LUS becomes political football in waning days of M-P race

Photo by Travis Gauthier
Mayor-President candidate Carlee Alm-LaBar has asked the LPUA to look into M-P Joel Robideaux's handling of an inquiry into questionable payments from LUS to LUS Fiber, alleging he is playing politics with the prized public utility system.

The gist: Long considered the goose that laid the golden egg, Lafayette Utilities System, along with its sister entity, LUS Fiber, is now mired in political controversy heading into Saturday’s mayoral runoff between Carlee Alm-LaBar and Josh Guillory. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux has floated accusations of unlawful transactions between the systems, initiated leadership changes and launched an internal investigation, all of which have drawn suspicions of political motives. 

Get caught up, quickly. LUS and LUS Fiber have been under fire for a pair of potential violations of a state law that prohibits government dollars from propping up the municipal telecom. The most recent of the two, $8 million paid over eight years for a power outage monitoring system, was self-reported by Robideaux in July. In a press release distributed Oct. 11, Robideaux announced he was removing LUS and Fiber’s interim directors, claiming the swap was made to “facilitate an internal review on behalf of the Public Service Commission,” and connected the review to the power outage monitoring payments. The PSC denies any involvement and has distanced itself from Robideaux’s attempts to link his efforts to its limited oversight. Robideaux named his chief administrative officer, Lowell Duhon, to oversee LUS, and Kayla Miles Brooks, Fiber’s business administrator, as LUS Fiber’s interim director, replacing Jeff Stewart and Teles Fremin, respectively.

This week, Robideaux sought to address “misinformation” about the motives of his investigation. In a Nov. 12 email to council members, Robideaux promised “a full package of emails, memos and other documentation” but gave no timeline for completing the investigation, which is looking into the Fiber division’s transactions with all LCG departments. The memo follows a report by The Advocate on hefty raises (one salary was increased by $122,000 a year) the new interim employees now collect and how those raises might translate into larger unused vacation and severance payouts if they leave office in January. In October, The Current reported Robideaux’s decision to shuffle directors at LUS and Fiber were not linked to any request by the PSC, as the mayor-president suggested. The memo announcing those changes was distributed the night before the Oct. 12 primary. 

On Wednesday, Councilman Jay Castille attacked Robideaux’s credibility. In one of many bullet points included in a fiery email, Castille challenges the mayor to explain his attempts to pull an unwitting PSC into the political fray. “Do you have any emails or correspondence that would back up what you wrote in the press release? Has there been an official request from the PSC that they need further information?” Castille asks. “It seems like the press release you wrote was intended to make it appear like the PSC was requiring further investigation. … But if the PSC actually did not make that request (and that’s what the media reported), that would seem to make your investigation less credible, as it would have all started with a lie.” 

Robideaux has thrown his support behind M-P candidate Josh Guillory.

Castille supports mayor-president candidate Alm-LaBar. The candidate, whose election bid was at one time a direct challenge to her former boss, tied Robideaux’s motivations to his support of her opponent, Josh Guillory. She called for the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, which regulates LUS, to look into Robideaux’s actions, accusing him of jeopardizing a community asset to play “political games.” 

Another possible target of Robideaux’s investigation is former LUS and LUS Fiber Director Terry Huval. The longtime chief retired early from a previously announced decision to step down in part to voice his opposition to Robideaux’s once-secretive efforts to privatize management of LUS. Should any of his accusations of illegal payments stick, they would presumably tarnish Huval’s reputation; he was a key figure in Fiber’s creation. Robideaux claims Huval’s early retirement was a way to protect nearly $400,000 in accrued benefits paid out when he left. Huval supports Alm-LaBar’s M-P bid. 

The PSC is not involved in ongoing inquiries into LUS and Fiber. PSC staff members and Commissioner Craig Greene’s chief of staff told The Current for an Oct. 23 story that neither the staff nor commissioner himself, whose district includes Lafayette, made any such request for additional reviews of the alleged cross-subsidization transactions. And none played any role in the decision to replace interim directors with new interim directors. 

Robideaux has since sought to clarify the PSC’s role, claiming it was Commissioner Greene who asked for a wider inquiry. “During the July 8th meeting and upon being made aware of the second instance of self-reporting, Commissioner Greene appropriately asked if we had looked into all of the Fiber inter-agency transactions,” Robideaux wrote in an Oct. 29 memo to council members. “I told him that we had not, but committed to do so.” 

Greene’s chief of staff reiterated Wednesday that his boss in no way directed Robideaux in the July meeting or at any other time. “Commissioner Greene was not giving advice,” David Zito says. “He has not given any urgings or requests as to what LCG should do.”

Why this matters: The issue has become a factor in the election and produced a new rallying cry for Alm-LaBar’s candidacy. Continued denials by the PSC raise doubts about the commission’s interest in the pattern of “questionable” payments flagged by the mayor-president. LUS’s defenders argue the payments were independently audited and cleared by the commission several times over. Unlikely to be resolved by Saturday, Robideaux’s review and its aftermath figure to land in the lap of whoever succeeds him. 

Disclosure: Carlee Alm-LaBar gave a seed contribution to The Current in 2018. See our donor list here.

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About the Author

A founding editor of both The Independent and ABiz and senior editor at The Times of Acadiana in the 1990s, Leslie Turk has worked in the newspaper business in Lafayette for almost three decades. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times and The Acadiana Advocate. Email her at leslie@thecurrentla.com.

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