April 8, 2013 04:54

Gasp. Could Mark Allen Babineaux - an attorney - have broken board policy to the tune of $17 million?

Questions need to be answered by Mark Allen Babineaux of the Lafayette Parish School Board and former Superintendent Burnell Lemoine, say several board members who want to know why a contract addendum guaranteeing CSRS millions in fees if a bond issue is passed anytime within 2.5 years was dated four days after the failed October 2011 election, without board approval.

"I was very surprised when I read [on TheIND.com] that board President [Mark Allen Babineaux] at the time, and the former Superintendent [Burnell Lemoine] had signed that contract, which goes upwards of millions [of dollars]," says board member Kermit Bouillion in a phone interview Monday morning. "And what's even more surprising, baffling even, is it was signed four days after the election. I can understand signing the contract four days before the election, but this really raises a big red flag, and I want some answers."

Bouillion is referring to the failed 2011 bond election and a contract and addendum to it dated four days later that guaranteed Baton Rouge-based CSRS Inc. a 3.3 percent cut of the $500 million bond if the October ballot initiative passes (the tenses are confusing because the bond had already failed) - and in the event a second election is called within the 30 months of the contract being signed. The contract is dated Oct. 26, presumably the date both parties also signed it. Should the bond measure have passed, CSRS's cut would have been $17 million.

CSRS was originally hired by the board to conduct a "Facilities Master Plan" for the school system in 2009. That board-approved contract, valued at $900,000 and dated May 20, 2009, was signed six days later by the board's attorney, James Simon.

The document in question, however, only bears the signatures of two LPSS representatives, Lemoine and Babineaux, not Simon. On Aug. 17, 2011, the board approved a two-page proposal for the hiring of CSRS to oversee project management for execution of the Facilities Master Plan. Nowhere in those accompanying documents does it say anything about the 30-month provision.

This is what the board was told it was voting on:

Program management services are contingent on the passage of related new property tax millage. Related fees will be funded with the proceeds of general obligation bonds supported by the new property tax millage.

Included in the documents presented to the board is a CSRS/Architects Southwest "Standard Form LPSB-Fee" indicating the firms will be paid 3.3 percent of project construction costs but mentions nothing about the time period.

It remains unclear why it took more than two months, and four days post failed election, to date and sign the contract. Another question: Is the system locked into paying CSRS should any new bond measure pass for 30 months from August 2011, when the board approved the hiring of CSRS, or October of that year, the date noted on the contract and addendum?

Also, does the contract tie the system to the CSRS plan only, as the system has since decided not to follow that plan for improving its facilities?

Board member Bouillion is not alone in his surprise.

An addendum to the CSRS project services agreement was added four days after the failed election. Babineaux and Lemoine signed off on this provision without board knowlege, much less approval, thus locking the school system into a 30-month extension for a contract that otherwise would have been voided when the vote failed four days earlier.

Until the story, "LPSS and the taxing pickle' of Lemoine and Babineaux" was posted on TheIND.com last Thursday, board members Mark Cockerham and Hunter Beasley also were unaware of the binding contract provision. All three are puzzled that it is dated four days after the unsuccessful 2011 election and don't understand why their approval wasn't sought for a provision that may lock the system into paying a firm millions of dollars over such an extended period (CSRS has indicated to Cooper that it is willing to negotiate).

A provision of the CSRS project services agreement, also dated four days after the failed parishwide vote, addresses the possibility of a failed election. This contract was signed separately from the 30-month addendum (included above), which was added to the last page of the contract on Oct. 26.

"I don't recall ever approving the supplemental provision or its being signed after the election," Beasley tells The IND. "Our attorney James Simon doesn't recall ever seeing this provision either." (We would call Simon to confirm, but he doesn't speak to the media.)

Beasley confirms no board approval is needed for the board president and superintendent to sign contracts of up to $10,000, but anything in excess, which is the case with the CSRS provision (valued at $17 million based on the $500 million bond proposal), must be approved by a majority board vote.

"We were in the dark, knew nothing of this," Cockerham tells The IND. "I was just shocked that it was done behind our backs, especially given how much impact it could have on our community. A full investigation will be done, and I plan on speaking very heavily on this topic at the next meeting. Even if [Babineaux] had the authority to sign, I want to know why the board wasn't made aware of such a huge decision. What gave him the precedence to make that call?"

The board's legal counsel, says Beasley, is now researching the issue in preparation for what appears to be shaping up as the newest hot-button discussion going into the board's next meeting on April 17.

"I can assure you that for our next board meeting, this will be placed on the agenda. I always thought the board president had authority to sign contracts up to $10,000, but anything over needed board approval. And if a board president broke policy, I'll be very curious to see how some board members [referring to Babineaux, Beasley, Greg Awbrey, Tommy Angelle, Tehmi Chassion and Rae Trahan, all of whom voted last week to reprimand Cooper] will want to deal with this breaking of policy by a fellow board member, especially since they wanted so badly to reprimand Superintendent [Cooper] over supposedly breaking policy.

"I'm really glad that [Cooper] was able to discover this little contract and that it has been brought to our attention," Bouillion continues. "I just have a lot of compliments for him as he continues to do an excellent job as superintendent."

The IND did speak this morning, albeit briefly, with Babineaux. After claiming the board was made aware of the provision at the Aug. 17 meeting, Babineaux concluded the conversation: "I'm going to respond to it on the board floor. I'm putting it on the agenda."

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