Dueling contracts could pose conflict

The lone member of a city board who voted this week against rebidding a French Quarter parking lot contract mired in allegations of favoritism may have a conflict of interest herself with the bidder under scrutiny.

Dottie Reese, a health-care consultant, sits on the board of the city’s French Market Corp., which had been considering whether to award a contract to a new company or the incumbent vendor, a national company that is partnering with local businessman Ronnie Burns.

Burns serves as the chairman of Orleans Parish Hospital Service District A, which is building a new hospital in New Orleans East to replace the one flooded after Hurricane Katrina. Reese’s consulting company is a contractor on that project.

Minutes of the district’s board meetings show that Reese and her partner in DMM & Associates, Margaret Montgomery-Richard, regularly brief the board on marketing and other matters. But Burns said that DMM & Associates doesn’t contract with the district directly — instead, it is a subcontractor working for Navigant, a national consulting company.

A Navigant spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the company’s arrangement with Reese’s firm. Documents provided by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office show that Navigant was eligible to bill at least $3.7 million since 2011, including more than $500,000 for DMM.

In a statement, Landrieu’s office praised the service of Burns and Reese, both Landrieu appointees, on their respective boards. “It is important to note that this (parking) contract has not been awarded. In fact, as we have previously stated publicly, the French Market is re-bidding this contract,” the statement said about the three French Quarter parking lots the city agency owns. “In the new parking procurement, the French Market Corp. will work to ensure that selection committee members do not have even perceived conflicts of interest.”

Reese was the only board member who wanted to go ahead with awarding the deal when the board met this week. She said she felt the bids had been scored fairly and there was no need to repeat the process. The joint venture between Burns and the current vendor, Standard Parking, received the highest scores from a five-member French Market Corp. subcommittee that included Reese.

Reese gave Burns’ outfit by far the highest score of the four proposers: 98 of a possible 100. She gave the second-rated firm, Premium Parking, a score of 80.25.

The fact that Reese’s company financially benefits from the hospital district could pose a problem under the Louisiana ethics law. A member of a board like the French Market Corp. is prohibited by law from voting on a transaction involving “any person who is a party to an existing contract with such public servant.”

Whether the law extends to subcontractors is murky. An explanation of the law on the state Ethics Board’s website notes that a public servant is barred from participation in transactions with “a party to an existing contract with him and by reason thereof is in a position to affect directly his economic interests.”

State law allows appointed board members to recuse themselves from votes involving companies or people with whom they have financial relationships.

After the subcommittee ranked the four parking proposals, it chose two finalists, and then the French Market’s staff prepared an analysis that tilted in favor of Burns’ venture to run the lots.

But the other finalist, Jim Huger, objected, noting that his price was actually lower than Standard’s and questioning the fairness of the process. The market’s board voted Tuesday to rebid the contract.

Reese did not respond to several messages left for her Friday, including with her husband, Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese. Burns chafed at the notion that the contracting situation might present a conflict.

“I am volunteering on the hospital project, period. I put in 25 hours a week, been doing it for two years,” Burns said. “I’m trying to rebuild my neighborhood.”

The hospital board voted to award Navigant its contract about two years ago, Burns said.

Burns said SP Plus, which is a joint venture between his company and Standard, a national parking giant, hasn’t decided whether to submit a new bid for the French Quarter lots. Standard, working with a different local firm, has managed those lots for nearly a decade.

“We have to make a decision whether we are going to rebid on it,” said Burns, whose company runs parking lots nationally.

Huger, meanwhile, does plan to rebid, but declined to say whether he thought Reese’s vote to stay the course was improper.

“It is above my pay grade,” he said. “That is for the mayor to figure out and the folks to figure out, the folks on that board.”