Cover Story

O, Charlie!

by Walter Pierce

**Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

Neither saint nor sinner, Broussard Mayor Charlie Langlinais is seeking re-election amid accusations he uses his political office for personal gain.**

Charlie Langlinais is having trouble with his computer, trying to get a fix on a radar image of the Louisiana coast where, on this cloudy Thursday afternoon, he hopes do some fishing - an unapologetic pastime the Broussard mayor practices about twice a week.


Photo illustration by Robin May and Kevin Pontiff

Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

Neither saint nor sinner, Broussard Mayor Charlie Langlinais is seeking re-election amid accusations he uses his political office for personal gain.**

Charlie Langlinais is having trouble with his computer, trying to get a fix on a radar image of the Louisiana coast where, on this cloudy Thursday afternoon, he hopes do some fishing - an unapologetic pastime the Broussard mayor practices about twice a week.

"My brother-in-law leases a camp - my good brother-in-law. In fact, I got to go help put a trolling motor on, we're going to make a little afternoon trip, but it doesn't look good," he says, referring in a breath both to the blob of green and red in the radar image over Cypremort Point and, by omission, to Jim Gondron, his opponent in the Oct. 2 election and the brother of Langlinais' wife, Carolyn.

Jim Gondron is not Charlie Langlinais' "good brother-in-law."

The two squared off in Langlinais' successful 2002 re-election bid, but the animus between them goes back further, to squabbles over property lines, rights of way and a shell road cutting through their adjacent properties - land inherited by Carolyn Langlinais and Jim Gondron.

Photo by Robin May

"Every neighborhood, you have neighbors that don't talk to each other because of fights across the fence," Langlinais says. "It's kind of like that to some extent."

But he sighs when asked to elaborate on the bad blood with his brother-in-law. Then he chuckles.

"I could tell you for the next five minutes his real issues, but I mean I don't want to be negative about anybody or anything," Langlinais says, his tone sobering. "But just ask yourself the question, why would a brother-in-law run against a brother-in-law?"

Photo by Robin May

Jim Gondron's beef with Charlie Langlinais goes back beyond 2002 when he lost a close race to unseat the incumbent mayor.

It is said with only slight hyperbole that Charlie Langlinais built the city of Broussard. His hometown was there before he was born, but it was a quiet, agricultural hamlet for most of its civic life - a center for sugarcane farming and refining. It has grown exponentially in the 20 years since he became mayor. And the way it has grown, through often circuitous annexations that have been designed to grab frontage along busy thoroughfares, especially Highway 90 into St. Martin Parish, effectively blocking neighboring Youngsville from a cut of the 90 action, has riled a generation of politicos.

Langlinais has marshalled the resources of his city to extend services to those newly annexed areas to lure in new business, and to cut new roads through former cane fields to attract even more enterprise. Now, Broussard residents don't need to drive to Lafayette to see a movie or shop at a big-box retailer or home improvement store, get their tires rotated or decide between Mexican and Italian restaurants. It's all there in Broussard, with more to come now that Ambassador South is open.

But driving along Ambassador and Albertson Parkway, which now connect Highway 90 to Lafayette, one notices signs for a real estate company, Broussard-Cote Gelee, that stand alone on the wide open acreage that will some day be prime commercial corridors. And on those big white and green signs is a telephone number for interested developers to call - Charlie Langlinais' number. Charlie Langlinais' cell phone number. And that's raising not only eyebrows, but the suspicion that Langlinais is using the office of mayor to pad his pockets.

"I've been involved with real estate development for my entire life," the mayor counters. "I've represented three or four families for probably 30, 35 years - everything from leases and virtually everything, as a land man. That's really my background - I'm a land man by trade. I got my real estate broker's license, O, God, 15 years ago because cousins, out-of-town cousins, wanted to develop their property, and they did it, and I handled it, et cetera. So, that's really why I got the license."

In fact, it's not a violation of the state ethics code for a mayor to do real estate transactions in his city. In the majority of Louisiana municipalities the job of mayor is part time. Most of them have side jobs or full-time jobs. Langlinais is no exception.

"The bottom line is I'm a part-time mayor, I have rental properties, I sell real estate on the side," he says. "Virtually every mayor in the state of Louisiana has a full-time job. Do they expect us to just work for nothing? I'm sorry they feel that way, but my background is I'm a land man and been in development for 35 years. I got my real estate license 15 years ago to do it right."

Even if one wanted to, determining how many commercial real estate transactions Langlinais is party to is next to impossible: Agents/brokers may choose to forego membership in both the Multiple Listing Service - a mostly residential database the real estate industry uses to compile properties for sale - and the Louisiana Commercial Database; and there's no requirement that an agent or broker be listed on a bill of sale recorded at the clerk of court's office. Staying out of public scrutiny is definitely do-able.

