Facing a mountain of debt, the Plaquemines Parish government has launched an aggressive campaign to recover millions of dollars it says were "misdirected" by a corrupt administration led by Billy Nungesser, the former parish president who now is Louisiana's lieutenant governor.
The FBI, which investigated Nungesser during his first term as parish president, has shown new interest in a series of contracts and public works projects carried out during his tenure, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
Separately, the cash-strapped parish government has filed a flurry of lawsuits seeking to recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars it says were lost to a "pattern of fraud" and Nungesser's "thirst for absolute power" during his eight years in office, which ended in 2014.
The administration of Amos Cormier III, the newly elected parish president, also has reported allegations of malfeasance to several law enforcement agencies, including the state Attorney General's Office.
Robert Barnett, an attorney representing the parish, said he could not even estimate the size of the damages the administration is seeking, in part because parish officials continue to unearth new improprieties and, in some cases, missing records.
"It could potentially be millions," Barnett said. "There are so many issues, so many employees, past and present, who are coming forward with additional information."
Nungesser portrayed the lawsuits as a political "witch hunt" that has continued even after he moved out of the parish and won election to statewide office in 2015. He said Barnett was hired by the parish to "find some dirt on Billy Nungesser," no matter the cost.
"I've seen nothing in any of the lawsuits that I know of that anybody in Plaquemines Parish did anything wrong," Nungesser said.
The controversy has brought fresh attention to Nungesser's business relationships, especially a marina he owns jointly with Charles J. Ballay, the Plaquemines Parish district attorney.
The FBI, dusting off a dormant file on Plaquemines Parish, opened an inquiry last year into hotly disputed claims that parish workers and resources were used to make improvements to the marina near the end of Nungesser's second term as parish president, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the probe.
Ballay denied the allegations, saying the workers merely replaced a collapsed culvert in a drainage canal owned by the parish that is adjacent to the property.
"The parish has never done any work on any marina property — ever," he said in an interview. "These are people that are dead set on doing Nungesser in and everybody who's ever shaken his hand."
Ballay played down the federal interest in the parish government's allegations. But he confirmed that he has led his own grand jury investigation into at least some of the claims of public corruption, resisting calls to recuse himself in light of his business ties to Nungesser.
No charges to date
The local inquiry — which, like the federal one, has not resulted in any charges to date — surfaced publicly after Ballay's office issued a subpoena last year for the emails of several assistant parish attorneys within the Plaquemines Parish government, prompting a legal battle that reached the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. Because there is no named defendant, the case bore the caption "State of Louisiana v. Public Corruption."
The subpoenas were necessary, prosecutors asserted, because the parish government had been pursuing claims of fraud in civil court yet "not releasing to the district attorney the evidence they have of this alleged public corruption." However, one of the assistant parish attorneys, Shane P. Landry, told a judge he believed Ballay was "fishing for information to discredit the (parish's) lawsuits."
"Mr. Ballay is in it up to here with the Nungesser machine," Landry said. "Mr. Nungesser is going to get brought back into this."
Ballay, for his part, insisted the corruption allegations he has investigated have been unrelated to the Myrtle Grove Marina he owns with Nungesser, though he declined to elaborate. He said he would immediately recuse himself from any allegations of wrongdoing involving Nungesser himself.
"I really don't think the parish legal department has done its homework in investigating or preparing these" lawsuits, Ballay added. "The parish taxpayers are having to foot the bill for all this, and I don’t see where it's producing positive results. If anything, it's been negative by producing animosity."
The imbroglio has played out amid what Cormier, the parish president, described as an unprecedented financial crisis. Cormier said his father, who succeeded Nungesser and died in office last year, inherited $191 million in debt the day he took office.
The parish government has seen crippling layoffs, leaving it with a little more than half the workforce it had six years ago. Cormier attributed the cuts to the downturn in oil prices and "record-high spending that occurred prior to my father taking office."
"We simply don't have the manpower to provide the services that the citizenry is accustomed to," Cormier said. "We have 400 miles of (roadside) servitude that we won't be able to maintain this summer."
The parish had been projected to run out of cash in August, Cormier said. To forestall further cuts, the Plaquemines Parish Council on Thursday approved a $45 million settlement with BP, damages that stemmed from the 2010 oil spill. Cormier said his administration also recently identified $40 million in hurricane recovery dollars that had been allocated — though not yet paid — to the parish by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But the parish government also insists its financial woes have been exacerbated by the nepotistic and unethical tendencies of the Nungesser administration and others who served in office alongside him.
Host of allegations
In October, the government filed four lawsuits on the same day in 25th Judicial District Court, including one against a former councilman, W. Keith Hinkley, accusing him of violating the parish charter. That lawsuit says Hinkley used his influence on the council to steer hundreds of thousands of dollars in business to his roofing company.
An attorney for Hinkley denied the allegations as "wholly and completely false," saying in court filings that Hinkley's business never did any work for the parish during his tenure on the council. "No one, let alone a public servant, should have to endure such a lawsuit and the ensuing costs" of defending it, the attorney, Francis J. Lobrano, wrote in the court filing.
One of the other lawsuits alleges a former parish employee improperly removed kitchen equipment from the Belle Chasse State School and placed it in a family member's bakery, while another lawsuit accuses the parish's former public works director of steering parish business to companies owned by family members. Both former parish employees deny those allegations.
The parish government is preparing a more sweeping lawsuit that will take aim at Nungesser and his inner circle, according to a draft of the litigation obtained by The Advocate. The draft outlines a host of allegations, including charges that Nungesser directed parish employees to improve the properties of friends and campaign supporters with parish labor and materials.
The draft is similar to a 2015 lawsuit by the parish government, which later dismissed it, that accused Nungesser of directing parish workers to improve private roads in the parish. Nungesser assailed the timing of that litigation, which was filed on the eve of the statewide election in which he won the lieutenant governor's race.
"Nungesser's actions, in concert with a select few participants, was nothing more than to enrich himself personally and professionally, exert powers in contravention of the best interests of the public and even divert money and property from the people of Plaquemines," the draft lawsuit says.
Nungesser defended his tenure as parish president in an interview last week, insisting that he's cooperated with "every state and federal agency" that has contacted him over the years looking into allegations of wrongdoing.
He confirmed, for instance, that he was questioned by the FBI during his first term as parish president when it was investigating a company he owned at the time called Plaquemines Dirt & Clay Co., which sold levee material to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"Let it take its course," he said of the more recent criminal inquiries.
It's unclear whether those inquiries have any relationship to a federal probe The Advocate wrote about last year, which centers on a company called CTNN that is co-owned by Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and his chief deputy, Craig Taffaro.
Taffaro is Nungesser's father-in-law, and he also managed Nungesser's holdings while Nungesser served as parish president. Among the companies Nungesser had a stake in during that time was Pelican Marine Distributors.
CTNN receives commission payments from Pelican Marine for food and other items that company sells to Harvey Gulf, a large oilfield services firm owned by politically active businessman Shane Guidry. The inquiry involves both the FBI and the IRS, and Normand has said he has been assured the focus of the inquiry is not him but "tax filings by another individual."
Nungesser has said he has not been interviewed in connection with that probe.
Nungesser took particular umbrage at the suggestion he had left the parish in debt. He blamed the financial woes on a series of poor financial decisions made after his tenure, a "dysfunction" in parish government that he said has deterred businesses and even affected the parish's flood protection infrastructure.
"It is inconceivable that they would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on this," Nungesser said, referring to the parish's recent lawsuits. "I gave eight years of my life and bled for that parish, and you've got a small group of nasty, negative people who are trying to drag it down."