The gist: Changes to LUS and LUS Fiber leadership, announced suddenly the night before October’s primary, were said by the Robideaux administration to be tied to an ongoing internal review of transactions between the systems that was requested by the Louisiana Public Service Commission. PSC representatives, however, contradict that assertion — saying no such internal review was asked for, and the leadership change is not related to any request from the commission.
Get caught up, quickly. LUS and its sister company LUS Fiber have been under fire for a pair of potential violations of a state law that prohibits government dollars from propping up the municipal telecom. The most recent of the two, $8 million paid over eight years for a power outage monitoring system, was self-reported by Mayor-President Joel Robideaux in July. In a press release distributed Oct. 11, Robideaux announced he was removing LUS and Fiber’s interim directors, claiming the swap was made to “facilitate an internal review on behalf of the Public Service Commission” and linked the review to the power outage monitoring payments. Robideaux named his chief administrative officer, Lowell Duhon, to oversee LUS, and Kayla Miles, Fiber’s business administrator, as LUS Fiber’s interim director, replacing Jeff Stewart and Teles Fremin, respectively.
“Subsequent to the self-reports, the PSC requested that a more in-depth and internally unbiased review of all LUS Fiber inter-agency transactions be performed, necessitating the staff changes,” Robideaux wrote in his October press release, suggesting that the PSC itself had requested the leadership changes or supported the decision.
There is no written record of such requests from the PSC. Requests for management changes “would absolutely be in writing,” commission spokesman Colby Cook says. “We rarely make those kinds of recommendations. It’s a financial audit.”
PSC Executive Secretary Brandon Frey confirms the commission has not asked for an internal review of inter-agency transactions. “There is nothing pending on anything like that,” he says.
To date, the PSC has investigated only one self-reported violation from 2018. Robideaux’s July letter concerning the power outage monitoring system triggered no new review or request from the PSC, according to PSC staff. The last formal correspondence between the administration and the PSC was a June audit report concerning the 2018 discovery of payments from LUS to Fiber for services to sewer lift stations and some electric system components that were never connected. After a comprehensive review of inter-system transactions, the PSC found that besides the $1.7 million in sewer and electric payments paid out over several years, which Fiber reimbursed, the system was in compliance with state law and PSC rules, according to the report.
The June report raised concerns about having a single director run both Fiber and LUS. Longtime Director Terry Huval ran both LUS and LUS Fiber, an arrangement PSC staff wrote “may have weakened the strength of internal controls.” That concern was moot by the time the audit was concluded, as two different interim directors were already in place by the end of 2018.
Robideaux took widespread criticism for a bid to privatize management of LUS. The deal, first revealed by The Current in the spring of 2018, would have sold management rights to private equity firm Bernhard Capital Partners and at one time potentially included Fiber. Huval retired early from a previously announced decision to step down amid the controversy. The episode pitted Huval against his former boss, as the retired director publicly opposed the Bernhard deal. Later that fall, the City-Parish Council and the mayor-president agreed to divide LUS and Fiber into separate divisions. Robideaux appointed Stewart and Fremin to their interim posts, which they held without incident until October’s shakeup.
The self-reports have figured in political campaign materials. The Lafayette Parish Republican Executive Committee, whose Facebook page is run by Robideaux’s political consultant Joe Castille, used these transactions as a wedge issue against Councilman Bruce Conque, who lost his re-election bid to Andy Naquin, and mayor-president candidate Carlee Alm-LaBar.
(Disclosure: Alm-LaBar gave seed money to The Current in 2018; view our list of donors here.)
The administration has yet to officially respond to the June report from the PSC. Within a month of receiving the June audit, however, Robideaux claimed to have found the second potential violation of the act and said he hand-delivered a letter outlining those findings to the PSC, writing to the PSC that LUS may have made illegal payments totaling $8 million to LUS Fiber over an eight-year period. He actually hand-delivered the letter to Public Service Commissioner Craig Greene, when he visited the commissioner to discuss the June report.
