Jeff ethics panel declines to oust vendor over proffered contribution

Three and a half years after Jefferson Parish tightened up its ethics laws, the panel of council members and administration representatives charged with enforcing them held its first hearing Tuesday as it looked into an attempt by an employee of a parish contractor to exchange campaign cash for a meeting with a councilman.

But with no evidence that the offer was made with the company’s blessing, the Governmental Ethics and Compliance and Audit Committee opted against punishing GEC, a major Baton Rouge engineering consulting firm, for the failed attempt to woo District 3 Councilman Mark Spears. The committee could have asked the full Parish Council to strip the firm of more than $37 million in ongoing contracts, and concerns about how ongoing projects would be affected were discussed as the panel deliberated.

In an unusual twist, Spears is one of the three council members who sits on the board that determined GEC’s fate, though he abstained from voting on the recommendation.

The case, which is now being investigated by local and state law enforcement, centers on an office manager for GEC who suggested a campaign donation might speed up her attempts to set up a meeting between Spears and GEC Vice President Jim Martin.

The March 14 email that kicked off the investigation was nearly as brief as it was brazen.

“I would like to schedule a meeting with Councilman Spears to meet with Jim Martin, Vice President of GEC to discuss business development in District 3,” Betty Mizell wrote.

“Would a campaign contribution make the meet happen any quicker?”

That message was sent to the personal email account of Chavonne Thompson, who worked on Spears’ campaign and in his council office. She forwarded it to the councilman’s official account.

Spears, in a response sent four days later, was just as pointed.

“I would respectfully ask that you keep your contribution and not waste your time waiting on a meeting with me,” Spears wrote. “The request sent by GEC was both insulting and disrespectfull (sic), and under no circumstances will it be granted.”

Spears then sent the emails on to the Parish Attorney’s Office, which began reviewing the case and passed the information on to the district attorney, state attorney general and state Board of Ethics.

By that point, Mizell had already been fired, according to an email Martin sent to parish officials.

“Ms. Mizell acted without instruction or permission in this matter,” Martin wrote, going on to say that officials learned of the email the day after it had been sent, a Friday, and fired her the following Monday.

“GEC has zero tolerance for this behavior,” he added.

The issue appeared to be confined to Mizell, Assistant Parish Attorney Liz Lambert, who presented the case to the committee, said.

That fact and concerns about how the issue might affect on-going projects prompted the committee to recommend against canceling GEC’s contracts.

“I’ve got two problems,” Councilman Elton Lagasse said. “One, that this happened. And two, that it’ll slow work down.”

GEC is involved in 15 street-repair and decorative-lighting contracts with the parish worth a total of $44.75 million, though three of those are listed as being complete. None of those projects is in District 3.

The company has given about $17,700 to members of the Parish Council and Parish President John Young since 2009. That includes a single $500 donation to Spears in August 2012.

It’s not clear exactly what Martin hoped to speak with Spears about. District 3 includes areas on both sides of the Mississippi River, including a large swath of mostly undeveloped territory on the West Bank officials are hoping to transform into a bustling commercial center.

Officials have said that plan, which includes rebranding the area as Fairfield, could include significant contracts for new streets and beautification efforts, the same types of projects GEC now handles for the parish.

An investigation into Mizell is now moving “up the chain of command” in the District Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office continues to look into the case as well, Lambert said. The Board of Ethics told parish officials that it did not have jurisdiction over the matter.

Committee members said they could re-evaluate their decision if those investigations turn up evidence that this was more than an isolated incident.

“If management were involved, I’d have to say it was troubling,” Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng said.