NO.jeffcouncil.022118.0002.JPG

Jefferson Parish Council member Chris Roberts, council member at large for division A, asks questions during the public comments session before a vote to restrict short-term rentals in Elmwood, La., Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. The Jefferson Parish Council unanimously passed restrictions on short-term rentals Wednesday, stressing the need to maintain the integrity of neighborhoods.

A federal investigation into Jefferson Parish Council Chairman Chris Roberts’ financial and tax troubles quickly turned up evidence of an apparent gambling problem, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation.

And that has led investigators into a painstaking examination of Roberts’ 15-year tenure as a councilman, with FBI agents trying to determine whether his gambling habit and accompanying financial woes ever led him into public corruption.

Roberts abruptly resigned from the council Monday with little explanation of his reasons. 

The inquiry into Roberts began a little more than a year after a bruising 2015 re-election campaign, when opponents repeatedly questioned him about late tax returns and other financial difficulties. Roberts insisted then, as he has in recent months, that he had nothing to fear.

Throughout the probe, the feds have plumbed — and continue to plumb — a handful of episodes in a hunt for a conflict of interest. But it’s not clear that they have uncovered evidence of a quid pro quo arrangement, the usual standard for a public corruption charge.

One of those episodes, which has been in the public sphere for months, centers on Roberts’ interactions with his former landlady, Patricia Hargis, who recently was hit with a tax charge in federal court that developed after authorities began examining Roberts. Hargis is expected to plead guilty later this month.

A second episode involves a large debt Roberts incurred to Joseph Marcello, a West Bank land baron, though that arrangement has not resulted in any charges.

Another area of inquiry is ongoing and involves Roberts’ intercession on behalf of at least one Jefferson Parish property owner who was facing sanctions from the parish. Federal investigators were seeking information on that episode as recently as last month, as well as records related to a second property.

FBI agent Lisa Horner, a veteran public corruption investigator, approached parish officials in March searching for detailed records about the properties.

Emails obtained through a public records request show that Horner requested nearly five years’ worth of documents related to a house at 4532 13th St. in Marrero and a commercial building at 865 Terry Parkway in Terrytown.

Jefferson Parish officials provided Horner with an email Roberts had sent to parish code enforcement officials in 2016.

The FBI requests were made informally by email rather than by subpoena, but the parish complied.

Horner asked for all "activity summaries, complaints, citations, notices, photographs, site visit observations and documentations, internal and external emails, attachments, correspondence, tracking logs and notes" between January 2013 and June 5, 2017, the emails show.

In the case of the Marrero house, Roberts apparently asked parish officials to delay a planned demolition in 2016 so that the owner, Craig Boudreaux, of Covington, could make repairs.

Such requests from council members are not unusual, said Amy Vallot, the parish’s code enforcement director, and they are frequently granted.

In September 2016, Roberts forwarded to Vallot a copy of an affidavit, signed by Boudreaux, that stated Boudreaux intended to make the repairs to the house himself.

Reached Wednesday, Boudreaux said he had intended to renovate the house, which had belonged to his grandparents. But he never completed the repairs and eventually sold the house to a contractor.

When a reporter asked Boudreaux whether federal agents had questioned him about the house or about Roberts, he refused to answer any more questions.

Federal agents also approached Paul Fasullo, who owns Westbank Lawnmower, located at the Terry Parkway address. They asked “some general questions,” Fasullo said, refusing to elaborate.

Fasullo said the only interactions he ever had with Roberts were when the former councilman ran Dan’s Landscaping, a business whose finances also were probed by agents looking into Roberts.

People familiar with Roberts and the investigation believe that the councilman’s frequent gambling outings to casinos such as Harrah’s in New Orleans and Boomtown in Harvey concerned authorities and led them to take an especially thorough look at him.

Multiple sources who know Roberts portrayed him as an avid gambler who favors slot and video poker machines with high limits. Some people in Jefferson political circles have circulated a photo that purports to show Roberts standing in front of one slot machine while kneeling on a stool and leaning toward a neighboring one.

Matt Coman, a former federal prosecutor, said that heavy gambling by the target of a federal probe would attract attention.

“It would be another category of scrutiny,” he said. He noted that any unusual spending, called “unexplained wealth” in federal parlance, would trigger a close examination of a public official’s finances.

Other aspects of the investigation do not appear to involve Roberts’ actions as a councilman. For instance, investigators are scrutinizing his dealings as manager and part-owner of a community newspaper, the West Bank Beacon. That business recently changed its name to WBB-NOLA Event Lighting LLC and listed Roberts as its sole contact.

Roberts’ lawyer, Eddie Castaing, declined to comment for this story.

Roberts did not respond to requests for comment. He has been mostly silent since his sudden resignation, which came after he had deleted all of his social media profiles. He revived his Facebook page briefly during the week, and there he posted his only public comment since he resigned.

“The sun will shine again,” he wrote, making no reference to the investigation. He said he was taking some time to focus on his own personal wellness and that of his family.

The resignation may mark the end of a long political career for the 41-year old Republican, who has spent half of his life in public office. Roberts was first elected to the Jefferson Parish School Board in 1998 and to the Parish Council in 2004. At the time of his resignation, he was the longest-serving council member.

His last campaign was unusually bitter, with his opponents attacking him over several late tax returns. He responded that he had successfully appealed a lien placed on a property of his over earlier taxes and was owed a refund after filing the returns in question.

Since then, Roberts has acknowledged the federal scrutiny of his taxes, business dealings and financial struggles. He has said the money problems stemmed from his simultaneous diagnosis with cancer, a bankruptcy by a business partner in a sandwich shop, and a divorce. But he has insisted that investigators would turn up nothing illicit.


Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.