In a legal hole, Marshal Pope kept digging, lawsuits claim

The gist: State and federal lawsuits filed this week allege suspended Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope, at the time facing seven felony counts of malfeasance in office and perjury, took the extraordinary step of targeting his perceived political enemies. The suits were filed by Steven Wilkerson, who co-chaired the failed effort to recall Pope.

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Pope allegedly ordered employees to retaliate against Wilkerson and recall organizers. The suits claim he instructed office personnel to run criminal background and outstanding warrant checks on those seeking to remove him from office. In addition to Pope and interim City Marshal Mike Hill, defendants are Deputy Paul Toce, and an unidentified deputy, dispatcher and warrants supervisor. Wilkerson alleges Pope violated his constitutional rights when the marshal had him arrested Dec. 11, 2017 — less than 24 hours after the recall effort failed — on a defective warrant for issuing worthless checks 20 years ago. In February, District Attorney Keith Stutes dismissed the charges against Wilkerson.

Wilkerson, who says in the suits he has since moved out of state to escape the ongoing retaliation he feared, is seeking actual and punitive damages for public humiliation, embarrassment and invasion of privacy, along with attorneys’ fees.

Pope was convicted on four felony counts earlier this year. The suspended city marshal is awaiting a sentencing date and plans to appeal. Just last week, a 17-count superseding indictment accused him of pocketing approximately $85,000 from the marshal’s office this year after receiving an attorney general’s opinion that he could not legally do so. In April, Pope was also warned by the CPA firm auditing his office’s financial statements — it wasn’t the first warning — to “cease this practice and seek legal counsel regarding compensation taken prior to the January 29, 2018 AG opinion.” It does not appear that Pope will be charged for supplementing his salary to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars from 2015-2017 — the time period prior to the January AG opinion, which was merely a restating of an earlier opinion that the fees can only be used to support the operations of the marshal’s office.

— Read the full federal lawsuit here. —

Marshal Hill says he received a state grand jury subpoena to turn over financial records shortly after his October swearing in.

The Louisiana State Police and the FBI have looked into Pope. In early 2018, LSP performed an audit following Wilkerson’s arrest and the allegations around it, according to sources with knowledge of the examination. It’s not known what that audit turned up, but the FBI has been asking questions. Recall co-chair Aimee Robinson says she was interviewed for 2.5 hours by two FBI agents in February. Robinson says the agents asked a lot of basic questions — why she got involved in the recall, why Wilkerson was chosen as co-chair, whether she had a vendetta against Pope, had she known Pope prior to launching the recall — before getting to what she believes was the purpose of the meeting.

“To me the focus seemed to be around Pope’s efforts at retaliation,” she says. Robinson says she hasn’t heard anything from the feds since February.

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Lafayette is now the site of a scooter skirmish

The gist: First, Bird flew in 100 scooters overnight. Now, Lime has rolled 25 of its custom-made scooters into town this week, making Lafayette the latest skirmish in 2018’s dockless scooter war.

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Dockless electric scooters are the rage of 2018. At least among urbanists and alternative transportation enthusiasts. And the trend has really only just become a thing this year. Bird alone has reported 10 million rides in 2018 and exploded from five cities in May 2018 to more than 100 worldwide in the last couple months. Lime, Bird’s chief competitor, operates in 60 cities domestically and internationally. The overnight success has come with growing pains, particularly for the often unwitting cities that host the scooters.

Lime, like Bird, was something of a surprise arrival. Both companies are sort of notorious for that. Kate Durio, an assistant to the mayor-president, says Lime had contacted city-parish government, but the arrival was nonetheless earlier than expected. Overnight drop offs have triggered contention between the companies and local governments, with some locales ousting the scooters as quickly as possible. See Lafayette, Ind., where the government is impounding the scooters to get them off the streets. The tow-truck company hired has called it a “nightmare.” New Orleans reportedly blocked Lime’s entry.

