Cravins' foes go for jugular

by Leslie Turk

Reggie Tatum wasted no time retaliating against the person he thinks was responsible for removing him as mayor pro tem of Opelousas.

Reggie Tatum wasted no time retaliating against the person he thinks was responsible for removing him as mayor pro tem of Opelousas after Tatum blew the whistle on questionable city contracts.

On Friday District Judge Donald Hebert reinstated Tatum as mayor pro tem, saying a revised June 14 meeting agenda failed to adequately alert Tatum of a discussion and vote on his removal. It was Mayor Donald Cravins Sr. who asked to add the item to the agenda, and Cravins who broke the tie vote to remove him. Actually aldermen Julius Alsandor, Louis Butler Jr. and Jacqueline Martin voted for Tatum's removal, and the three remaining aldermen (yes, there are six) abstained.

Tatum's return to the post was a political blow to the former state senator turned mayor, but Tatum wasn't done after Friday's ruling. He teamed up with three of Cravins' other adversaries, state Sen. Elbert Guillory (whom Cravins now says he may oppose this fall), state Rep. Rickey Hardy and Opelousas Alderman at Large Joe Charles in asking U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley to investigate the city in the wake of a troubling state legislative audit of its operations and those of the Opelousas Housing Authority. The audit is already in the hands of DA Earl Taylor and the state attorney general.

"We have identified a pattern of illegal behavior for both governmental units and involving many of the same persons, with the same person directly in control," the four men, who make up a self-appointed task force looking into problems with the local housing authority, write in a letter to Finley. The housing authority is already under federal investigation.

The task force expanded its scope after the state legislative auditor released a compliance audit of the city's operations earlier this month. "All of the audits and investigations reach the same conclusion: Opelousas City Government and the Opelousas Housing Authority have become dominated by illegal practices, driven by politics that are costly to taxpayers," they added.

The task force members reiterate troubling findings of the legislative auditor's report on the city, including felony theft of scrap metal sales, a common practice by the mayor of granting fee waivers for city workers and friends to use public buildings, bid law violations, lack of a competitive selection process for contracts and no written contracts detailing the duties of several people receiving monthly retainers.

The task force, however, says it has identified problems the state auditors missed, including a no-bid contract awarded to Tibberly Richard to develop a website for the city. "After several months of payments and no work, the [aldermen] rescinded the contract and directed the City Attorney to recover the funds. The aldermen also discovered that someone else built the website," they wrote. Tatum says it was he who began questioning Richard's contract, one the main reasons he fell out of favor with the mayor. Tatum says he asked a representative of the company that built the site if Richard was doing any work on the site to justify getting $800 a month. "When I told them she was getting $800 a month, they were in awe," he says. "The lady told me they had to show her how to turn on the computer."

In a phone interview with The Independent several weeks ago, Cravins said it was the city's comptroller, not he, who hired Richard for the work. Richard also was contracted to do work for the OHA, and those contracts were questioned by legislative auditors as well. The housing authority hired Richard's Vital Communications to develop and publicize what was called a "Pilot Program for Homeownership," paying the company $73,335 in monthly installments from December 2006 to October 2009. An addendum to one of two contracts with Vital indicates one was implemented retroactively, the auditors pointed out. Vital Communications also used a housing rental unit as its office - without HUD's approval.

Cravins said he had nothing to do with Richard getting the work at the city or the housing agency. "Absolutely, unequivocally never even mentioned her," he said.

Read more about the OHA audit and Richard here.

The task force also alleges that city grants and loans were made in exchange for kickbacks and maintains that an alleged victim, Cora Isaac, is willing to cooperate with federal investigators. It also claims city employees close to the mayor are paid a monthly vehicle allowance and given gas cards.

The mayor did not a return phone call seeking comment for this story.

Read the full legislative auditor's report, which investigated certain aspects of the city's operations from July 2007 to September 2010, and management's response to it here.