Acting on conflict-of-interest and influence peddling allegations first reported by The Acadiana Advocate, Councilman Jay Castille called on the mayor-president to investigate a suspect loan to one of his assistants.
Former Community Development head says Bruno’s loan warrants an investigation. The council is mulling one.
Former Community Development Director Phil Lank says a HUD-backed small business loan to mayoral assistant Marcus Bruno represents a conflict of interest.
The gist: Leaving the courthouse Wednesday, the consensus among observers was that former Knight Oil Tools CEO Mark Knight would trade in his affluent lifestyle for the confines of the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. But there’s a catch.
If Knight qualifies for the sheriff’s Alternative Sentencing Program, he’s likely to return to the comforts of his luxurious home with an ankle monitor after reporting to the jail on Feb. 15 to begin his sentence.
15th Judicial District Judge David Smith sentenced the wealthy businessman to a year in the parish jail on a corrupt influence conviction for the critical role he played in the 2014 conspiracy to plant illegal drugs on his brother, Bryan, and have him arrested in an ill-fated attempt to wrestle control of the family company.
In August, Mark Knight, 61, pleaded no contest (which has the same implications of a guilty plea) to public bribery and corrupt influence. On the former, he was sentenced Wednesday to four years hard labor, suspended, three years of active supervised probation, a $1,000 fine, court costs and 300 hours of community service. He also must forfeit $87,000, the amount prosecutors say he paid to his three co-conspirators — then-Knight Oil employee Russell Manuel, former Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Kinch and former State Trooper Corey Jackson. Manuel, Kinch and Jackson pleaded guilty. Manuel got no jail time, and Kinch was sentenced Wednesday to three years hard labor, suspended, two years of active supervised probation, a $500 fine, 150 hours of community service and court costs for public bribery. He got a year of home incarceration for corrupt influence. In early December, a prescient Kinch boasted to a sheriff’s deputy that he would only get probation, saying a deal had “already been worked out,” according to a media source who overheard the conversation.
Jackson will be sentenced in April.
Wednesday’s sentencing brings closure to the years-long saga that has forever tainted the Knight legacy and hastened the downfall of one of Acadiana’s largest privately held companies. Had Mark’s case gone to trial, Assistant District Attorney Alan Haney promised to introduce evidence from a March 2015 Knight Oil Tools internal investigation showing that Mark laundered money, used corporate funds for personal expenses and stole $2.4 million from the company through the sale of scrap pipe and tubing.
Haney implored the judge to put both Knight and Kinch behind bars, arguing this specific crime was a distortion of the entire criminal justice system because it manipulated police officers who arrested Bryan, and then attempted to hoodwink prosecutors and the courts to convict him.
Haney singled out the prosecutorial instincts of the late ADA Richard Weimer, who immediately recognized there was “something fishy” about the arrest and declined to prosecute Bryan Knight. “They used me as a weapon,” Haney maintained, urging the judge to send a message to the wealthy and powerful Mark Knights of the world that they “can’t use me and they can’t use you.”
“It calls into question everything we do,” the prosecutor told the judge. “Anything less than jail time is not appropriate,” Haney said, making special note of federal judges who have been sentencing to more than a year in jail first offenders who violated the public trust, specifically naming Barna Haynes, who used to work in the district attorney's office. “Everyone is watching,” Haney emphasized.
Mark Knight’s criminal defense attorney, Mike Skinner, asked for leniency, calling his client a “good, kind and generous man” and a “loving husband and son.” Skinner talked of how Knight had worked his way up in his father’s company and built it into the largest of its kind in the world. He also spoke of Knight’s charitable work, stressing the amount of good deeds he did “mostly anonymously,” and said that “the circumstances surrounding this case are extremely unlikely to occur again.”
Judge Smith spoke of the numerous letters that had been written to the court on Mark’s behalf, including one from his victim, Bryan. Bryan’s letter will remain under seal, Smith noted.
