Sorrento sewer repair project under scrutiny

The Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office is investigating how an unfinished sewer repair project was awarded under a nearly two-year-old emergency order and partially paid for in advance in July 2012.

Newly elected Mayor Mike Lambert and town attorney Matthew Percy said the Sheriff’s Office is probing the project while former town attorney Donovan Hudson said he spoke with sheriff’s investigators Monday about the project.

Lambert halted the project in early July, only days after taking office, because he said he was unfamiliar with the job on Main Street. He said a review of the supporting town file raised questions.

“I just did not feel comfortable from what I saw in our file, and I turned over what I found to the city attorney and it is being investigated,” he said.

Percy said he handed the town file over to the Sheriff’s Office and declined comment further.

“There is a sheriff’s investigation going on, so we’re going let them take the lead on this,” he said.

Sheriff Jeff Wiley also declined comment.

“We don’t comment on any investigation that we may or may not be involved in,” Wiley said.

The selection of the sewer contractor, Design & Build Consultants LLC of Baton Rouge, remains murky.

Design & Build was given an advance payment for more than half the value of the $142,000 sewer project, town records show. Contractors are often paid as public works projects are completed.

Town Councilman Randy Anny signed a $77,500 check, labeled a “deposit” and dated July 6, 2012, for Design & Build, the check says.

At the time, Anny, as mayor pro tempore, had checking-writing authority. Then-Mayor Wilson Longanecker Jr. was absent due to an illness.

Anny claims the Design & Build was hired under emergency council authority that originated in August 2011 and was amended to include the Main Street sewer line repairs in December 2011.

Under a declared emergency, Louisiana law relieves local governments of the procedures of the public bid law.

Council minutes show the council did amend the August 2011 emergency order in late 2011. But another contractor, SLC Contractors, had done the work, including the work on town’s sewer and pumps, that was ordered in August 2011.

SLC owner Grady Melancon said he finished the sewer upgrades that he was hired to do in late August 2011 later that year. He said the sewer line under Main Street was not bad enough to warrant tearing up the road when the line was checked in December 2011.

In a July 3, 2012, email, Hudson tells Town Clerk Paige Robert that the town “may pick another (company) to perform emergency work already OK’d by council.” That work included the Main Street work.

Hudson also sent that email to Anny, who a day earlier had sent Hudson minutes from the Aug. 25, 2011, council meeting when the first emergency declaration was called.

Design & Build was hired in mid-2012 without an apparent contract, according to town records, and as the apparent low bidder of two companies. Council minutes do not indicate, however, that the council voted to name the company as the contractor.

“We went by what our town attorney told us. That was his opinion. That is what we paid him for and we went by it,” Anny said.

Hudson said Monday that his email is being misconstrued. He said the council still had to vote to select the contractor but did not need another vote to re-appropriate funding.

“In no way, did I intend that to say, ‘You can now go willy-nilly and do what you want,’ ” said Hudson, who is Anny’s personal attorney but who said he is withdrawing himself from Anny’s cases.

Roy Maughan Jr., attorney for Design & Build and also for Anny, said the company was about to start work when Lambert stopped the job over the lack of a contract.

Maughan said Design & Build was 36 hours from finishing the Main Street project. He insisted that the company had finished other parts of the town job soon after the advance payment in 2012, which he said was for mobilization costs, but ran into delays on the Main Street line.

The head of an industry group said Monday that the Town Council did not need to seek bids for a project under $150,000 under public law.

Ken Naquin, chief executive officer of Louisiana Associated General Contractors, also said that he has never seen an advance payment from local government for public works.

“I find it highly unusual. I think it’s a tremendous chance the public owner is taking that the contractor is going to take the money and run,” Naquin said. “That’s their business. I have never heard of that.”