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LUS becomes political football in waning days of M-P race

The gist: Long considered the goose that laid the golden egg, Lafayette Utilities System, along with its sister entity, LUS Fiber, is now mired in political controversy heading into Saturday’s mayoral runoff between Carlee Alm-LaBar and Josh Guillory. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux has floated accusations of unlawful transactions between the systems, initiated leadership changes and launched an internal investigation, all of which have drawn suspicions of political motives. 

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Robideaux’s LUS, Fiber management shakeup was not prompted by Public Service Commission

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.

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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.”

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