Cover Story

The Problem with Brandon Shelvin The city-parish councilman’s legal problems are catching up with him, raising troubling questions about his judgment and ethics - and his suitability for holding public office.

by Leslie Turk

On Monday, when City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin failed to appear in court, 15th Judicial District Court Judge Glenn Everett issued a warrant for his arrest. Court documents confirm that on Jan. 21, Shelvin was personally served by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office, official notification requiring him to show up in court at 10 a.m. and produce a slew of financial documents requested by Hancock Bank, an entity he owes about $9,000.

It was the clearest sign yet that Shelvin's legal problems are finally catching up with him.

Those troubles belie what many in this community had viewed as a promising young public servant, in many ways just what Lafayette needed to begin to move forward after the divisive tenure of District 3 City-Parish Councilman Chris Williams came to an end, thanks to term limits. Elected at 30 years old in 2007, businessman Brandon Shelvin became the youngest person to serve on Lafayette's consolidated council.

The challenges of council duties are often a hill to climb for any political neophyte. But for Shelvin, like his fellow council freshmen, his fiduciary duties are far from limited to traditional council district responsibilities. By virtue of his council seat, he automatically became one of five members of the board of directors of the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, the regulating body charged with oversight of LUS, the city's crown jewel - its prized electric, water and now fiber enterprise with a reported value well over $1 billion. A council member's LPUA duties, viewed by many knowledgeable observers of parish government, easily demand business management and corporate oversight skills similar to almost any large business or publicly traded company. It is a daunting responsibility.

In the Oct. 20, 2007, primary for the Lafayette's Council District 3 seat, voters sent Shelvin and another young black man named Shawn Wilson to the runoff. Like Shelvin, 38-year-old Wilson, confidential assistant and chief of staff to the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, appeared to represent a new kind of energy - and believed District 3's residents deserved better representation. Shelvin vs. Wilson was a win-win for voters.

Two of the losing candidates from the field of six, Shelton Cobb and Dale Brasseaux, the only white to run in a district with about 67 percent black voters, backed Shelvin. Shelvin also was supported by a faction of the black community that included influential KJCB radio. When the vote tallies were in on Nov. 17, the residents of District 3 had decided on Shelvin, giving him 57 percent of the vote.

A bright political career was under way.

Or so it seemed.

Few people, if anyone, knew at the time that beneath the surface of Shelvin's enthusiasm and big smile, financial troubles - and what now appear to be daunting legal problems - were brewing. The Independent Weekly's investigation into Brandon Shelvin's history in the Lafayette business world reveals deeply troubling questions about his judgment, ethics, truthfulness, and suitability for the public office he holds. An office he may never have even been legally qualified to seek.

You could say City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin's ascent hit a snag soon after his election victory. Among his initial orders of business was to settle a score with his landlord, Iqbal Merchant, by using his influence as a city-parish councilman to urge Lafayette Animal Control to investigate Merchant, accusing the local CPA of running an illegal exotic bird operation behind his home on Moss Street.

Court documents, however, reveal that it was Shelvin who may have had something to hide. A lease dispute between Shelvin and Merchant over an office space, in addition to a residential lease dispute between Merchant and Shelvin's girlfriend, Justine Sampy, call into question whether Brandon Shelvin was ever even eligible to run in District 3. Lafayette's city-parish charter requires that a candidate for the council live in the district for the seat he is seeking at least six months before qualifying for office. The charter further notes that should the legal domicile and/or actual residence of a council member change from the district from which he is elected, unless changed by reapportionment, "the office shall automatically become vacant."

Shelvin qualified on Sept. 4, 2007, less than three months after purchasing a home at 301 Monarch Drive in District 3. According to state law, the deadline has long passed for anyone to contest whether Shelvin met the residency requirement for qualifying.

Though he has been well aware of The Independent Weekly's investigation of his business and legal problems over the past couple of months, Shelvin denied repeated phone and e-mail requests for an interview.

