Jefferson Parish Council delays decision on appeals by fired Housing Authority members

The Jefferson Parish Council delayed a decision on the fate of the embattled Jefferson Parish Housing Authority commissioners whom Parish President John Young tried to remove last year.

Council members heard testimony Friday regarding Young’s removal of commissioners Patrick Pierson, Hunley Dufour Jr., William Boada, Mary Snowden and Simone Scanio in December. However, because of scheduling issues, the board delayed a decision on the commissioners’ appeals until next week. The council heard more than four hours of testimony on the issue before recessing and will meet again Monday afternoon.

In December, Young notified six of the nine commissioners that they were being removed for “neglect of duty.” Although commissioners are appointed by the Parish Council, state law says they can only be removed by Young for cause. Young did not remove commissioners Jonathan Liberto, Lynn Giordano or Brian Eiselen.

Commissioners had the right to appeal their removals to the Jefferson Parish Council for a possible reversal. Former Commissioner Terrell Harris was the only board member who did not appeal Young’s decision, although there’s been speculation that he could be reappointed to the board by Councilman Mark Spears at a later date.

Young’s removal of the commissioners has been hailed by some as a triumph of good government and criticized by others as heavy-handed politics. Those characterizations continued in Friday’s meeting.

Robert Garrity Jr., the attorney for the commissioners, said commissioners are still unclear about why they were remove and how they failed to do their job. He noted that the authority has consistently received high scores from HUD and is well-managed. He also harped on the idea that Young seemed to selectively target certain commissioners and hold them to unreasonable standards.

“They’ve never been given any specifics to what conduct they did or did not do,” Garrity said.

But Thomas Anzelmo, who represented Young at the review, said commissioners were well aware of their failings, which centered on serving as “rubber stamps” for former Executive Director Barry Bordelon. Bordelon resigned from his position with the authority after a scathing audit by the inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development that found widespread problems at the agency. Anzelmo said that HUD’s audit, and the problems it found, is proof that the commissioners weren’t doing their job.

“They have been on notice since that first audit came out as to what the problems were,” Anzelmo said. “These are not things that occurred in secret.”

Much of Friday’s meeting was a rehashing of the federal audit, which found that the agency did not follow procedure when awarding contracts, paying per diems to commissioners and documenting spending with credit cards. The Housing Authority could be forced to repay as much as $700,000 to HUD, although the agency has challenged several of the audit’s findings.

Garrity noted that despite similar voting records to those commissioners removed, Liberto was not targeted. He stressed that the commissioners followed proper procedures and said that Young was premature and capricious in his removals.

But one of the crucial points was the commissioners’ relationship with Bordelon. Bordelon was rehired as a maintenance supervisor at the authority just a few months after he resigned. Bordelon’s former assistant made that decision without the knowledge of several board members, and it has created a political firestorm.

Young blasted the rehiring repeatedly and requested that commissioners ask for Bordelon to be fired. He noted on Monday that Bordelon was rehired despite recommendations from the inspector general that he be barred from any involvement with the Housing Authority. However, Garrity said that Bordelon was qualified for the job, his hiring followed all Civil Service rules and firing him could have violated those rules.

Young reiterated his belief that although most board members had similar voting records before the audit, the fact that many of them continued on the path after the document was released is the real problem. He claimed they ceded their authority to Bordelon.

“After the report things went from bad to worse,” Young said. “The fact that Mr. Bordelon was even hired after that scathing OIG audit is unacceptable.”

Anzelmo pushed the idea that the board made several changes after the audit to correct problems listed in the document, which is proof that problems existed. The authority adopted a rash of new procedures that were suggested by a consultant hired to respond to HUD’s audit. One of the recurring issues raised was that Bordelon had a stamp with the signatures of Pierson and Dufour that allowed him to unilaterally approve checks for $1.9 million. In fact, there was even a check stamped with Dufour’s name upside down. The housing authority is still waiting to hear a determination from HUD on its responses to the audit.