"Those who like to keep everything to themselves, even though they're members, can just get a seller to say, Look, I don't want an MLS.' Put up the sign, market it," explains Dewitt David, commercial real estate manager at Van Eaton & Romero. "It's a real challenge we have to get comparative data, or to get any data for that matter."

But, David adds, "A lot of these firms don't want to belong to MLS because they say, Hey, I don't want to deal with this mound of paperwork that's required every time I list a property or sell it.' Some people just say, Hey, I don't want to fool with it.' You've got some commercial firms here who don't belong for that very reason. They're not trying to hide anything; they just don't want to screw with the paper work. Their sign's up, and they know eventually the buyer's going to find them."

Langlinais isn't shy about using his job as mayor to promote his real estate business.

Langlinais' most recent financial disclosure form notarized on July 15 and submitted to the ethics board shows that he makes $59,000 a year as mayor. His earnings from real estate transactions fall into the board's Category II classification: $5,000 to $24,999 per year.
(Candidates are only required to report income ranges.)

Langlinais is unwilling to say how much he makes on the land deals. "It's nobody's business," he says. "I'm just saying to you, it's not my main bread and butter." (The mayor did reveal off the record how much he made last year on real estate transactions; the figure he cited is much closer to the low end of Category II.)

"My main bread and butter is land work and rental properties," he adds.

Langlinais' disclosure form shows that his earnings from rental properties - he says he owns "15 to 18" residential rental units in Broussard - fall into Category III: $25,000 to $100,000 annually. That same form reveals his land holdings to be worth more than $100,000.

"He's slick," insists Gondron. "He's like a coyote - he covers his tracks."

Although Gondron's assessment is pervasive among Langlinais' detractors, not everyone agrees.

"He's been great for Broussard," says Tex Plumley, president of Billeaud Companies, a prominent developer in south Lafayette Parish that enjoys a solid relationship with Broussard city government. Billeaud Companies has significant land holdings in the Broussard area, and the company routinely donates rights of way to Broussard for new development.

Plumley acknowledges that Langlinais may "walk a fine line" when it comes to non-mayoral business dealings, but he says Langlinais has never used his position as mayor to wrangle any deals.

Langlinais says the Ambassador extension and Albertson Parkway
are part of a growth master plan he envisioned 20 years ago.

Three hundred yards northeast of the Langlinais home, which faces La. 82 leading into Broussard, Jim Gondron sits in a recliner in what is his de facto campaign headquarters - a dark, musky den in his home filled floor to ceiling with the marble-eyed emanations of his hobby, taxidermy, and boxes of the campaign brochures he has been passing out to residents in a door-to-door campaign that, in a Louisiana August, would test the most virile politician. It's a thankful, rainy morning, and if the clouds break, he'll head out into the steam to bring his message of responsible growth and improving services in Broussard. Gondron is nothing if not determined to beat Charlie Langlinais.

"I ran a good, clean race eight years ago, and I feel 10 times better this time," he says of his political fortunes come October. Nine out of 10 residents are with him, Gondron says, and this time around, Langlinais will get more than a run for his money. "He better buy votes or go to the graveyard for votes," Gondron boasts. "Everyday, I'm getting people that want him out. It's unbelievable."

With a wad of Skoal tucked into his lower lip and a Campbell's Soup can doubling as spittoon, Gondron seethes about his opponent, an aspersion always near at hand: "I've known him all my life; my ethics and morals are completely different than his - night and day."

Bad blood or not, Gondron is running on a campaign to improve water quality and drainage in Broussard, to build more parks, increase fire and police protection, make government more transparent and to improve relations with neighboring communities, an unsubtle reference to the land battles that have erupted in council chambers and court rooms among Broussard, Lafayette and Youngsville over annexations.

Last year the Gondrons - wife Becky is the town clerk in Youngsville - sent an envelope of photos and other documentation to the state Ethics Administration purporting to prove that Langlinais had used city services for tree-cutting and a bridge replacement on his private property, which adjoins their spread to the rear.

The would-be mayor references those jobs and other perceived (and real?) slights obliquely in campaign literature he passes out to prospective supporters: "Situations where approximately $70,000 have been spent on private property to enhance and facilitate a personal endeavor and tagged as a city project will not occur on my watch. A private citizen should not have to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees in an effort to preserve and protect their property and privacy from this type of incident which disrupted lives and violated all that had been worked for over the years."

The Gondrons and other anonymous sources also accuse Langlinais of intimidating city employees into spending their Fridays canvassing neighborhoods for his re-election campaign, a charge Langlinais flatly dismisses.

