Any effort to reinstate three dismissed LHA board members could prompt a complete HUD takeover of the embattled agency.
Earlier this week a visiting state district judge cleared three former Lafayette Housing Authority commissioners of accusations they violated Louisiana's public meetings laws by holding an improper executive session.
The retired judge, A.J. Planchard, could not find convincing evidence that an executive session took place, despite that media members and others were asked to leave the room so that the three members, Joe Dennis, John Freeman and Leon Simmons, could hold such a session. It remains clear as mud precisely what happened after the room was cleared for the special meeting on Oct. 26.
Whatever the case, the three former board members are vowing to continue their fight to be reinstated. They were removed for a second time last year by City-Parish President Joey Durel in large part because of the alleged open-meetings violation. The City-Parish Council upheld their initial dismissal, which was prompted by a troubling audit of the LHA, and they appealed to state District Judge Ed Rubin. Rubin reinstated them, saying their dismissal was arbitrary and capricious because another commissioner, Donald Fuselier, was allowed to remain on the board.
Council Chairman Kenneth Boudreaux, who had postponed the second appeal to the council pending the outcome of the court hearing, has since scheduled the appeal for March 1. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has refused to allow the commissioners to serve while the appeals process moves forward, but there have been more than subtle indications that HUD is frustrated with the process and may finally be poised to assume total control of the embattled agency, which has been under federal investigation for months. Sources close to the housing authority confirm that two FBI agents were in the office Thursday, assertively questioning Human Resources Director Lydia Bergeron.
HUD has been on site at the LHA since October and is in the final stage of hiring a new executive director to replace Walter Guillory, who resigned amid state and federal investigations prompted by the audit. HUD monitor Dan Rodriguz has been acting as interim ED.
"They are getting really close on the ED position," says HUD spokeswoman Patricia Campbell. "I don't have an exact day, but that process if very close to finalization."
Campbell, who returned The Independent Weekly's calls placed to HUD Regional Director of Public Housing Justin Ormsby and Rodriguez, would not directly address the question of whether HUD will put the LHA in receivership - which is a complete takeover that would remove the entire board - if the commissioners are reinstated by the council or again by a judge. "What I can tell you is that first of all the city council is going to have their meeting to make a final determination, so we will be waiting until that happens," Campbell says. "But if the board members are reinstated, at that point HUD will make a decision on the best course of action so the that the housing authority will have the best opportunity to be successful in the future and avoid the problems it has had in the past. And that's what I can tell you."