The issue of Shelvin's residency is raised and noted in a document obtained by The Independent Weekly from the Lafayette Housing Authority through a public records request, though a source close to the 2007 campaign says questions about his residency were rampant in the district during the campaign. Shelvin's opponents never made a public issue of it.

On girlfriend Sampy's application for Section 8 housing assistance, an LHA employee noted sometime in early to mid-2008 that Merchant reported to the office that Shelvin was living at the residence, 113 St. Bernadette Drive - which is in majority white District 2, not majority black District 3. That would have been months after his election.

Sampy began receiving financial assistance from LHA in 2003; since mid-2007 the housing authority was paying Merchant $728 a month for Sampy to live on St. Bernadette; the balance of the rent, $172, was being paid by Shelvin with a personal check, according to Merchant's records. Merchant declined comment for this story but did open his files to us.

Sampy was also receiving $423 a month in food stamps and $636 a month in Supplemental Security Income, according to LHA's files. No where in the LHA records did Sampy report that Shelvin also lived in the home.

In a timeline he created in July 2008, Merchant wrote that Shelvin was at the home "at all times and all hours, whenever I or a repair person went to 113 St. Bernadette Drive" from June 1, 2007, "until present." If true, Shelvin did not meet the qualification of residency to run in District 3 and subsequently violated the charter by living outside of the district after being sworn into office. It does not matter that he owned a house in the district; it must be his legal domicile and/or actual residence, according to the city-parish charter.

When Sampy and Shelvin failed to pay the balance of the rent in June 2008, Merchant filed for eviction. Then, on July 10, Merchant filed to evict Shelvin after he fell behind on rent for a space at 3414 Moss St., which housed a company called the Pink Power Training Center. As an independent sales director for Mary Kay, Sampy sold her products out of the pink-painted office space, which also at one time served as Shelvin's campaign headquarters. She later unsuccessfully launched a Pink Power Training Center downtown on Jefferson Street, selling Mary Kay products out of the retail location in violation of the cosmetics company's policy. The company's products are sold exclusively by independent contractors directly to the consumer, or through an independent contractor's Web site, and at private parties.

Some time in the early afternoon hours of July 10, Merchant was reported to Lafayette Animal Control, which was compelled to look into the matter. That same day an Animal Control official left a note at Merchant's north Lafayette home saying he was there "to discuss something" with him. A perplexed Merchant, who legally breeds exotic birds as a hobby, called Animal Control and was told Shelvin had reported him and instructed the agency to seize his birds. Merchant called City-Parish Councilman Don Bertrand and City-Parish President Joey Durel, who looked into the matter and discovered that Merchant's operation was legitimate. Durel says he quickly realized what was going on.

"I called Animal Control and said, Don't y'all dare do anything about that,'" Durel recalls.

But Shelvin's battle with his landlord and doubts about his residency now pale in comparison to the financial problems that began surfacing for the council member last year, much of which appears to be related to former his used car business on Evangeline Thruway. Court documents in both state and city court reveal that Shelvin, whose only job outside of his council work appears to be consulting work for Mello Joy Coffee and related entities owned by Lafayette businessman Wayne Elmore, has dug himself into a hole of debt.

Robley Broussard thinks he was taken for a ride by Brandon Shelvin. In late October 2008 Broussard purchased a 2007 Chevy Impala from Shelvin's ThriftyWay Car Sales and paid Shelvin an additional $1,200 for a service warranty through an Atlanta-based company called EasyCare. "I had a problem, and I called the warranty people to find out if it was going to cover the water pump," Broussard told The Independent Weekly in early February. "They told me I didn't have no warranty. I said, What do you mean? I paid $1,200 for an extended warranty.' They said they didn't have a copy of it, so I had to send a copy that I got from Brandon's car lot. I faxed it to them, and the supervisor said it was rejected, that it was not active. They sent me a paper saying it was not active."