What has not been previously reported is the extent to which the lead investigator believed much of the Knight family was involved in the scheme to clear Bryan out of Mark’s way. The 32-page arrest affidavit for Russell Manuel, written by then-Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Captain Kip Judice and obtained by The Current, includes shocking accusations by Manuel that numerous family members were aware of the plan to set Bryan up, though the extent of their alleged involvement remains unknown.
From the affidavit:
“According to Manuel Mark Knight was 100% aware that the plan had changed from just catching Bryan with illegal drugs … to plant[ing] the dope on him. Manuel stated that this all started after a meeting with Manuel, Trish Knight (Mark’s wife), Pam Nagota (sic) (Trish’s twin sister), and Heather Knight (Mark’s daughter). Heather told Manuel that [her brother] Zack’s wedding was coming up and the family did not want Bryan arrested near the wedding date and that they wanted Bryan in jail for the wedding.”
At the sentencing, Judice told me the family members named by Manuel refused to be interviewed during his investigation. “My thoughts are it was common knowledge in the Knight family that these officers were targeting Bryan,” Judice said. “Each individual’s level of knowledge varies. I do think that both Mark Knight’s wife and Heather had specific knowledge that there were added benefits to make [the arrest] happen, the payments.”
After the verdict. A stoic Mark Knight ignored this reporter’s questions. His attorney, Skinner, called Manuel’s allegations of family involvement “ridiculous.” Skinner declined any additional comment, citing the ongoing civil suit filed in federal court by Bryan Knight against his brother, Manuel and the two former law enforcement officers.
District Attorney Keith Stutes declined to comment on Manuel’s claims of family involvement.
The Advocate has pounced on The Daily Advertiser’s newsroom, snatching up several reporters and a senior staffer in a coup that could cripple Lafayette’s flailing daily.
A national retail operator with a reputation for buying troubled malls and investing little in them bought Acadiana Mall in mid-January.
The gist: State and federal lawsuits filed this week allege suspended Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope, at the time facing seven felony counts of malfeasance in office and perjury, took the extraordinary step of targeting his perceived political enemies. The suits were filed by Steven Wilkerson, who co-chaired the failed effort to recall Pope.
Pope allegedly ordered employees to retaliate against Wilkerson and recall organizers. The suits claim he instructed office personnel to run criminal background and outstanding warrant checks on those seeking to remove him from office. In addition to Pope and interim City Marshal Mike Hill, defendants are Deputy Paul Toce, and an unidentified deputy, dispatcher and warrants supervisor. Wilkerson alleges Pope violated his constitutional rights when the marshal had him arrested Dec. 11, 2017 — less than 24 hours after the recall effort failed — on a defective warrant for issuing worthless checks 20 years ago. In February, District Attorney Keith Stutes dismissed the charges against Wilkerson.
Wilkerson, who says in the suits he has since moved out of state to escape the ongoing retaliation he feared, is seeking actual and punitive damages for public humiliation, embarrassment and invasion of privacy, along with attorneys’ fees.
Pope was convicted on four felony counts earlier this year. The suspended city marshal is awaiting a sentencing date and plans to appeal. Just last week, a 17-count superseding indictment accused him of pocketing approximately $85,000 from the marshal’s office this year after receiving an attorney general’s opinion that he could not legally do so. In April, Pope was also warned by the CPA firm auditing his office’s financial statements — it wasn’t the first warning — to “cease this practice and seek legal counsel regarding compensation taken prior to the January 29, 2018 AG opinion.” It does not appear that Pope will be charged for supplementing his salary to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars from 2015-2017 — the time period prior to the January AG opinion, which was merely a restating of an earlier opinion that the fees can only be used to support the operations of the marshal’s office.
— Read the full federal lawsuit here. —
Marshal Hill says he received a state grand jury subpoena to turn over financial records shortly after his October swearing in.
