LCG lawyer concluded bid law violation on spoil banks project

Spoil banks along the Vermilion River
In a secretive overnight drainage operation that led to multiple lawsuits and may have violated the state's public bid law, LCG moved dirt and trees from the St. Martin side of the river to the Lafayette side (pictured) in February 2022. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: LCG’s own legal expert concluded months ago that last year’s cover-of-night spoil banks removal project in St. Martin Parish violated the state’s public bid law. That conclusion was not shared with council members. 

Get caught up, quickly: The $3.7 million drainage project, now the subject of multiple lawsuits in state and federal court, was top secret and never competitively bid. Instead, the caper was quickly appended to a $390,000 contract awarded in December 2021 to Rigid Constructors, the lowest bidder for as-needed soil excavation and disposal. A former legislative auditor believes the massive jump in price likely violated public bid law. 

“If you materially change the original scope of the contract, then you can’t just amend it like that and be in compliance with the bid law,” Daryl Purpera told The Current last year. “So it sounds to me like they’re in violation of the bid law.”

LCG’s auditors flagged the public bid law violation as well, though for different reasons. While auditors also pointed out that the work for the original as-needed contract was for Lafayette Parish only, they emphasized that the spoil banks removal was a public work contract that should have gone out for bid because of additional line items, like a $1.8 million expedited mobilization cost and $117,000 for stand-by mechanics.

City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan has long insisted LCG followed the law and referred vaguely to an opinion from New Orleans-based attorney Denise Puente of Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn. 

City and Parish council members got their first look at Puente’s opinion letter Tuesday night, in a joint special meeting to discuss LCG’s troubling financial audit, which Logan and Puente attended with five other LCG attorneys being paid by the hour to represent the administration’s position. 

Mayor-President Josh Guillory at council meeting

The Guillory administration mounted a vigorous but flawed defense this week in a special meeting held to review the extraordinary findings in an annual audit of Lafayette Consolidated Government.

A technical problem. That’s how Puente described the out-of-parish issue to council members Tuesday night. She did not divulge to the councils and the public that she had concluded the technicality amounted to a public bid law violation in her letter dated Sept. 7, 2022  long after the project was completed and concern about the contract’s compliance with bid laws was raised by The Current’s reporting

“She never said last night that it was a public bid law violation,” City Councilmember Nanette Cook told The Current Wednesday morning. “I wish I would have heard that last night.” 

The letter contradicts public statements by Logan, who suggested Puente blessed the use of a change order instead of putting the spoil banks project out to bid. 

Greg Logan speaking at council meeting
City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan has long insisted LCG followed the law in amending a contract for the spoil banks removal in St. Martin Parish and referred vaguely to an opinion from New Orleans attorney Denise Puente to back that assertion. Puente, however, concluded LCG broke public bid law.

“I’m pretty sure all of this was done with her permission or her approval,” Logan told The Current in May of 2022. That same month, The Current requested from LCG documentation to back Logan’s assertion. LCG responded that such records, if they existed, would be protected by attorney-client privilege. 

Puente didn’t find fault with the fact that the as-needed contract awarded to Rigid Constructors ballooned tenfold for the secretive project, saying “the scope of work makes it clear that, at its heart, the work to be performed is excavation and removal.” 

She instead concluded at the end of the letter that LCG could not legally perform the work in St. Martin Parish. The original as-needed contract stipulated that excavation and disposal work was for Lafayette Parish only, she wrote, citing an attorney general’s opinion to determine the project should have been bid out. 

“The amendment was outside the scope of the Contract and should have been let for public bid prior to award,” she wrote of the geographical issue. 

Low water stages on the river justified the urgency of the project, Puente argued Tuesday night, saying it was “the only time” the Vermilion River would be low enough to execute the project.

“We couldn’t get a straight answer last night,” notes City Council Chairman Glenn Lazard, stressing he didn’t have the benefit of getting to the end of Puente’s letter during the discussion because the administration dropped it at the time of the meeting. “The information they presented just created more doubt.”

Neither Logan nor Puente returned messages seeking comment. 

Out of the loop. Council members tell The Current they did not know LCG was buying land in neighboring St. Martin Parish to execute this project (the subject of yet another lawsuit) and did not approve the land purchase, an issue auditors also flagged. They also didn’t know about the administration’s plans to blindside St. Martin officials with the secret operation.

“A lot of this stuff the ordinances did not explain,” Cook says of a number of Tuesday’s discussion items. “I don’t want to make excuses for us, but we didn’t know they would interpret this 10,000 ways.” 

The state has also chafed about the spoil banks project, refusing to release to LCG $1.5 million in capital outlay dollars the councils were told they would receive. State officials confirmed to The Current last fall that LCG failed to turn over any of the necessary documentation for the project, like final construction plans and proof of adherence to public bid laws.

What’s next? Outside of putting voters on notice about the actions of their elected officials, violations of public bid law are typically (and very rarely) addressed by civil action only (unless the violation was committed knowingly and is tied to a malfeasance charge). Louisiana law holds that anyone with direct knowledge of an alleged violation of the state’s public bid law can institute a civil action in district court against the public entity. And according to the Louisiana AG’s office, contracts in violation of the state’s public bid law are void (see P. 33). The Current was unable to determine what that might mean for $3.7 million of work done and paid for, should the bid law violation stick.