Audit questions agency director’s actions

Outgoing Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission Executive Director Lucien Gunter may have violated state rules when he accepted a below-market value apartment to satisfy a residency requirement and keep his job, according to an internal audit by Jefferson Parish.

Parish Auditor William Fikes found that Gunter has not lived in Jefferson Parish for at least two years and rented an apartment that typically rents for more than $1,100 for only $300, according to an audit presented to the parish’s Governmental Ethics and Compliance Committee on Wednesday. The audit found that Gunter owned a home and claimed his homestead exemption in St. Tammany Parish and only had a month-to-month lease in Jefferson Parish for an apartment that was used as model unit from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.

According to a records check with the St. Tammany Parish Assessor’s Office, Gunter claimed a homestead exemption in St. Tammany Parish every year since he was hired by JEDCO in 2007.

Fikes said that set-up possibly violates a parish ordinance mandating that the JEDCO director live in the parish, because Gunter had no personal items in the apartment and admitted to never sleeping in that apartment in 2012. But, Fikes also said there are possible ethics violations because the apartment could qualify as “gift” by an entity whose activities could be enhanced by JEDCO.

In a response to the audit, JEDCO Board Chairman James Garvey said the board doesn’t believe the apartment rises to the level of an ethics violation, even if it might be considered a “gift.” Garvey said that the First Lake Properties, which owns the complex, is not truly regulated by JEDCO, and JEDCO cannot substantially affect the operation of the company. JEDCO said it would defer to the ethics committee on whether it should take further action.

“Given the fact that the executive director in question has already turned in his resignation, we are not sure this matter should be pursued further,” Garvey wrote.

In fact, Fikes made a similar argument to the commission. Parish Attorney Deborah Forshee said the parish’s course isn’t clear, and ultimately the committee did not decide move forward with the issue.

“I don’t know if we have what we would really need to make that level of recommendation at this point,” Forshee told the committee.

Garvey actually said that Gunter’s residency was well known by parish officials for years, and he noted that since JEDCO is only a “quasi-public” agency it has not always been bound by all of the parish’s rules. Garvey said that Gunter only maintained an apartment in the parish to comply with the “spirit” of the parish ordinance.

“It is also our understanding that this parish ordinance has been in place for some time and has been enforced to varying degrees over the years depending on the parish president and/or council,” he wrote.

The parish audit also discussed Gunter’s political activity during the 2010 Jefferson Parish School Board race, and found that he had “significant” involvement in that race while on public time. That race was hotly contested and resulted in the ouster of several incumbents.

The audit confirmed that Gunter sent out emails and said he also directed his executive assistant to do the same. Gunter admitted that involvement earlier this year, after it was uncovered in JEDCO’s own internal audit.

However, Garvey said that Gunter has contended that he sent emails as a “private citizen” and as an “advisor” to several private businesses entities and collations.

Garvey also contended that considering the total number of emails JEDCO receives, Gunter’s activity was minimal. Garvey also said that Gunter was merely included in email chains and was not the direct recipient of the messages. The JEDCO board was unable to determine whether Gunter acted solely as a private citizen or if he used his office as executive director to further the cause.

The ethics committee decided ask the Jefferson Parish Council to direct JEDCO to report the activity to the ethics board for a ruling.

The audit also raised questions about JEDCO’s travel policies, its meal reimbursement rules and the executive director’s ability to accrue personal debt in the name of JEDCO. According to the audit, Gunter was reimbursed for more than $11,000 he spent on “in-town” meals and entertainment from 2010 to 2012, typically with parish and JEDCO employees. That is in direct violation of parish rules, although Garvey contended that JEDCO has no specific policy on in-town reimbursement.

Fikes also found that at one point Gunter was receiving a car allowance and mileage reimbursement and had set up an expense account at Andrea’s Restaurant in Metairie in JEDCO’s name.