The gist: LUS Fiber’s business model is broken, outgoing Mayor-President Joel Robideaux argued in a presentation Tuesday that wrapped up his months-long investigation into the municipal telecom’s finances. Robideaux will self-report to state regulators millions, most of which is disputed, in overcharged or unwarranted payments he says were intended to prop up Fiber in violation of state law.
“It cannot continue the way that it’s structured,” Robideaux told the City-Parish Council in his final meeting as mayor-president this week. “To ignore the reality is not doing anyone a service.”
He alleged another $2 million in “questionable” payments. This time for “dark fiber” services that he will report to the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which has limited oversight over LUS Fiber. Robideaux claimed Fiber charged LUS more than three times what it billed private customers for the dark fiber connection, identifying the disparity as a theme in Fiber’s billing practices.
All told, so far this year Robideaux has flagged roughly $10 million in payments. That’s on top of the $1.5 million in erroneous charges for unconnected sewer pump communication lines that were self-reported by then-LUS Director Terry Huval in 2018; Fiber reimbursed LUS with interest. The erroneous sewer pump payments led to a PSC audit, which in turn prompted Robideaux’s internal review. Earlier this year, Robideaux self-reported $8 million in payments for a Power Outage Monitoring System he said was overpriced and unnecessary. Huval, the architect of Fiber, disputes Robideaux’s central claims about POMS and vigorously defended the service in a press conference last month. The administration has not yet reported the $2 million in dark fiber services revealed this week.
Robideaux went further and called into question Fiber’s business model. Robideaux’s narrative suggests that without LCG, Fiber’s biggest customer, the telecom would be insolvent. Fiber’s business model is hemmed in by the four corners of the Louisiana Fair Competition Act, which defines how Fiber can operate. Introducing his findings, Robideaux said he discovered a “pattern of revenue manipulation that is hard to ignore,” calling it “naive” to think the practices were intended as anything other than subsidies for Fiber, which if true would run afoul of the Fair Competition Act. The state law was enacted to prohibit a financial crutch for the telecom and protect the private companies that fought Fiber’s creation. Still, Robideaux insisted he wasn’t claiming that anyone connected had done anything illegal.
Huval continues to defend the transactions. “As to the recent presentations, it should be noted that all LUS and LUS Fiber activities were brought to the City Administration, the City-Parish Council, and the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority for budgetary and overall approval,” Huval says in a written statement. He goes on to say that every LUS and LUS Fiber transaction complied with the Fair Competition Act, and was annually reviewed by the PSC.
Robideaux pointedly pulled punches on his accusations. Despite falling short of accusing the former director of breaking the law, he nevertheless attempted to paint a damning picture of the business practices overseen by Huval, who publicly opposed Robideaux’s shadowy bid to privatize management of LUS in 2018. Robideaux said the transactions hurt LUS ratepayers by increasing costs, but didn’t offer evidence of where it impacted utility customers directly. The last rate increase LUS sought was approved in 2016 to pay for a massive capital improvement package, which included a $120 million power plant that was later scrapped. The rate increases have not been rolled back. In closing, however, the mayor-president argued that Fiber was a net benefit for Lafayette, saying it was the city’s “calling card.”
Fiber does hold tremendous debt. The system became cash positive a few years ago, but owes $105 million on bonded debt as of 2018 and another $27 million on loans from LUS. By law, LUS backstops Fiber’s debt to bondholders. Should Fiber default, which could come as a result of an illegal payment, LUS and its ratepayers would be on the hook.
Robideaux’s allegations are now the future administration’s problem. While no timeline has been set out, Robideaux told the council he would deliver the new charges to the PSC before leaving office in early January. It’s the PSC’s discretion to pursue the issue any further. The commission’s audit of the sewer pump charges took about a year.
The PSC has distanced itself from Robideaux’s investigation. Robideaux at one time said the PSC requested his review, which the PSC disputed in interviews with The Current. His story evolved to pin the origin of the inquiry on a conversation with a commissioner, who again disavowed any connection to the investigation. Public records indicate LCG was billed more than $35,500 for legal services related to the inquiry, conducted primarily by attorney Larry Marino.
“I would like to have seen what he imagined were the next steps,” Councilwoman Liz Hebert says. Hebert has called for a “forensic” audit of the system, one with “no ties” to LCG, LUS or the mayor-president, to ferret out the controversy at Fiber and LUS. Critics have questioned the mayor-president’s motivation, characterizing the conduct of his inquiry as one-sided. Hebert says incoming Mayor-President Josh Guillory intends to go forward with her suggestion.
What to watch for: What 2020 holds. There’s some indication that Guillory will continue to look into the issue, but it remains unclear to what extent that will be a priority. Guillory will need to install new directors for both LUS and Fiber, now distinct departments, and make his own determination about the agency’s solvency and business plan. Robideaux has spent the better part of a year prosecuting LUS and Fiber, finding the sister utilities to be in disrepair, but has not offered up a way to fix them.
News + Notes
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