When Broussard contacted Shelvin about the issue, the councilman paid him $600 and Broussard repaired the car. "He was supposed to give me the other $600, which I still today have never received," an upset Broussard said several weeks ago. "He told me that he didn't know what went wrong, that he was going to make it good, which he hasn't made it good yet. It's over a year, and I still don't have my other $600."

In October 2009, Broussard filed suit in Small Claims Court and was awarded the $600 plus interest. "They said he had to give me interest...cause it was a four-year loan, plus the court costs. They told him to pay in 15 days. He was supposed to pay by the 8th of last month [January], and he's a whole month behind. The judge told him and he still didn't pay me," Broussard added. "I had to go back to court to file a judgment."

Broussard said Shelvin told the judge he had been trying to contact him to pay him. "I told the judge, that's a lie, he has not tried to pay. He knows where I work. I work for the city." Broussard said Shelvin went personally to his office to close on the car. "He knew where I was. He sure came when I signed the papers [to finance the car and warranty]. To be honest I should have asked the judge for pain and suffering. It's a lot of stress because it's very aggravating; $1,200 might not be a lot to some people, but it's my money."

Broussard was unaware of anyone else who was having a similar problem with a warranty, but he was suspicious: "A lot of people have said if he did that to you, I'm sure he did that to somebody else," Broussard said.

Indeed he did.

The warranty company, EasyCare, did not receive from Shelvin money he took from customers for extended warranties on approximately 20 vehicles purchased at Shelvin's ThriftyWay Car Sales between July 2008 and February 2009, according to EasyCare's records. Depending on factors like the vehicle's make and model, mileage at time of purchase, term, coverage and deductible selected, the cost of the service contracts ranges from $700 to $1,800. For Broussard's $1,200 warranty, $1,061 was supposed to be forwarded to EasyCare; the remaining $139 was to be Shelvin's profit, according to the warranty company.

"I have been working with Brandon Shelvin and IberiaBank who is the lienholder on the majority of those contracts," says Jan Larche, customer relations and training manager for Automobile Protection Corp., the parent company of EasyCare. "He's in the process of making payment to us to resolve those issues," adds Larche, noting she has been in contact with Shelvin and the bank for the past several months.

"He seems like an honorable man," Larche continues. "He's done everything in his power to fund these contracts. He's working diligently to secure payment to send to us. He's trying to take care of his responsibility."

IberiaBank officials declined comment on the matter.

Up to this point at least, EasyCare is not pursuing any legal action against Shelvin or his former dealership, and neither the Louisiana Department of Insurance nor the Office of the Louisiana Attorney General, both of which investigate matters of this nature (a warranty is like an insurance policy), had any complaints on file last week.

Admirably, EasyCare, a company several local auto dealers say has an exceptional reputation in the business, will honor all warranties - without any guarantee it will ever be paid by Shelvin. "The customer comes first, and in this particular case we have taken care of our customers," Larche says. Pressed several times about whether Shelvin had a plausible explanation for why the funds had not been paid to the company to activate the service contracts, the EasyCare representative could not answer the question - and, astonishingly, did not seem concerned. "You will have to get that information from them," she says. "I cannot speak to Mr. Shelvin, as to what occurred. ... I don't know what his financial situation was," she continues. "I don't think there was any malicious intent to start with. And this is speculation totally: He could have been a victim of circumstance of the economy or whatever took place."

Larche says EasyCare will also honor any other warranties from ThriftyWay Car Sales customers who come forward and can provide supporting documentation showing payment in full to the dealership. "We will pursue reimbursement from Mr. Shelvin at that point," she says.

Larche would not disclose how much Shelvin has since reimbursed her company for the 20 warranties. "I'm confident we're going to get the rest of the money," she says.

[Editor's Note: Minutes before this paper hit the press, we were advised by Larche via e-mail that Shelvin had made good on the contracts. "I wanted to let you know Mr. Shelvin has completed his commitment and fulfilled his obligations in funding the contracts for his customers," Larche wrote. In a follow-up phone call, Larche said EasyCare received a wire transfer from Shelvin Tuesday morning and was paid in full.]

