Jefferson — Even after his predecessor pleaded guilty to bribery, fraud and theft last week, Jefferson Parish President John Young said he still has work to do to dispel the image of corruption that taints the office.
“It certainly closes that chapter, but we still have the remnants of what happened,” said Young, who was elected in October 2010 following Aaron Broussard’s resignation.
Broussard and his former parish attorney, Tom Wilkinson, ended their court drama by pleading guilty last week in federal court.
Broussard quit abruptly in January 2010, about two years before he and Wilkinson were indicted on charges that they gave Karen Parker, Broussard’s ex-wife, a job as a paralegal supervisor in the Parish Attorney’s Office even though she wasn’t qualified. Broussard and Wilkinson also were accused of siphoning hundreds of thousands of dollars from Jefferson Parish via wire fraud and accepting kickbacks from a telecommunications company in exchange for steering parish contracts to the business.
Young said fighting the perception of corruption has been challenging, especially with a federal investigation still ongoing, but he combats it because it “sucks the economic lifeblood out of a community.”
“It’s our obligation now to do everything we can to move forward and not concentrate on what happened in the prior administration,” Young said.
Young can rattle off a list of accomplishments he said have helped combat corruption, including making the parish attorney a full-time position, hiring an ethics and compliance officer and establishing a whistle-blower hotline.
Young also successfully campaigned for a Parish Inspector General’s Office, which he said will help keep Jefferson’s government more honest. Young hopes to have the office running by January.
That’s a good start, said Margie Seemann, vice chairman of Citizens for Good Government, a Jefferson Parish watchdog group.
Seemann said her organization still has issues with Young — particularly that he has not addressed her group’s accusations of discrimination and payroll fraud during the previous administration.
Otherwise, Seemann said, Citizens for Good Government approves of Young’s work, especially his criticism of Entergy’s response to Hurricane Isaac, which Young has said was too sluggish.
“They always respond to our emails and faxes,” Seemann said of Young’s office. “We feel like they’ve been responsive to us.”
Responsive isn’t exactly how Elton Lagasse would describe Young’s relationship with the Jefferson Parish Council.
Lagasse, the council chairman, said Young “operates in a vacuum” and rarely talks to council members, which differs from Broussard’s regime.
Lagasse said he disagrees with some of Young’s methodologies, such as his attempts to change the parish’s contracting and procurement processes.
Young said he wants to bid out every contract possible. Lagasse said the council will work with Young’s bid recommendations, but the council still has the right to agree or disagree.
“We vote on what he recommends,” Lagasse said. “This is not a mayoral form of government. If we were a mayoral form of government, then he would have all that authority.”
But when it comes to how the current and prior administrations are perceived, Young has a “good, honest image,’’ Lagasse said.
As far as cleaning up corruption, Lagasse said there’s no doubt Young has done a good job.
“I think a lot of people think he rode in on a white horse, and he did in comparison to some other people,” Lagasse said. “John has done what I think he thought was probably best for him politically and best for the parish.”
When Young isn’t talking about the corruption scandal, he’s talking about his plan for the parish’s future, which includes economic expansion, particularly in the film industry, and getting Jefferson back to being the most populous parish in the state.
Young said Jefferson’s growth is tied to the expansion of the Huey P. Long Bridge, which he called the “single most important capital works project we’ll see in our lifetime.”
“Jefferson Parish’s future is on the West Bank, specifically between the Harvey Canal and the St. Charles Parish line, and that’s where the bridge is going to come down,” Young said. “That’s where we have all of our raw, undeveloped land. You look at the east bank, it’s all developed.”
Young said he has always been attracted to government service because he feels it’s the best way he can make a difference. He said he’ll stay in it “as long as the people allow me to do that.”
Being parish president wasn’t on his radar when he was first elected to the council, Young said, but then Broussard and others resigned.
“If you’d have asked me five years ago if I wanted to be parish president of Jefferson, I probably would have said no,” Young said.
What motivated him to seek the office were the accusations of corruption, he said.
“Being a former prosecutor,” Young said, “I see one of our big issues not only in Jefferson Parish but throughout the entire state is combating corruption.”
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