The Louisiana State Police and the FBI have looked into Pope. In early 2018, LSP performed an audit following Wilkerson’s arrest and the allegations around it, according to sources with knowledge of the examination. It’s not known what that audit turned up, but the FBI has been asking questions. Recall co-chair Aimee Robinson says she was interviewed for 2.5 hours by two FBI agents in February. Robinson says the agents asked a lot of basic questions — why she got involved in the recall, why Wilkerson was chosen as co-chair, whether she had a vendetta against Pope, had she known Pope prior to launching the recall — before getting to what she believes was the purpose of the meeting.
“To me the focus seemed to be around Pope’s efforts at retaliation,” she says. Robinson says she hasn’t heard anything from the feds since February.
Aguillard’s decision caps off an anguished and twisting run-up to Saturday’s vote on the controversial tax. Where once the chief appeared to disagree with his rank and file, he now finds their interests aligned against the sheriff.
Challengers are already mulling 2019. LUS could be the platform they need.
The council and administration patched an unexpected hole in the current budget with a windfall of sales tax collections and a new solution to the the Buchanan garage problem: sell it to private interests.
The gist: If the Bernhard Capital Partners/NextGEN proposal to take over operations of LUS has any council support at this point, it was hard to see it at Tuesday night’s council meeting. In an encore performance, this time before the whole council, NextGEN’s management team attempted to make the case for how a private company can do a better job than government running Lafayette’s 120-year-old municipal utility company.
Council to Robideaux: It’s time to state your intentions. Councilman Bruce Conque was insistent Mayor-President Joel Robideaux — who left the meeting long before it was over — state his position on the proposal and whether the effort to privatize LUS will be opened up to other potential suitors (Entergy and CLECO are both interested). Absent Robideaux’s willingness to put his own political capital behind this new direction for LUS’s future, Conque said the administration should move forward on hiring a top-notch director, one who should be attracted with a highly competitive salary.
Right now, LUS is run by an interim director, following the early retirement of longtime Director Terry Huval. Conque’s language was added to a resolution formalizing an agreement between the council and the administration that a new director not be named until the smoke clears on the idea of outside management of LUS.
William Theriot put a pressure cooker time limit on the deal. After NextGEN’s presentation — which Councilman Jared Bellard asked for but requested be abbreviated to less than 20 minutes from the LPUA version — Councilman William Theriot turned to City Attorney Paul Escott and directed him to draft a resolution that would effectively wash the council’s hands of the NextGEN proposal or any others like it for the time being. That resolution, also aimed at easing anxiety the NextGEN proposal has caused for LUS employees, will state that LUS is not for sale, for lease or open to any takeover of its operations and management.
While non-binding, the resolution would ice potential suitors with a clear statement of the council’s position on monetizing LUS. Council members have complained that public criticism has been trained on them, despite not initiating LCG’s flirtation with NextGEN.
Theriot, a staunch and vocal conservative, put his foot down to defend a government-owned monopoly. After months talking with “the owners and consumers of LUS,” he tells The Current he was ready to nip this deal in the bud.
“This is not what the people want,” he said. “Then why are we going through the motions?”
What happens now? We’ll know in two weeks where Theriot’s eight fellow council members really stand on NextGEN’s proposal. He only needs four more votes to effectively kill the deal.
The gist: At last week’s presentation to the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, NextGEN officials indicated with confidence that LUS’s hundreds of employees need not worry about their civil service protection if NextGEN takes over management of the public utility.
“We don’t have any specific intention to replace civil service employees with non-civil service employees,” said Jeff Baudier, who joined NextGEN’s parent company, Bernhard Capital Partners, in April after almost two years with CLECO.
And to make the company’s position perfectly clear, BCP founder Jim Bernhard chimed in: “We don’t want to weasel around it that the civil service employees that do their functions today will remain. And with some attrition we’ll hire another civil service employee. That’s not going to change. It’s not our intent. It’s what we’re committed to.”