“They were a surprise but a viable solution to moving around the central areas of Lafayette,” Durio told me last week, when it was just Bird around. “But we still have to figure out how we work with them in a safe and responsible manner.”

So these things are just a nuisance? Sure, to some. But proponents argue kinks are normal to any advance in how people get around. A key plank of the pitch is that scooter sharing addresses what policy-makers call the last mile problem, the long distance between public transit routes and homes that makes travel by bus or train inconvenient. Depending on which research you cite, around 40 percent of all car trips happen within a three-mile radius. The thinking is, if people use scooters for those trips, it can relieve congestion and reduce carbon emissions.

LCG is taking a cautious but open-minded approach. The administration is working with city-parish attorneys to craft guidelines for other rideshare companies that want to enter the market. An interim agreement with Bird is in the works while the details of a future ordinance are worked out. That legislation would target specific issues raised locally and nationally, i.e. whether there is a minimum or maximum number of scooters required or where they can be parked. Bird is working with LCG to add stands, responding to complaints of the scooters laying about.

Does this make sense in Lafayette, though? A sensible question. Lafayette transit ridership is low, generating only about 2,500 trips per day. Durio says Bird was attracted to Lafayette because it has three relatively dense districts within a three-mile radius: Downtown, UL’s campus and the Oil Center. Scooters could chip away at vehicle trips between the three. Bird will share its scooter data with LCG to track usage anonymously; theoretically we should be able to see just how true its claims are. The company wrapped up a week of free rides last Friday, so the novelty may wear off. We’ll know in the coming weeks if the scooters have any traction and could make a measurable impact.

“In some ways Lafayette is starving for alternative transportation,” Durio tells me. “It actually is probably better positioned than places like Austin or Seattle, because quite frankly, there’s more of an open market.”

What we’re watching. How many scooters end up in the Vermilion and how long it takes for someone to make a website about it. That’s happening in Portland, Ore.

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Transition team named to tackle change to separate councils

The gist: Two separate councils will govern Lafayette Consolidated Government starting in 2020, following Saturday’s vote. A four-member council liaison team will convene to cut through the weedy details.

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More councils, more problems. Or so the saying goes. The reality is the team could tackle a swath of issues on its way to untangling a complicated government contraption, not the least of which would be dealing with shared administrative functions. The team’s agenda isn’t yet defined, Councilman Bruce Conque tells me, but broadly speaking it’s tasked with paving an orderly path for transition. That begins with prepping the paperwork necessary to allow candidates to qualify and run for parish or city council seats in 2019. The new councils will get to governing in 2020.

The team is comprised of the charter amendments’ core proponents on the council. Council Chairman Kevin Naquin appointed himself, Conque, Jay Castille and Kenneth Boudreaux to the transition team. Castille and Conque authored and pushed the amendments through the council.

Divvying up the budget pie won’t always be straight-forward. That’s what Mayor-President Joel Robideaux didn’t like in the proposition, when he groused that the parallel councils could deadlock. The transition team won’t necessarily be tasked with sorting out who pays for what; that’s an issue to be tackled at budget time. But in preparing the budget in 2019, the last city-parish council ever will need to produce a document that separate councils can work from. Some functions are easy to figure out. The city council, for instance, has sole purview over the Lafayette Police Department. Easy peasy. But others, like the $5.6 million consolidated government spends on its IT department, will be stickier. The city pays 87 percent of that cost, the parish pays 13 percent; each share is determined by sales tax receipts. Public Works, the largest consolidated agency, could present the biggest challenge.

There are 25 different methods to determine who pays what. And you thought splitting restaurant checks was frustrating. The methods, called allocation formulas, are determined by a contractor, but the council (later councils) approve them in the budget process. Soon to come, the government equivalent of “I only ordered a salad.”

It’s nothing that’s not solvable,” Conque says of the complications ahead. Given the holiday season, the team likely won’t meet until 2019.

