Jefferson councilman proposes eliminating parish’s ethics office

Three years after the scandals surrounding Aaron Broussard’s tenure as Jefferson Parish president spurred a raft of initiatives aimed at curbing corruption in parish government, a parish councilman is calling for elimination of a key position focused on ensuring the government abides by ethics rules and complies with federal regulations.

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Mark Spears, Jeff parish council Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Mark Spears, Jeff parish council Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Parish President John Young is blasting the proposal, saying it would be a major setback to efforts to clean up parish government and would yield little benefit.

Councilman Mark Spears is drafting an ordinance that would do away with the parish’s Department of Ethics and Compliance, a one-person operation, and have its duties reassigned to the Parish Attorney’s Office.

He said that move would avoid duplication and save the parish the roughly $171,000 spent to keep the department running each year.

“They can do the work, they are doing it right now,” Spears said of the Parish Attorney’s Office, noting that it has been handling the ethics office’s duties while the position has been vacant for a month.

“It just makes sense; it’s a win for the citizens of Jefferson Parish,” he said.

Young said the position was a necessary component of the post-Broussard overhaul to parish government and its operations are a crucial element in catching problems early.

“Why would you take a step backward at this point in time?” he asked.

Steve Theriot, who was serving as interim parish president at the time, first recommended the parish hire an ethics and compliance officer and an internal auditor after the resignations of Broussard and his top aide, Tim Whitmer, amid allegations of corruption in 2010.

Both men later pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.

To provide funding for the new offices, Theriot eliminated two positions in the parish president’s office.

The ethics and compliance officer is charged with developing the parish’s ethics policies, seeing that staff members are trained on those policies, ensuring that controls are in place to avoid problems and making sure that the parish’s use of state and federal funds complies with appropriate laws and rules.

Kim Chatelain had served as the ethics and compliance officer from the date the position was created until last month, when she was hired by Jefferson Parish Inspector General David McClintock to serve as his first assistant.

On Friday, Young nominated Andrew Maestri, who has worked in the Parish Attorney’s Office and in private practice, as her replacement. The Parish Council will have to confirm Maestri’s nomination.

Spears said he saw no reason to replace Chatelain, particularly in light of tough budget times.

“Currently the work is being handled by the Parish Attorney’s Office, and they’re doing a good job,” Spears said.

“A lot of people are complaining about the budget and how short it is and the parish is not able to complete projects. And we have the millage coming up that might fail.”

Elections to renew water and sewerage millages, already rejected once by voters, are on the Oct. 19 ballot.

Eliminating an office that costs less than $200,000 a year would have little impact on the parish’s $420 million budget, Young said.

In addition, he said, adding new duties to the Parish Attorney’s Office would likely require the hiring of additional staff, eroding those savings even further.

Spears has had his own involvement with the Governmental Ethics and Compliance and Audit Committee, the board that oversees the work done by the ethics and compliance officer and the internal auditor.

That panel, made up of administration and council representatives, declined to cancel the contracts of GEC, an engineering firm with significant contracts with the parish, after a low-level employee emailed a Spears aide to ask if making a campaign contribution would help her boss get a meeting more quickly.

Spears forwarded the email to the Parish Attorney’s Office after chastising the woman who sent it, and he was never accused of wrongdoing in the case.

The panel determined the situation was an isolated event, and it declined to punish the company by yanking its contracts, in part because the employee who sent the email was fired as a result.

Spears said that incident had nothing to do with his current proposal.

The idea of having the Parish Attorney’s Office, which reports to Young, handle ethics and compliance issues carries a slight historical irony.

When the position was first created, some council members balked at Chatelain’s appointment, fearing that because the administration appointed and provided staff to the office it could be used as a political weapon against the council. That debate occurred before Spears was elected to the council.

Young described the office as part of an overall package of changes aimed at improving parish government and said many of those efforts, including better compliance procedures, are just beginning to take root. Eliminating a dedicated position would set those initiatives back, he said.

“We’re trying to change the culture and the way things have been done in the past,” Young said.