"I'm not making anybody canvas or campaign on their time off; it's really a voluntary effort," Langlinais says. "What I know he's saying is they're doing it on city time. Friday is their day off."

Langlinais instituted a four-day, 10-hour per day work week a couple of years ago, initially as a cost-cutting measure. But he says it's proven to be more efficient and city employees love it. That, he says, may account for their inclination to knock on some doors on his behalf. "They're lucky. Let's face it, if you worked only four days a week, 10-hour days, wouldn't you like to work for those people?

Think about it. Ideally. Most of my guys are in construction, so they're tickled pink. There's some people that work for us for that reason alone - because they got a three-day weekend every weekend."

"They're happy with their job; they get paid well for what they do," he adds. "I've got very, very talented people, and nobody's forced or even asked [to campaign]. If they don't want to do it that's fine. I got no problem with that."

That's not to say Langlinais has always been on the proverbial up-and-up as mayor. In February 2000 he was stung by a legislative auditor's report finding that he and the then-street supervisor had received private services from a town vendor, purchased top soil from the town pit and had access to un-metered town water service. The audit led to charges against Langlinais by the ethics board, which, after an investigation, fined him $250. (Langlinais faced up to a $10,000 fine, but citing his cooperation in the investigation, the board reduced the fine to a slap on the wrist.)

"How he got out of that, I don't know," chuckles former Mayor Leroy Miguez, whom Langlinais defeated in 1990 to win his first term.
For some, like the Gondrons, Langlinais will never live it down.

"It's like his attitude is, I'm going to do what I want to do and nobody get in the way," Becky Gondron says of Langlinais. "He doesn't care who he steps on."

The Gondrons say they got the run-around from the ethics board, which punted the case to the state attorney general's office, which in turn lost track of the evidence.

"I talked to one guy [at the attorney general's office] who told me, O, you're going to have to vote him out of office,'" Becky Gondron says. "He kind of made a joke out of it."

Jim Gondron reserves his ire for the ethics board: "They ain't been doing jack shit over there for years; they're the ones who need to be investigated."

Charlie Langlinais, meanwhile, goes about the business of growing Broussard into a commercial powerhouse, realizing a master plan he says he envisioned two decades ago.

"Albertson Parkway, Caffery, are all part of a strategy that I developed," he says with ready pride. "It was all part of an economic development plan that I visualized 20 years ago. I kind of figured out what would be our most opportune development areas, and we put infrastructure based on that."

Langlinais doesn't shy away from using his job title as a promotional tool either. An ad on the website bears a photo of the mayor with the quote, "My knowledge of where Broussard has been & where it's going can ensure your development is in the right place at the right time." It's signed, "Charles Langlinais, Mayor of Broussard."

Langlinais' predecessor, Miguez, attributes Langlinais' success in part to taking office on the back end of the oil bust - a rebound was inevitable. Miguez says monthly sales tax collection dipped to as low as $18,000 toward the late '80s, forcing layoffs of town employees; now sales taxes fill city coffers to the tune of $1 million per month. And Broussard's city budget, which was about $600,000 annually when Langlinais was elected, has exploded to roughly $14 million.

Broussard's population, too, has blossomed on Langlinais' watch - from about 3,200 in 1990 to more than 8,000 today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Broussard has frequently led all cities in the state in the growth of both population and commercial development during Langlinais' tenure.

"I had always said if the economy comes back, Broussard will be number one in the parish, and it happened that way," says Miguez, who actually bested Langlinais in the three-man primary in 1990 but lost the runoff 51-49 percent. "He was in the right place at the right time."
And he hasn't looked back; Langlinais has won four re-election bids since unseating Miguez, and says he "feels better than I ever felt before" heading into the Oct. 2 election against Gondron.

It's an attitude - not quite swagger but beyond confidence - that rubs some the wrong way. In fact, in 2002 Gondron beat Langlinais 45 to 42 percent in the October primary. (A third candidate, J.P. Morgan, came in a distant last with 13 percent of the vote, throwing his support to Gondron for the runoff.) But the incumbent won the runoff 53 to 47 percent.

"Actually I think I was behind by 30 votes in the primary, and I came back and beat him by about 160 votes or something like that," Langlinais recalls. "But really what happened there was all my people stayed home [for the primary]. They said, Well, Charlie's got it made, there's no reason to go vote.' And so what we did was we phonne banked that second election."

Four years later Langlinais easily bested Mark Ste. Marie, and he expects to do the same against his brother-in-law in October.

In fact, about the only thing Charlie Langlinais is sweating these days is whether Mother Nature will put the kibosh on his next fishing trip.