What to watch for: Candidates. Four incumbent council members — Liz Hebert, Bruce Conque, Pat Lewis and Nanette Cook — can run for either council. Conque has already declared to run for city council. Naquin has one term left and can spend it on the parish council only, given his residence outside of city limits. With Boudreaux, Castille, Jared Bellard and William Theriot all termed out, there will be at least five open races, most of which will likely be for parish council seats.

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Fixing the charter was no fluke. It’s proof that positivity can work in politics.

Fix the Charter focused on shared values while acknowledging the appropriateness of having different priorities. And the voters responded to that.

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Waitr gobbles Bite Squad and doubles in size

The gist: Waitr announced this morning that it acquired Bite Squad, an online ordering and on-demand food delivery platform for restaurants, for $321.3 million.

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Wasn’t Waitr just bought for $308 million? Yep, that was announced back in May and the deal was only finalized on Nov. 16. So less than a month into being a publicly traded company, Waitr has effectively doubled in size. Bite Squad has more than 11,000 active restaurants, compared with Waitr’s 7,700 restaurant partners as of Sept. 30 of this year. 

Waitr gets swoll. With this deal, Waitr’s operations will expand to cover a total footprint of 500 cities in 22 states. 

Where’d they get all that cash? Landcadia Holdings acquired Waitr for $308 million, but only $50 million of that was guaranteed cash. At that time, Landcadia Holdings was a special purpose acquisition company — a type of entity set for the sole purpose of buying another company — that had raised $300 million. So when Landcadia Holdings became Waitr Holdings, it still had about $250 million left to fund growth. While this deal for Bite Squad was for $328 million, only $202.1 million of that was in cash with the rest paid with 10.6 million shares of Waitr stock. Plus, to help finance a portion of this deal, Waitr has taken on $42.1 million in debt.

This may only be the beginning. Tilman Fertitta — the billionaire co-owner of Landcadia Holdings, the Houston Rockets and Landry’s Inc. — has a track record of growing his businesses through acquisitions. And Chris Meaux — the CEO and cofounder of Waitr — wants to build Waitr into a billion dollar business. So if I were a betting man, I’d say that this won’t be the last major acquisition they make. And that’s potentially great news for Lafayette. 

Am I rich yet? Not unless you were one of the original shareholders. The news hasn’t had much of a net impact on the stock price yet, for those of us who have only been able to buy in more recently. (Disclosure, I own some stock in Waitr.)  Yesterday, Waitr Holdings' stock (listed as WTRH on the Nasdaq) ended the day at $11.44. While shares spiked to $12 first thing this morning, they settled back down to $11.48 as of 2 p.m. So I’d hold off on buying that ticket to the moon.

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Tracking the Lafayette Stock Index reveals a changing of the guard

We’re witnessing a changing of the guard, and Waitr’s splash on the NYSE is the latest indicator in the trend.

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On the charter fix, the vote split along the city-parish line

To put it bluntly, to win, Fix the Charter needed the city to show up, and it did. City precincts edged the parish and saw bigger margins of victory.

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How much will the fire district tax cost you?

Decode the fuzzy math with our fire district millage calculator. The Current’s first Civi tool for civic engagement.

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Council is figuring out its new superpower on tax exemptions. That gives economic developers the jitters.

The gist: The City-Parish Council rejected two property tax exemptions Tuesday night, including one for Stuller Inc. That racks up four defeats since local agencies gained a say in a state tax incentive program that economic developers believe is an essential tool for business recruitment and retention.

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Stuller sought roughly $100,000 in property tax abatement over 10 years, through the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program. The jewelry manufacturer’s application claimed a $1.7 million investment in its manufacturing operations that would add six jobs to its existing local workforce of around 1,200. A council skeleton crew of five, exercising the relatively new power to approve ITEP applications, voted unanimously to reject Stuller’s application and that of Advanced Products and Systems, a Scott-based manufacturer in front of the council for the second time this year.