“[Commissioner Greene] hasn’t had any more conversations other than when Mayor Robideaux had given us the letter, and we said we’ll get this to our staff. We gave no formal recommendation as to what they should do with [it],” says David Zito, Greene’s chief of staff. “None of the commissioners have approached us, and we have not approached any of the other commissioners about it.”
The legality of cross-subsidization between LUS and Fiber is regularly tested in annual attest audits, and interagency transactions are run through LCG’s finance department. In his letter, Robideaux, an accountant, took issue with the accounting method used to price the cost of power outage monitoring system, saying the approach likely violated state law. An audit conducted by LUS Fiber’s independent auditors in 2012 and a PSC audit for 2011 and 2012 did not take issue with the payment computations, which were based on the annual estimated savings from power outages. That means numerous oversight mechanisms, including Robideaux’s own administration, would have failed to detect any problems.
Robideaux has not asked the PSC to audit that issue, yet he references it as one of two self-reported findings to justify the leadership changes.
“We are committed to providing the most complete and unbiased report possible to the PSC, and the need for fresh sets of eyes is what prompted the naming of new interim directors at LUS and LUS Fiber,” LCG spokeswoman Cydra Wingerter writes in an emailed response to questions about the management changes sent this week. “The outcome of this in-depth, internal review will be formally provided to the PSC, and it is expected that a decision will be made as to whether the findings will be included in the initial self-report or taken up separately.”
Robideaux told commissioners in the July letter that Fiber’s annual attest audit began in May 2019 and would be filed with the commission by August. As of Tuesday, the attest audit had not been turned over to the PSC, its records show.
“There’s nothing pending at the commission involving the July letter,” says the PSC’s Frey. “I don’t think there’s been any request from them to open up an audit.”
The gist: Within months of selling a major stake in his construction firm to Bernhard Capital Partners, Lafayette businessman Lenny Lemoine has teamed up with Baton Rouge developer Mike Wampold to buy the 108-year-old former Whitney National Bank building on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans.
The gist: LUS is in the early stages of pursuing a pilot program to add electric vehicle charging stations to its portfolio and buy electric forklifts for its warehouse.
If funded, the pilot could put chargers at the Target shopping center on Louisiana Avenue but isn’t limited to that location. Interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart says work is very much preliminary and not related to surveys underway for a Tesla supercharger at the same site. LUS is also researching EV policies and approaches in major regional markets to write a local one.
LUS applied for funding through Louisiana’s allotment of VW’s settlement program, which is paying billions in atonement money for the German automaker’s use of software to cheat emission standards tests on its diesel fleet. As part of its settlement with the EPA, VW established a $2.9 billion trust to pay for programs that reduce diesel emissions. Louisiana received around $20 million from the trust. It’s that pot of money LUS is after for the pilot.
This is the second time LUS applied for the VW money. The utility’s first attempt at funding through the trust wasn’t successful. A second round was opened this year, according to Stewart, and last week LUS turned its application, which asks for more than $150,000 in grants.
LUS is at the beginning stages of a major power planning process called an integrated resource plan. Stewart says LUS has shortlisted four consultants to assist LUS on the IRP and will bring those candidates in for staff presentations in the coming weeks. He’s hoping to have a contract in place by June. A big part of the IRP is projecting the future of power demand, i.e. how much electricity the city will need, and how to meet the demand. Stewart has positioned this iteration of the process to be more public than previous go-rounds, saying in recent interviews that he wants the public to help create a vision for the future of the electric utility.
Meanwhile, automakers are investing billions in EV fleets. Lafayette has been criticized for lagging behind national (and even regional) adoption of EV infrastructure. Industry movement is now difficult to ignore. VW itself plans to spend $80 billion over the next five years developing EVs and outfitting them with batteries, according to The Economist, ultimately producing 20 million electric cars in the next decade.
Why this matters. EVs are only one disruption the utility industry faces. Bernhard Capital Partners criticized LUS’s lack of innovation and flexibility when the private equity firm pursued purchasing the right to manage the utility. LUS has been more proactive in the last couple of years exploring renewable energy and other disruptive technologies, contracting wind power from the midwest last year, but nevertheless has been cautious to dive into a fast-moving space.