Lawsuits by individuals and companies claiming Shelvin owes them money have piled up over the past year, several resulting in judgments that as of two weeks ago had not been paid or did not have notification of being paid in the court files. Several of the plaintiffs and their attorneys in these suits were contacted by The Independent Weekly for comment but declined to talk on the record.

In May 2009, the first lawsuit was filed in state district court against Shelvin and ThriftyWay Food Mart at Pinhook and Evangeline Thruway, which he appears to have owned for a short time after shutting down his used car lot. The suit was filed by Acadia Wholesale and Tobacco Co. (dba Church Point Wholesale), seeking $2,515 on an open account, plus attorneys' fees and court costs. A judgment was rendered against him and ThriftyWay and recorded on Sept. 15. A day later, Whitney National Bank filed suit to collect $9,712, a loan Shelvin took out in May 2009 but soon after defaulted on. As part of the loan, Shelvin agreed to pay 20 percent of the principal balance if "handed to an attorney for collection proceedings," according to the suit. On Jan. 29 of this year, a judgment for the principal, interest, late charges and 20 percent of the principal as attorneys' fees and court costs was recorded in the Lafayette Parish Courthouse.

In October, Hancock Bank sued Shelvin in state district court for $8,319 he owes on a 2007 $10,000 preferred line of credit and the following month got a judgment against him. In December Castille Financial Services took him to court for $8,314 for a personal loan he didn't repay. A preliminary judgment by default in favor of Castille was signed by the court on Jan. 15.

On Jan. 8, Shelvin's slippery slope of deepening financial woes appeared headed for disaster when GMAC Mortgage LLC, which holds the first mortgage on his home at 301 Monarch Drive - the one he purchased in his district in June 2007 for $85,000 - sued him for defaulting on the loan in October. GMAC, apparently unable to collect payment for several months despite mailed notifications to Shelvin spelling out what would happen if he did not pay the mortgage, put the property up for sheriff's sale.

Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret says he got a phone call from a panicked Shelvin. "Brandon called me and said it was a big misunderstanding from a closed bank account and that he had satisfied the lending company," Perret recalls. Once the clerk of court was able to confirm that GMAC did not intend to move forward with the sale, Perret stopped the process on his end and returned GMAC's check for court costs, which Shelvin eventually would have had to pay. Except that the matter involved a Lafayette city-parish councilman, this kind of phone call is not an unusual occurrence for the clerk's office. "That does happen from time to time," says Perret.

Shelvin placed a similar call to Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom, who says while the paperwork had already reached his office from GMAC, the wheels were not yet in motion on the sale of the home - so the sale was simply canceled. "It wasn't anything out of the ordinary that we did to help him," Neustrom says.

GMAC's attorney, Wendy Brown of Dean Morris in Monroe, declined comment. "We can't discuss anything with third parties," Brown's assistant told The Independent Weekly.

The suit was dismissed on Jan. 29; Brandon Shelvin is still living in his Monarch Drive home.

Hancock Bank, however, has not been satisfied and decided on Jan. 13 that Shelvin's time was up. The bank filed a Judgment Debtor Examination Petition and request for production of documents, asking the court to require Shelvin to turn over all of his financial information, including his check stubs and W2s for the past two years, checking and savings account statements, and all of his assets - from automobiles down to jewelry and coins.

His failure to show up prompted Judge Everett to issue a bench warrant for his arrest. "It basically means they will go pick him up," attorney Eric Neumann told The Independent in the courthouse hallway after leaving Everett's courtroom. Neumann is representing Hancock Bank on behalf of McGlinchey Stafford law firm out of Baton Rouge. And while the warrant called for Shelvin to be booked into the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, giving Neumann an opportunity to question him there, Neustrom said early Monday afternoon that's not likely to be the process. "Normally we don't book people in civil matters. If we did we'd have to have five or 10 more jails."