Hating incentive programs is all the rage. See what I did there? (I’ll show myself out.) Portions of the right and left seem to agree on this issue. Progressives say it’s corporate welfare. Free-market purists say it’s unfair. See the hubbub over Amazon’s HQ2. Or conservative Councilman William Theriot’s axiom, “We should take some from some and exempt others.”

Growing resentment on either flank could pressure politicians, locally and nationally, to halt or rein in incentive programs. Consider that the last four ITEP applications to come before the council were rejected. 

"We need to come together on a better approach,"  LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux tells me. "This situation is very difficult. It reflects my worst fears when the rules were changed."

For decades, ITEP was a rubber stamp. Until 2016, that is, when Gov. John Bel Edwards reformed the program by executive order, requiring applicants to show some job growth and empowering local taxing bodies to approve the exemptions. Critics of ITEP argue the state was wheeling and dealing with local money. Together Louisiana, an advocacy group organized to fight ITEP, claims the program exempted $4.9 billion in property taxes for companies statewide in 2016.

$3.7 million. That’s the total amount of exemptions Stuller has claimed through the program over the last 10 years, according to The Advertiser. Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux said Tuesday night that the actual amount is lower, given the program accounts for depreciation.

$17 million. That’s Stuller’s property tax bill over the last 10 years, according to Comeaux. Coming up short of an endorsement, the assessor defended the program in remarks to the council, noting that $33 million in parish tax revenue is “lost” to the homestead exemption each year, versus around $2.5 million annually to ITEP.

$89 million. That’s the local household income produced by Stuller’s payroll, according to Stuller CIO Michael DeHart.

The council’s vote sends a message. Depending on which side of the spectrum you’re on, it’s a good or bad one. Some fear the vote will have a chilling effect on business recruitment down the line. That problem, they say, is exacerbated so long as companies don’t know what the rules of the road are in Lafayette Parish. Others believe it's high time the program was stopped. 

We have to provide a level of certainty to companies so they know the financial implications of their investments in our area,” says Jim Bourgeois, One Acadiana’s executive vice president for economic development.

Some parishes have adopted a uniform approach, according to Councilman Bruce Conque, who voted against the Stuller and APC exemptions. Conque says he believes ITEP should be used to recruit new businesses rather than expand existing ones.

Conque said Tuesday night that there lacks a “coordination of efforts” among the local taxing authorities that now have a seat at the ITEP table — LCG, the Lafayette Parish School Board and the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. Conque tells me Sheriff Mark Garber was unaware of his authority on ITEP as recently as early this year.

“None of the governing bodies have any specific guidelines by which people who want to apply for an exemption can know the rules,” Conque says. “It’s a gamble.”  

Lagniappe. Should Saturday’s proposition to create separate city and parish councils succeed, ITEP applicants could be denied by either the city or the parish council.

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On the charter amendments’ final stretch, all eyes on undecideds

The gist: The current mayor is against the proposal to create separate city and parish councils, in its current form. Former mayors support the effort. So does former LUS Director Terry Huval and even Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter. The lines are drawn, but a lot of people still don’t know what to think about the proposition. Undecideds are in the driver’s seat ahead of Saturday’s election.

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Twenty percent of voters are undecided. That’s according to a scientific poll conducted by pro-amendment Fix the Charter PAC. Organizer Kevin Blanchard says the group’s message plays well in the parish, but the swath of unswayed voters keeps the election up in the air. “I like our chances,” he tells me.

This week former mayors Dud Lastrapes and Joey Durel penned a letter supporting the amendments. Read it here. Durel has been an active supporter of the campaign for some time. Lastrapes is one of the last mayors of Lafayette before consolidation. The campaign has gained institutional support where previous attempts at substantial changes to local government had not. Fix the Charter has raised about $60,000 to date, with TV and radio ad buys airing this week. In 2011, an effort to end consolidation failed miserably, with virtually all spending activated in support of the status quo.

