LEDA selection committee repeatedly violated Open Meetings Law

Longtime LEDA President and CEO Gregg Gothreaux sought to influence the selection of his successor in meetings that violated the state's sunshine laws. Image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The gist: After repeatedly violating Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law since March, the committee charged with finding a new Lafayette Economic Development Authority chief did not publicly acknowledge its mistakes, choosing instead to notify the district attorney and hold a meeting last month to rectify its missteps. 

Get caught up, quickly. On July 26, after longtime LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux refused to turn over the names of the applicants for his job, the highest paid public position in the parish, The Current filed a public records lawsuit to compel the disclosure. The following day (before a hearing was set in the case), LEDA released the applicants’ names and on Aug. 20 announced that the field had been narrowed to four finalists.   

More transparency problems. Like LEDA itself, the committee is a public body required by the state’s Open Meetings Law to notice the agenda, date, time and place of the meeting on the door of its building or in the newspaper of record within 24 hours of the gathering. LEDA failed to do so, subsequent public records requests revealed. The committee also may have violated other provisions of the state’s sunshine laws related to electronic meetings (minutes consistently reflect some committee members joining by Zoom or by phone), which require that notices of the meeting contain detailed information for how the public can participate and submit comments regarding matters on the agenda

LEDA self-reported the notice violations to the district attorney. That self-report was put in writing by attorney Mike Hebert on behalf of LEDA Aug. 19, seven days after The Current made a public records request for posted notices of the meetings. The same day the letter was sent, the selection committee held a “properly noticed open meeting” and “​​ratified whatever actions it purported to take in its prior meetings that may have violated the Open Meetings Law,” Hebert wrote in an emailed response to The Current. Hebert’s office provided a copy of the agenda notice displayed on the door of LEDA’s office (and on its website) indicating that actions dating back to March 24 would be ratified at this meeting. The Aug. 19 gathering was held in person, according to minutes from the meeting.

“It sounded all reasonable to me,” District Attorney Don Landry tells The Current. Landry says the committee also agreed to “some special training” on open meetings and public records. The district attorney sent a letter to Hebert last week accepting the terms of the corrective action. In his letter to Hebert, Landry notes agreement with Hebert that committees and subcommittees are often overlooked as public bodies subject to the state’s Open Meetings and Public Records laws.

Other potential violations remain unaddressed. Hebert’s self-report, however, did not mention the possible violations of the electronic provisions, violations that would directly relate to the public being left in the dark throughout the entire selection process — one Gothreaux had long sought to influence. 

Mike Guidroz, chairman of LEDA’s board of commissioners and head of the selection committee, referred The Current’s questions about the potential electronic meetings violations to Hebert. “[E]xcept to say that I disagree with the conclusions you have drawn, it is inappropriate for me to comment further,” Hebert said in an emailed response.  

No disruption in timeline. The violations and corrective action will have no bearing on the search itself, Guidroz says.

The finalists include two well-known locals, Acadiana Planning Commission CEO Monique Boulet and Louisiana Economic Development Assistant Secretary Mandi Mitchell, as well as Gulf Power Company Economic Development Manager Verdell Hawkins (Florida) and Beaufort County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director John O’Toole (South Carolina). At the Aug. 19 meeting, the selection committee recommended all four candidates to the full LEDA board, which will continue the candidate interview process and ultimately decide who gets the job. 

Serving alongside Guidroz on the search committee are fellow LEDA executive committee members Dr. Ramesh Kolluru, Chris Arsement, Frank Neuner and Jerry Luke LeBlanc. LEDA board member Willie Leday, whom Guidroz says recently served on the executive committee, is also on the search committee; Mike Michot, LEDA’s lobbyist, and EJ Krampe, a former LEDA chairman, are serving advisory roles. 

This summer Gothreaux announced his retirement from the position he has held for 26 years. His compensation package is valued at about $450,000. (View his employment contract here and the August 2019 amended contract here.)  

Gothreaux’s influence. Records provided to The Current indicate that Gothreaux and his second in command, Pamela LaFleur, initially participated in the selection committee’s meetings, as did a representative of the New Orleans-based Next Move Group. The firm had been hired to assist in the search, and its owner, Chad Chancellor, taunted The Current to file suit for access to the applicants’ names. (That settled legal action cost LEDA $5,310 for The Current’s attorney fees, $750 in court costs and $900 in penalties to this news organization.) ​​Gothreaux made it known to numerous committee members — and this publication — that his favored candidate was Henry Florsheim, who worked for LEDA from 2001 to 2008 and was CEO of the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise from 2008 to 2010. He has been president and CEO of the Wichita Falls, Texas, Chamber of Commerce since 2013. 

Uninvited? After the public records lawsuit was filed, neither Gothreaux nor Next Move reps appear in minutes of the committee’s meetings, according to records provided to The Current.