Not so fast, says Adam Marcantel, municipal civil service director. “From what I’ve seen, it’s just not going to be permissible,” he says of continued civil service protection, like job security and equitable pay, for LUS employees under the proposed management contract with NextGEN. “That’s not to say a way doesn’t exist out there that I haven’t considered or thought of. But from what I’ve looked at and the ideas I’ve tossed around in my mind in trying to figure out how can we make this work, I don’t see that there’s going to be a resolution as long as the management structure is that the [civil service] employees would answer to an employee of NextGEN.”
Marcantel says civil service employees are able to perform their duties without political pressure. “Civil service positions exist to serve Lafayette Consolidated Government and by extension serve the public. That’s what we do, and that’s why we enjoy the protections that we have,” he explains. “To have civil service employees serving the interests of a private company is not compatible with that.”
What’s next? Marcantel plans to attend Tuesday’s council meeting, where NextGEN will again make its pitch — though email records show that Councilman Jared Bellard asked that the company cut the lengthy presentation it made before the LPUA to a summary of 20 minutes or less. Marcantel is prepared to explain his position to the council.
If the NextGEN proposal moves forward, the director says the municipal civil service board would get involved and likely seek a legal opinion from its attorney, George Armbruster. “I’m waiting to see what happens,” Marcantel says.
File this in the “curious” category: The retention of civil service classification doesn’t appear in NextGEN’s 35-page proposal to manage LUS, a deal that would give LCG $140 million in cash and relieve $184 million in LUS debt, along with providing $920 million in continued in-lieu-of-tax payments and up to $64 million in conditional payouts.
I emailed Baudier late Monday afternoon for clarification on this issue and haven’t heard back.
▸ The gist: C. Michael Hill, one of the Lafayette Bar Association’s "go-to guys" for continuing education presentations on ethics and professionalism, was sworn in Tuesday morning to replace embattled — and now multiply convicted — City Marshal Brian Pope. While Pope appeals his felony perjury and malfeasance convictions, he is automatically suspended without pay and has lost all the benefits of his office; City-Parish Councilman Bruce Conque said Pope can retain his city health insurance if he pays 100 percent of the premiums.
▸ The ordeal had to be really challenging for marshal employees. Let’s go out on a short limb here and assume it was a "you’re either with me or against me" atmosphere at the marshal’s office over the past few years. No one — especially a public employee, much less one in law enforcement — should be put in that position, and it could not have been easy for the employees of the marshal’s office to endure this level of anxiety resulting from their boss’s self-inflicted legal wounds. The unfortunate situation the employees were in was recognized repeatedly by the city judges — who appointed Hill — and Hill himself. The message was clear: Marshal employees’ jobs are safe, they’re a competent lot, and they should all be breathing a collective sigh of relief.
▸ Hill, a former federal magistrate judge now in private practice, says he’s not yet considered whether to seek permanency of the interim post but made clear he will be a hands-on marshal. "I’m not the kind of person to sit and watch things going on around me when I’ve got the ultimate responsibility," he said after being sworn in. Local leaders have concluded that the law requires the city-parish council, as governing authority, to name the interim appointment to serve until Pope’s conviction is either upheld or overturned, and anyone interested in the post has to submit an application. This intriguing tidbit from The Advertiserconfirms that Pope could qualify for re-election in 2020 if the appeals process is still underway.
▸ Next steps. Years of legal troubles ignited by The Independent’s public records lawsuit are far from over for Pope, who is staring down seven new felony counts of malfeasance in office for lining his pockets with civil fees (he’ll be arraigned Oct. 23). Public records show that Pope continued to pay himself thousands of dollars in civil fees that are supposed to support the office operations even after the AG opined in January that state law prohibits him from supplementing his income. Pope had been taking in $220,000 a year, more than any elected official in the state. In interviews outside of the parish courthouse last week after Pope’s conviction, prosecutors confirmed ongoing investigations into Pope’s conduct.
▸ At his swearing in, Hill was not even sure what his own salary would be ("I have no clue") — he said he answered the call to serve that came Friday, two days after Pope’s conviction — but was adamant that he would not take the fees in question. "That’s not going to happen," he said. — Leslie Turk