At about 7:30 the morning of March 9, Ed Francez got a phone call from a longtime friend.
Brent Logan was pulling up in a boat to Francez’s property on the Vermilion River, near Cypress Island Swamp. “He says, ‘Ed, you’ve got a new co-owner,’’ Francez recalls Logan telling him. “The city of Lafayette.”
Francez didn’t know what Logan was talking about. “And I’ve got something else for you,” Logan continued. “They took out your spoil bank and trees.”
Francez said he didn’t believe him. So Logan texted some photographs.
That’s how the Lafayette homebuilder learned his first cousins had negotiated a deal with Lafayette Consolidated Government to sell their portion of land they co-owned in St. Martin Parish.
Touring his land last week, Francez tries to capture with words and gestures what it looked like before LCG denuded it. Today, vegetation sprouts green in the dirt where trees and heavy brush once cloistered his hunting camp.
The 59-year-old has spent the past three months trying to figure out why he was cut out of talks between LCG and his two sets of relatives, who each owned a one-third undivided interest the 41-acre tract. And, more importantly, he’s tried to pin down why his cousin-owners, multiple members of the Guilliot and Blanchet families, among them a district judge who represented his family in the transaction, were paid more than the property is worth.
By the end of that day in March, more details of LCG’s actions began to emerge: Overnight in February, LCG and its contractor, Rigid Constructors, snuck into St. Martin Parish and dug up a spoil bank levee on Francez’s property, transporting the dirt to land across the river on the Lafayette Parish side. Removing the spoil, deposited decades ago in a dredging operation, is expected to relieve flooding on the Vermilion River. Francez’s trees are now stacked up next to the new levee across the bayou.
LCG’s bluster and willingness to hack at bureaucratic red tape have put it in a thorny legal predicament. Lafayette government is now under investigation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its decision to do the work without a federal permit. The Corps told LCG to stop all activity on the project (with the exception of a directive to remove spoil it deposited on wetlands). Concerned LCG’s actions could adversely affect Cypress Island residents and livid that Lafayette had ended cooperation and gone behind his back, St. Martin Parish President Chester Cedars has vowed to sue “every single person, firm or entity that may have been complicit in the surreptitious removal of those spoil banks.”
And, as first reported by The Current, LCG may have violated public bid law in paying Rigid Constructors $3.7 million for the project by amending the job to a $390,000 as-needed excavation contract awarded in December. Just last week, the Lafayette City Council took what is likely the first step toward pursuing its own investigation into the furtive operation.
Public records documenting LCG’s purchase of the spoil banks land indicate another potential legal issue: It may have paid triple the land’s worth, violating statutes that prohibit “gratuitous donation” of public resources.
From recordings in the St. Martin Parish courthouse dated March 9, withheld from being filed into the public record an unusually lengthy 16 days after the city of Lafayette bought the property, Francez learned the other two co-owner groups were each paid $42,000 for their one-third shares. But the land’s total value was set at $42,000, according to a property appraisal The Current obtained through a public records request.
Francez has searched for answers that continue to elude him. Public records requests to LCG that he filed for additional information have yet to yield a single response. Some of his requests are now more than a month old.
“I always knew there was more value in the dirt than the property,” says Francez, explaining how he struggled to understand a $126,000 valuation for the 41 acres. “The city of Lafayette overpaid.”
At this point, it remains unclear how this overpayment happened. City-Parish attorney Greg Logan, Brent Logan’s brother, did not respond to detailed requests for comment, nor did the sellers (both groups are represented by family members who are attorneys) or the title attorney. The appraiser, Jake LaCour, says ethical standards prohibit him from discussing his appraisal with anyone but his client.
Upon reviewing the appraisal and the land deal, Francez was immediately baffled by the arrangement.
LCG did not impose the “minority discount” the appraiser assigned, common professional practice when someone isn’t buying 100% interest in a piece of property. The minority discount lowers the value of the land to reflect that the buyer’s rights are limited; if the buyer doesn’t get consent from the remaining owners to alter the property, he may be acting in bad faith, and Louisiana law holds that the remedy can be expensive. “Even though you only own 33%, it’s as if you own 100%, and no one can touch your [property],” Francez says. But that didn’t stop LCG from pursuing its covert drainage project, permanently altering the St. Martin acreage in the process.
In late January emails to the two sellers — one family was represented by District Judge David Blanchet and the other by attorney Jerry Guilliot — Lafayette title attorney Daniel Gauthier wrote that LCG would “NOT” (his emphasis) seek to impose the discount because “LCG will ultimately acquire full ownership of the property and will not maintain an undivided ownership interest therein.”
At the time those January emails were written, LCG could not have known it would successfully acquire or partition Francez’s interest in the property, because LCG had yet to approach him directly about securing his interest in the property.
And, as Francez expected, there is potentially an even bigger error, in terms of dollars. LCG paid $84,000 for two-thirds interest in land that appears to only be worth a total of $42,000. And once the minority discount is applied, the portion LCG bought is worth $21,000. In short, LCG potentially paid four times the market value for this property.
