April 12, 2013 04:29 PM

Tehmi Chassion's failure to recuse himself in the school board's selection of a group health benefits provider raises serious questions' on whether he violated state ethics law.

Tehmi Chassion, businessman Wayne Elmore and Brandon Shelvin

When Lafayette Parish School Board member Tehmi Chassion voted in September to award a $39.6 million group health plan contract to Southern Benefit Services, he failed to disclose to the board and the public that his half-brother, City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin, has financial ties to the company and its owner, Wayne Elmore.

Chassion, who now seems to be on a mission to derail Superintendent Pat Cooper and his turnaround plan for public education in Lafayette Parish, had no reservations in mentioning his half-brother's ties to the company months earlier when he discussed the same health benefits contract with a school system official - on behalf of his half-brother.

The likely breach of Louisiana ethics law dates back to early 2012, when Cooper was invited to a lunch meeting with then-board President Shelton Cobb and Elmore, a local media executive and owner of Southern Benefit Services.

Cooper says when he arrived at the meeting, he was introduced to both Elmore and Shelvin, who informed Cooper at the meeting that he works for Elmore.

According to a March 11 letter Cooper received from Ramona Bernard, the school system's director of risk management, Bernard was later invited by Cobb to attend another meeting with Elmore to discuss his interest in providing health insurance services for the school system.

Bernard agreed to the lunch meeting and met Cobb and Elmore at The Petroleum Club, where she also dined with Shelvin.

"Mr. Shelvin told me he worked for Mr. Elmore ... It was also at this meeting that Mr. Shelvin told me Tehmi Chassion is his brother," Bernard says in the letter, which was obtained by ABiz and its sister publication IND Monthly.

A few weeks after the lunch meeting, school board member Chassion stopped by Bernard's office to ask when the school system planned to issue the request for proposals on the group health insurance plan, "because his brother was associated with a company interested in submitting a proposal," she says in the letter.

"I felt uneasy because I felt it was a conflict of interest for Mr. Chassion to broker on behalf of his brother and wondered if he would recuse himself when he voted on the matter," Bernard also says in her letter to Cooper.

Elected officials are clearly required under Louisiana ethics law to recuse themselves from voting on any transaction in which an immediate family member has substantial economic interest. The statute allows elected officials to participate in the debate and discussion of such transactions, "but only if he discloses the nature of the conflict on the record ... prior to his participation in the debate and prior to any vote taken on the matter."

Photo by Robin May
Tehmi Chassion gets advice from brother Brandon Shelvin at a recent school board meeting.

Bernard goes on to say that Ramona Adams, the woman Elmore hired to prepare and submit Southern Benefit's proposal to LPSS, asked twice for Bernard to send the school system's request for proposals before it was officially released to all other interested bidders. When Bernard refused, Adams called Cooper's office to ask again that she receive the request for proposals early.

A March 12 letter also obtained by ABiz from Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau recalls her witnessing Chassion confront Cooper in his office to ask about the "insurance process," telling Cooper at the time that "we have to do something and get rid of that insurance lady Mrs. Bernard."

"As I recall there was a flurry of questions concerning Mrs. Bernard's practices, the third-party firm that was contracted to oversee the RFPs ... and their processes for vetting these proposals," Billeaudeau says in her letter. "Mr. Chassion was extremely agitated by the process and seemed to be most agitated with Mrs. Bernard."

The Southern Benefit plan was one of seven proposals the school system received for the group health insurance contract. The lowest bid, submitted by Blue Cross and Blue Shield, came in at $31.2 million. United Healthcare and Southern Benefit Services placed second and third in contract costs, respectively, with bids of $34.5 million and $39.6 million.

Chassion failed to recuse himself from the group health plan selection when it came up for a vote at the board's Sept. 5 meeting. In fact, he seconded a substitute motion offered by board member Hunter Beasley that would have awarded the contract to Southern Benefit Services, also voting with board members Beasley, Cobb and Rae Trahan in favor of the Southern Benefit proposal.

Dane Ciolino, a professor at Loyola University's College of Law in New Orleans, tells ABiz that the Louisiana Board of Ethics considers a half-brother a sibling and is therefore labeled immediate family under state ethics law.