The decision was made “in response” to the ongoing discussions of the company’s proposal and the “importance” of the city’s decision whether to accept it.
The gist: Swimming upstream of public opinion, the firm making a play to manage LUS is widening the reach of its pitch. Bernhard Capital Partners/NextGEN Utility Systems hung up a banner, so-to-speak, with a temporary outreach center in Downtown Lafayette.
The outreach center puts boots on the ground for a growing PR campaign. This week, NextGEN also created a Facebook page and launched a phone campaign to go along with its digital billboards billing a $1.3 billion offer. Talking points from the phone campaign emphasize the $140 million in up front cash included in the deal, rate reductions and the company’s intention to site its headquarters in Lafayette. NextGEN is renting space in the Omni Center on Jefferson Street for the next two and half weeks, according to Omni Center owner Robert Guercio.
Could environmental progressives be a base of support? In a phone interview, Guercio, a Downtown entrepreneur and sustainability advocate affiliated with Bayou Electric Vehicles, bubbled with enthusiasm about the possibilities NextGEN offers, particularly in modernizing LUS. Guercio said he fought LUS for two years to get LED lighting Downtown and that the utility dragged its feet on renewable energy.
“Why is it so hard for us to do innovative things? Government is kind of clunky sometimes,” Guercio said. “This is their [NextGEN’s] specialty. We’re in business to rent the facility, but I’m also supportive of an effort to modernize LUS.”
LUS announced a $7 million LED streetlight program in 2017. The city owns its 18,000 streetlights, and the Public Works Department pays LUS for electricity and maintenance (replacing bulbs and poles, etc.). In what could be argued was an innovative approach, LUS agreed to fund the program up front because Public Works could not afford to do so. Because LEDs are cheaper to run than the city’s existing lamps, LUS will continue to charge Public Works the contract price for the more expensive conventional lighting until it recoups its $7 million investment.
Bayou Electric Vehicles team has twice unsuccessfully sought funding for Lafayette’s first EV charging station via local pitch competition 24 Hour Citizen Project. Jeff LeBlanc, who made the pitch at the event this year, said that NextGEN will give $3,000 to an upcoming fundraiser, enough for BEV to finally get Lafayette’s first EV charging station placed in front of The Wurst Biergarten on Jefferson St., another Guercio-owned operation.
LeBlanc said BEV’s sole issue is proliferating electric vehicle infrastructure in Lafayette, and it won’t be making any sort of formal statement on third party management of LUS. Speaking for himself, LeBlanc said he’s skeptical of the terms of NextGEN’s proposal, particularly the 40-year contract, though he shares some of Guercio’s frustration.
“LUS had every opportunity to get [Lafayette’s first EV charger] this done over the past two years,” he said.
NextGEN’s critiques of LUS echo others from renewable energy advocates. And that could be why the company might find common ground there.
Who, what, when and how. It’s really unclear what NextGEN’s path to success is. Even if it successfully courts progressives, who else will carry water for the controversial proposal is yet to be seen. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux took an earful for suggesting that public opposition is uninformed, yet he has not voiced dedicated support for an offer he courted. What details a potential contract would include, beyond the exchange of money, are yet to be seen. When and how this moves past the hot air stage, either by vote of the public, vote of the council or a contract with the administration, is unknown.
What to watch for: Whether any part of Lafayette’s political class joins the campaign. Given the toxicity of the topic from the time NextGEN’s communications with the administration were revealed, there’s been no local political capital spent promoting it, outside of the mayor-president’s call to explore options.
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.
What’s Jim Bernhard’s bid to run LUS really worth?
Robideaux said through his spokeswoman that conversations with Entergy have continued intermittently since at least June of this year.
Chief among them: Can we get out of it?
Billed as a $4.1 billion deal, the offer is heavy on assumed indirect economic impacts.
Bernhard Capital Partners appears ready to make its pitch to the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority on Oct. 9.
A look into Jim Bernhard’s foray into nuclear energy raises questions about his qualifications to run LUS.