going back to 2010, the year Amrhein was elected mayor, shows the following contributions: Wade Holden: $961.08, in-kind contribution for campaign workers in November 2018; H&H Projects LLC: $1,000 contribution in October 2014; and McLeod Electrical, $500, in-kind contribution for food for a campaign event, May 2013.

Amrhein at first would not release the names of the vendors for fear of potentially harming their businesses.

A couple other council members asked minor questions about the audit, but Montgomery did most of the talking.

Some of Montgomery’s questions proved dry holes. For instance, he asked for a detailed copy of the audit, longer than the eight-page version released publicly. Mankins said that’s all there is and all she expects to get.

Montgomery also asked for documents connected to Louisiana public-bid law. H&H and McLeod, however, are providing professional services, so they don’t fall under the state bid law.

“There was no requirement for a public bid for the work that they do,” Mankins explained.

While state law does call for bids for projects costing $250,000 or more, the two companies did a wide array of small projects that fell well under that threshold but added up to millions over time, she noted.

Other Montgomery questions, however, yielded more, including that H&H uses city office space, that both companies have used city vehicles, though they don’t keep those vehicles overnight.

“The price we get per hour is cheaper because we let them use some of our equipment,” Amrhein explained.

Another source of confusion arose from the city’s failure to keep timesheets on H&H’s work locating utility lines for residents. H&H charges the city for 120 hours each week, the equivalent of three employees, rather than submitting individualized timesheets, something the auditors investigated.

Mankins said such timesheets are not required.

“I’m trying to figure out how three people can work 40 hours a week for 23 months and never miss a day,” Montgomery said doubtfully.

Mankins answered that H&H does not necessarily use the same three people all the time.

“That’s the beauty of hiring a contractor. You hire them to do a job and they provide the labor,” Mankins said. “So if one person was sick, they’d send somebody else out to do that.”

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.