Two independent appraisers and a title attorney who reviewed documents for The Current found no justification for the amount LCG paid — nor does a $126,000 total figure appear anywhere in the appraisal. Rather, they concluded, the entire 41-acre tract was valued at $1,025 an acre, or $770 with the minority discount.
Under statutory law and the constitution, a political subdivision cannot pay a price that exceeds the appraised value; doing so may constitute a donation of public funds, according to an attorney general’s opinion. It would thus be up to the attorney general or district attorney to determine if any laws were broken in this transaction.
LCG has purportedly tried to avoid such donations in its seizures of private lands for two other stormwater projects. Mayor-President Josh Guillory has brushed off losses in two expropriation lawsuits as spats over price negotiations, among them the $60 million Homewood Regional Detention Project, for which LCG took 370 acres of land near Milton and paid the Bendel family heirs $2.6 million.
“We can’t give gratuitous donations,” Guillory told conservative talk radio host Carol Ross in an interview last week defending LCG’s position on the suits. Guillory has repeatedly used that line to explain why he can’t pay more than appraised value in quick-take expropriation cases (LCG has already lost the two biggest ones, pending appeals) until a court decides otherwise.
“Not doing the minority discount is a straight-up gratuitous gift,” opines Francez, who also had an independent appraiser review the documents. “The minority discount is the true value of the property. You can’t choose not to subtract it.”
Like the possibility of a public bid law violation on this same project in St. Martin Parish, this would initially be a matter for a finding from the Louisiana legislative auditor’s office, which as a policy won’t comment on any specific issues that may come before it.
“Some circumstances which may make this a finding of the auditor would be if it was done in a fraudulent manner, if people were ignorant of the law or just negligent in the reading of the document,” says Jenifer Schaye, general counsel for the legislative auditor’s office. “But the issue is, in any case, if the entity purchased appraised property for a higher amount they will have to justify it.”
“I can’t speak to you about the appraisal,” says Guilliot, Francez’s first cousin, in an emailed response. “We had it appraised and so did the city. We accepted their offer.”
Judge Blanchet did not return messages seeking comment for this story.
Out of the loop
As best he can tell, Francez was circumvented on the suspicion that he would try to stop the project.
“I keep getting this feedback that I was against this project,” says Francez, who insists that he had not spoken to anyone with LCG about his property until after LCG ripped up his trees.
Brent Logan alerted Francez about the city’s initial interest in his family’s acreage in early 2021. Brent was at a meeting at City Hall with nonprofit drainage group Dredge the Vermilion and LCG officials (he recalls Public Works Director Chad Nepveaux and Engineer Fred Trahan in attendance) when his brother Greg commented that all of the property owners were on board except for “Brent’s friend.”
At the time, the project included coordination with St. Martin Parish, Brent says, so he and DTV’s Harold Schoeffler boated to the site with Francez, property that still houses a camp Francez’s grandfather built decades ago, to explain what they thought the two parishes had in mind. “Purchasing was not brought up,” Francez says. “They were explaining the community benefits of the project, and soliciting my help.”
“Cooperation, communication,” Brent recalls. “Going good then, at least we thought.” Not long after the boat trip, however, Francez says Brent told him the project wasn’t moving forward, in part citing issues over the permitting process with the Corps of Engineers and other delays due to Covid.
Both Francez and Brent Logan say they were completely unaware that things had gone in a different direction and of what Lafayette ultimately had in mind.
Emails Francez provided to The Current corroborate the lack of communication. It wasn’t until April 22, two months after the trees were cleared and soil moved across the river, that LCG made its first official contact with Francez through his brother, a local attorney, and attempted to buy his interest in the property.
Assistant City-Parish Attorney Jim Gibson told Francez he had two options: accept City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan’s offer to buy his property (the email did not specify an amount) by the end of the day or the city would take action against him. “If the offer is not accepted, I am to file a partition lawsuit on the property,” Gibson wrote.
“They informed me that I had about four hours to agree to sell the property to the city of Lafayette or they would proceed with a lawsuit the next business day,” Francez says.
Francez did not respond, and the city did not file suit to divide the property. LCG re-approached with an escalating series of offers involving cash and Francez’s own dirt.
“It’s hard to take any of this seriously,” says Francez, noting Gibson actually suggested in a follow-up phone call that Francez cut a check to the city.
One of LCG’s offers was to make a swap: Francez’s land for Francez’s dirt.
LCG later sweetened the deal, offering to deliver the equivalent of one-third of the dirt that was removed (likely not his own dirt, as it was moved across the river) to anywhere Francez wanted within Lafayette Parish. LCG also offered to sell him additional dirt at a discounted price of $5 a yard up to 2,500 yards, and pay Francez $12,000. Francez did not respond.
“I keep wondering when someone is going to let me in on the joke,” he says.
As Francez boats across the river to the graveyard of his old trees, stacked along a levee built with his dirt on the Lafayette side, he knows he has a number of legal options. The more he looks into the removal project, the more potential problems he finds for LCG and Guillory’s “new pace” of government. In Francez’s mind, LCG acted in bad faith, destroyed his property and then threatened to use the courts to avoid its liability.
For now he’s just going to head home to refresh his email, waiting for those long-awaited public records from LCG to arrive.