LCG sued again on St. Martin spoil banks project

St. Martin property owner Ed Francez on his property
Lafayette homebuilder Ed Francez, photographed in June, is suing LCG for removing levees and cutting down trees on his St. Martin Parish property without his knowledge. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Lafayette Consolidated Government faces another lawsuit connected with its secretive operation to remove spoil bank levees on the Vermilion River in St. Martin Parish early last year. 

Ed Francez, a one-third co-owner of the property who was cut out of LCG’s land purchase, filed suit Thursday for damages. 

Francez and his wife Cheryl claim a portion of their land along the Vermilion River was purchased without the City Council’s legal authority by LCG in February 2022 and are asking a 15th Judicial District Court judge to determine damages. The suit also says the levee LCG destroyed was vital to flood prevention in St. Martin Parish and that removal has robbed Ed Francez of a lifelong hobby of hunting and fishing on the property, which once belonged to his grandfather.

“The other co-owners had a right to sell the property if they wished, but Lafayette Consolidated Government doesn’t have the right to just decide — without notice, consent, due process of law — to just destroy it, which is what they did,” says attorney Jim Gates of Opelousas, who is representing the Francez family. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around what they had done to that property when I was out there last fall.”

LCG insists the project will not harm residents in St. Martin Parish. Preliminary modeling by researchers at UL suggested the project could help abate flooding in Lafayette by releasing more storm water into Cypress Island Preserve’s swamp. 

Spoil banks land cleared
LCG bought two-thirds’ interest in a 41-acre tract along the river in St. Martin Parish from Ed Francez’s relatives last year and immediately went to work clearing it of trees and removing soil in a secret operation that cost nearly $4 million. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Francez, a Lafayette homebuilder, told The Current last summer that he was intentionally left out of negotiations between LCG and his two sets of relatives, who each owned a one-third undivided interest in the 41-acre tract on the St. Martin Parish side of the river. Within hours of the February 2022 sale, LCG and its contractor, Rigid Constructors, snuck into the parish and dug up a decades-old spoil bank levee on Francez’s property, transporting the dirt to land across the river on the Lafayette Parish side. In addition to the removal of what was thousands of cubic yards of topsoil, according to the suit, LCG downed valuable timber from the property. Francez is seeking damages to restore and reforest the property and for the value of the timber taken without his permission. He is also asking for treble damages (up to three times the actual or compensatory) for the removal of the timber in bad faith.

The Current first reported in June that LCG may have violated public bid law in paying Rigid $3.7 million for the project by amending the job to a $390,000 as-needed excavation contract awarded in December. The Louisiana legislative auditor, the state’s foremost authority over public bid law, is now investigating LCG’s drainage projects. The following month The Current found that LCG’s purchase of the land to execute the spoil banks project may have lacked council authorization as required by Lafayette’s Home Rule Charter.

The Guillory administration has maintained that removing the spoil, deposited decades ago in a dredging operation, is expected to relieve flooding on the Vermilion River. 

City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan and LCG spokesman Jamie Angelle did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The Francez suit follows ongoing litigation between LCG and St. Martin Parish government. St. Martin Parish says it had been acting in good faith to come up with a mutually beneficial solution and was left in the dark about LCG’s change of plans. 

M-P Josh Guillory has been unapologetic about the approach, brushing aside criticism of what he calls a “new pace of government.” 

“I was put here to do action; I was not put here to feed into the bureaucracy,” Guillory said on KPEL about the cloak-and-dagger project weeks after completing it. “I gotta give more weight to the engineers and to science and not bureaucracy. … We have a new way of doing projects; when they’re funded and when they’re engineered and we have a design, that means we can go help people.

“Once we had it funded and we had the design … we’re going 24 hours a day until those projects are done. I know it’s inconvenient to a lot of neighbors sometimes when we do that, but the alternative is to go with the old pace. And I don’t think anybody wants us to go at the old pace.” 

Says attorney Gates: “There are legal processes put in place to protect citizens against the kind of arrogance you see displayed by [Mayor-President] Guillory. A co-owner of a property is protected from another co-owner from arbitrary conduct that leads to complete destruction of the use of the property. I don’t know how he thinks he has the right to ignore basic legal restrictions, basic legal processes.”

While Guillory’s fight to aggressively address flooding has won him some support, the new strategy nonetheless has his administration under immense scrutiny by state and federal authorities, as well as the City Council, which is probing his drainage projects and payments to Rigid on the spoil banks operation and other drainage facilities. The ultimate cost of Guillory’s breakneck speed of government — and whether the tens of millions already spent will make Lafayette more flood resilient — is impossible to calculate at this time. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is investigating LCG’s decision to do the St. Martin Parish work without a federal permit, and the Corps has also asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate “flagrant, willful violations” associated with the project. Shortly after being made aware of the levee removal, the Corps told LCG to stop all activity on the project (with the exception of a directive to remove spoil it deposited on wetlands). LCG has been battling the Corps in federal court for nearly a year.

Additionally, the FBI is said to be probing the drainage contracts and looking into Guillory’s potential relationship with contractor Rigid.  

There are legal processes put in place to protect citizens against the kind of arrogance you see displayed by [Mayor-President] Guillory. … I don’t know how he thinks he has the right to ignore basic legal restrictions, basic legal processes.

Francez family attorney Jim Gates

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 filed suit in July. Earlier this month, the owners of nearly 400 acres grabbed for a vast water detention facility along Homewood Drive on the Vermilion River sued LCG for damages. Additionally, the state has been withholding funding for that project, shut down by the courts since May, and for another enormous detention pond project on the other side of the river along Coulee Ile des Cannes. In all, the state is refusing to reimburse LCG $30 million, at least until the legislative auditor’s investigation is complete

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. For the first time, Guillory acknowledged this issue on conservative radio personality Carol Ross’s show last month, saying he’d only recently learned that there may be problems with the amount paid for the land and intimating that LCG may sue the appraiser and seek damages. (The Current’s reporting did not find problems with the appraisal itself, but rather LCG’s interpretation of it.) 

Francez family hunting camp
An old family hunting camp still sits on the Vermilion River property in St. Martin Parish now partly owned by LCG. Francez says in his lawsuit that LCG’s actions deprived him of a lifelong hobby of hunting and fishing on his land. Photo by Travis Gauthier

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, reveal that 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.

“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,” Jenifer Schaye, general counsel for the legislative auditor’s office told The Current last year. “But the issue is, in any case, if the entity purchased appraised property for a higher amount they will have to justify it.”

The Francezes are also asking for court and legal costs and expert witness fees.

“[This is] governmental arrogance at its absolute worst,” Gates says. “It leaves a person speechless.”