"Assuming the public servant's half-brother had a substantial economic interest in getting the contract, the public servant had an obligation to recuse himself from voting on the contract," Ciolino says. "His failure to do so raises serious questions under the Code of Governmental Ethics."

The board ultimately decided to defer a vote on the health plan until Sept. 19. Chassion joined eight other board members in voting to renew the board's contract with Blue Cross and Blue Shield for one year with the option to renew the contract at a guaranteed rate for 2014 and 2015. Bernard notes in her letter to Cooper that Shelvin was present at the Sept. 19 school board meeting.

According to Bernard's letter, the Southern Benefit proposal would have saved the school system $274,000 in administrative fees as compared to Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

But using figures from the 2011-2012 fiscal year, Bernard contends that the school system would have paid $8.62 million more in claims under the Southern Benefit plan, which is one reason the employee insurance advisory committee recommended that the board renew its service contract with Blue Cross.

Cooper and others in the administration and community believe Chassion's failure to land business for his brother is part of what is motivating Chassion's hostility toward Cooper. Although Chassion initially backed Cooper for the job and lauded Cooper's track record of improving high-poverty, low-performing school districts, of late he has been staunchly opposed to the superintendent.

Chassion was one of six board members who voted at the board's April 3 meeting for an extraordinary reprimand of Cooper over his hiring of Thad Welch as his assistant for transportation and maintenance, despite Welch's lack of a high school diploma. After the reprimand, Chassion took the floor for 21 minutes to speak, often angrily and at times incoherently, and repeatedly questioned the superintendent's honesty.

Chassion makes no qualms in certain circles that he wants Cooper out. Read more about Chassion's personal vendetta in the May issue of IND Monthly.

Fed up with Chassion's interference in the school system and the administration's attempts to change the status quo, Cooper is now speaking out about Chassion's apparent violations of conflict of interest policies and his attempts to intimidate school system employees.

"I knew at some point I'd have to come forward with all of this," Cooper says. "The reprimand just speeded things up for me.

“There’s only one thing I want to do — to get the system turned around so we’re focused on the kids,” Cooper continues. “I’m hoping the board is able to let me do my job and not have all these interruptions. We should be making a lot of decisions as a CEO and staff that the board should not be interfering with. It's not policy stuff. It's process. You've got to give us the ability to run the system. I don't want to get anyone in trouble, but we can't continue to operate the way we are now if we want to see change, because no one has any confidence in the school system right now."

Elmore, an executive with Comcorp Broadcasting and a local business owner - his holdings include Louisiana Physician Corporation, Mello Joy Coffee and Chairslippers, according to his UL Lafayette Board of Trustees bio (he is also on the board of Our Lady of Lourdes) - did not return calls to ABiz for comment.

For several years, Shelvin has also been shilling for Elmore's Mello Joy, though it is unclear how he is compensated for his efforts. Now the chairman of the City-Parish Council, Shelvin's own questionable ethics have long been covered by ABiz and its sister publication IND Monthly (click these headlines,"A Question of Character" and "A Curious Compact," for two of the most recent stories).

The Elmore family is among Shelvin's biggest campaign contributors.

In the city-parish councilman's 2011 financial disclosure with the Louisiana Board of Ethics, the most recent available, he lists his city-parish salary of $23,570 (it is actually $25,480, about $640 of which is being garnished monthly for child support, court records show) and a range of $5,000 - $24,999 earned by his company, Southwest Solutions. According to the disclosure form, the company provides "contract labor consulting" and was formed in 2010 with Elmore's son, attorney Jeff Elmore, as the registered agent. Elmore's son is also listed by the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office as the registered agent for Southern Benefit Services.

In court documents related to his child support obligations, Shelvin, a full-time student at UL Lafayette, says he earns $3,750 a month, $45,000 a year.

Shelvin and Chassion no longer return ABiz's calls.

Read the Flipping Paper!

While the members of this diverse group of Acadiana women can’t all say they were firsts, each of them has contributed to our community in ways too countless to capture in 500-word profiles ...