Opponents say the proposal smacks of corruption, will raise taxes and will cede too much of the city to liberals. That’s the mixed bag of complaints circulated by Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes and its fellow travelers. The page says the amendments were drafted too swiftly and in the dark, giving rise to suspicion of ulterior motives.

LCAT posts have stoked suspicion that the amendment campaign is really for the benefit of development company Southern Lifestyle Development, given the company employs several figures in Fix the Charter PAC. Most recently, the group has claimed split councils would pave the way for Drag Queen Story Time, a tangent to the debate aimed at the heart LCAT's base.  The page and its companion organization Citizens for a New Louisiana are the only public opposition to materialize, outside the mayor-president.

After months of silence, Robideaux has begun fighting the amendments. The mayor-president penned an op-ed on Friday to make his case against the proposition. Robideaux had yet to weigh in on the topic, even as he was probed for his opinion by council members back in August. Recently, he had privately told amendment supporters that he would withhold public comment. The flip irritated some of his erstwhile allies.

"I was disappointed and surprised that the mayor took a stance after he told me he wasn't [going to take a public position]," says Herb Schilling, owner of Schilling Distributing Company. Schilling was one of Robideaux’s biggest supporters in his 2015 campaign. The Northside businessman has backed the charter amendments, circulating a letter to Upper Lafayette addresses.

Robideaux’s op-ed argues the configuration of proposed council districts strips too much power from the city over parish money for drainage and roads, and that the parallel councils are headed for deadlock without a “mechanism” for resolving conflict. Robideaux has since taken to Facebook to sound alarms that the parish council makeup — only two of the seats would come from majority city of Lafayette districts — will make future charter amendments difficult to achieve.

“Any future efforts to change or improve the charter to help the City of Lafayette would be much more difficult, if not impossible,” Robideaux writes. He also created a hashtag. #LetsGetItRight. Because that’s what you do now.

It’s unclear if Robideaux, badly damaged in reputation from the LUS/Bernhard affair, has much clout. There’s even some anecdotal evidence that Robideaux’s opposition has driven some undecideds to support the proposition.

Fix the Charter rebutted Robideaux’s op-ed on Friday, calling the mayor-president’s concerns “penny-wise but pound-foolish.” The way supporters see it, gaining sole control of the city’s substantially larger resources is more important than control over the parish budget. To wit, in the current budget, the city has financed $72 million in capital improvements, including $42 million in roads, all by its lonesome.

Meanwhile, the parish is selling garages to make ends meet. As to the mechanism for resolving conflict, Fix the Charter President Carlee Alm-LaBar says that’s the mayor-president’s job.

“Citizens outside the city of Lafayette are equally as frustrated,” says Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter, chalking up dysfunction in parish government to bad leadership. Ritter fundamentally supports the idea that the city of Lafayette should have its own council, like Youngsville. “In looking at it from the vantage point of someone in a city that has a five person council and mayor, I know how effective we’ve been,” he tells my colleague Leslie Turk.

What we’re watching on Saturday: The geographic breakdown, win or lose. Conventional wisdom has it that parish voters hold all the cards, although the 2011 deconsolidation vote got clocked in city districts too. This time around, city voters could be moved by the inclusion of an amendment to shield LUS from management contracts like what Bernhard Capital Partners proposed to public uproar. Retired LUS Director Terry Huval has supported the effort with a “protect LUS” message. On the parish side, Fix the Charter’s Blanchard says parish voters are receptive to the message that a dedicated council would improve accountability on parishwide issues. We’ll tag this election #TooCloseToCall.

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Gold recycled in reach

Jewelry maker JelLyn Morvant’s latest collection marries luxury and recycled goods, artistry and craftsmanship, earthiness and glam.

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Consolidation was about money. Fixing it is about democracy.

That appeal to basic American principles is an about-face of the economic pragmatism used to justify consolidation in the first place. First they wanted to save money. Now they want to save democracy.

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