Neustrom says the department had gotten word to Shelvin and at press time was in the process of setting up a meeting between Shelvin and Neumann at the sheriff's office. The sheriff says Shelvin is not getting any special treatment by not being arrested. "It's a normal procedure we're following."

Robley Broussard is one of the lucky ones. On Feb. 19, about two weeks after his initial interview with The Independent Weekly, Broussard got his money from Shelvin.

Stacie Durham is still waiting.

In February 2009 the Lafayette Parish school bus driver, a single mother of two, purchased a 2005 Chevy Avalanche from Shelvin for $18,000, including tax, title and license fees. Shelvin wrote a check for $1,649 to the state Department of Public Safety to pay for Durham's fees, but the check bounced, and on June 9 Durham was notified by the department that because the taxes and fees had not been paid her commercial driver's license would be suspended.

"In order to clear that up, I had to clear up the tax, title and license and then pay the [$60] fee to reinstate my driver's license," Durham says. She also could not drive her bus for a week, losing out on about $200. On Sept. 28, Durham filed a small claims petition against Shelvin, asking for $4,500.

"In addition to that, within four months of purchasing the vehicle, the air conditioning went out, the heater went out, the speedometer went out," Durham says. "I'm assuming these problems were already in the making." By that time, the dealership had closed.

Durham says she tried repeatedly to contact Shelvin before filing suit and says he'd often say he was in a meeting and would call right back. "He said, 'Drop something off at my [city-parish council] office, and I'll get back with you.' But there was no return [phone call]."

Durham hopes a judgment by the court will get her in line to collect. "I'm pretty sure his judgments are against the city-parish council check," she says. "That's the only check per se he is receiving, kind of like employment. If anything is to be garnished it will probably come out of that check, if he's not already paying the maximum allowed by the state," she says.

The state did garnish Shelvin's salary, but not to satisfy any of the aforementioned civil judgments. In 2002 the state increased his child support to $608 a month, plus a 5 percent administrative fee, and issued an immediate Income Assignment Order. That means each month $638 comes out of his city-parish council pay to support his daughter from a prior relationship. That's about 30 percent of his $25,480 annual council salary.

Durham, 28, will not give up until she gets her money. "Trust me, I'm trying," she says. "It's rough, but I'm trying."

Growing up, Brandon Shelvin attended the Holy Family Catholic School, J.W. Faulk, St. Antoine Elementary and Lafayette Middle School. He graduated from Delcambre High School, and his council biography notes that he graduated with honors, in the top of his class. For two years, he majored in microbiology at LSU and then "went on to complete the J.M. & A School of Finance and Insurance," according to the bio. The Independent Weekly was unable to find such a school online but did locate a Web site for the JM&A Group, a privately held company that helps retail auto dealers with insurance and finance products.

Meanwhile, the community waits and watches as important council duties resume next week. Shelvin, who represents the downtown area, is the chief liaison with bar owners over the levy that was instituted to provide a Lafayette police security detail Thursday through Saturday nights. He has proposed an ordinance to eliminate the levy.

The council is also studying the implications of a potential deconsolidation of city and parish governments, while demands for competent LPUA management oversight of our community's billion dollar asset grow inexorably as LUS competes in the complex world of public utilities and fiber to the home. We are also facing a shrinking tax base, with the local economy continuing to contract.

Lafayette's urgent need of wise, ethical council leadership has never been greater.

[Editor's Note: In addition to our repeated requests to discuss our findings with him, Brandon Shelvin was also urged to speak to us by one of his fellow councilmen and a high-ranking city official he contacted to express his concerns about the story. That's not to say Shelvin has not been in touch with us. After learning that an Independent Weekly editor, in reporting the story, had been talking to his neighbors, both at his former residence on St. Bernadette and at his current Monarch Drive home, Shelvin called The Independent on two occasions. He asked that his comments be off the record. We honored that. He did, however, have this to say to one of our editors in the last communication we had with him, without the stipulation that the comment be kept off the record: "When you mess with a man's family, things can happen, bro."]