Last week's release of the new appraisal of attorney Jimmy Davidson's Girard Park Drive property — confirmation it's worth less than half the $3.25 million the university planned to pay for it in the horse farm land swap — seemed to have put the contentious year-long ordeal out of its misery. The Independent Weekly's public records lawsuit against the university discovered UL Lafayette President Ray Authement had called off the deal with the respective parties in mid-June, so the potential $4 million graft was averted ($2.12 million loss on the horse farm and $1.75 million on the Davidson land).
However, the lawsuit also uncovered that a lead state investigator had been alerted to the suspicious transaction in November 2005.
Through a public records request filed with the Board of Supervisors for the UL System, which had approved the land swap in August 2005, The Independent Weekly learned that State Inspector General Sharon Robinson called a Dec. 20, 2005 meeting with board representatives to discuss a complaint she received from a Lafayette resident about the proposed swap. The meeting, however, was canceled when Robinson says she was informed that new appraisals on both the Johnston Street horse farm and Davidson property had been ordered by UL System General Counsel Kay Kirkpatrick on Dec. 7. On that day, Kirkpatrick wrote a letter to attorney Linda Law Clark, who works with universities to ensure their legal issues comply with the system's policies, that also questioned whether the initial valuation of the horse farm might have resulted in a donation of state property, which is against the law. (The university has yet to follow through on Kirkpatrick's request for that new appraisal of the horse farm, choosing only to fund the Davidson appraisal.)
The inspector general, whose office works to prevent waste, abuse, fraud and corruption in state government, now tells The Independent Weekly she is taking another look at the complaint in light of the new Davidson property value. "I can't tell you I'm going to open a case," Robinson says, "but I will revisit the documents that we received before and determine if it's necessary to open the case."
Robinson would not say who filed the complaint, but Lafayette resident Kolleen Bowen Verlander says she sent a series of property appraisals to both Robinson's office and the state Attorney General's office last year asking them how Davidson's family property could be worth more than any other land in the vicinity of Girard Park. "As a member of Save the Horse Farm group, I sent a packet with appraisals from the neighborhood and information on the deal, including news articles and a personal letter, asking them to look into this," says Verlander, who last Friday was visited by Robinson. Verlander says the IG characterized the visit as an "unofficial inquiry."
Inspector General Robinson's fact-finding mission isn't the only intriguing development to emerge from The Independent Weekly's successful public records lawsuit against UL President Ray Authement. Public records requests made in support of the legal action and deposition testimony paint a picture of a desperate property seller, a high-ranking UL official and Authement confidante who appears to be more loyal to his cronies than his employer, state officials trying to protect an unwritten policy that violates the Public Records Law ' and a respected local appraiser, Lane Godshall, caught in the crossfire.
But most disturbing is that the university president refuses to wash his hands of this tainted property. He is still pursuing the Davidson family land, insisting on obtaining yet another appraisal that ostensibly would bring the value more in line with the inflated price tag placed on it more than two years ago.
Authement was quoted last week by The Daily Advertiser saying he's not sure what price Davidson, his friend and a member of the University Foundation's Board of Trustees, will accept for his property. "I'm not sure at what price he'd let it go," Authement said.
He's unsure because he's never asked Davidson. Authement testified that he has not gone to Davidson to negotiate a better deal for the university.
Among the most telling records obtained by The Independent in the course of the lawsuit was a press release Authement prepared about the findings of the recently-obtained Godshall appraisal. The release was drafted before the state's Facility Planning and Control office invoked its unwritten, long-standing policy of not releasing such appraisals, saying all are prepared "in anticipation of litigation." Facility Planning is an office of the state's Division of Administration, the entity Kirkpatrick requested recommend an independent appraiser.
In the news release, titled "University May Ask for Additional Appraisal," Authement laid out his case for ordering yet another valuation of Davidson's property. Despite balking at paying for the additional appraisals Kirkpatrick requested, Authement was more than willing to pay for another new appraisal. "In 2003, the university employed the services of a very reputable MAI Real Estate Consultant, George Parker, and his appraisal valued the land and improvements at [$3.25 million], which was in line with the opinions of other local real estate professionals when Lafayette General considered acquiring this property," the university president said.
Though insisting in his deposition he hadn't discussed the Godshall value with Davidson, 77-year-old Authement, who serves on Lafayette General Medical Center's Board of Trustees, cited from memory documents from the late 1990s that supported a much higher value for the land. He said the documents were presented to the hospital. He said those estimates valued the land alone, without the homes, at nearly $2.5 million in 1998 and the two homes on the property at just more than $1 million. "So, until now, there's been some consistency in the numbers," he said in the press release.
Several LGMC board members contacted by The Independent Weekly say the hospital's never had any real interest in Davidson's Girard Park Drive property and can't remember ever seeing any written valuations of the property. Authement testified those estimates are likely in Davidson's possession and said he had no knowledge of Davidson verbally offering the property to the hospital for $850,000, a figure cited by one board member.
"Whether it was a formal appraisal or not, there were documents ... from Herbert Heymann and others," Authement testified. "What I'm saying there is that these figures are very, very clear. I knew them well. And that's why I didn't think the Davidson property was overpriced. There was a particular document from [homebuilder] Mike Thompson that put the value of the homes." Authement also testified that he saw appraisal documents prepared by Lafayette appraiser Gene Cope.
The university was going to buy Davidson's 4.1 acres in exchange for 36 acres of its horse farm — both valued at $3.25 million.
Cope confirms he valued only Davidson's house and the 1.5 acres it rests on about 10 years ago for Davidson himself. Cope could not recall specifics of the valuation or why Davidson wanted it and said he would not release it to anyone but his client; like Parker, Cope has done expropriation work with attorney Davidson for years.
Imagine Davidson's reaction to the independent appraisal. He thought he was getting $3.25 million for property he learns is valued at less than half that amount almost three years later ' a time span that has seen property values in Lafayette skyrocket.
"He called several times wanting a copy of the appraisal ... or wanting to know the value, which I said, 'I can't give you. You're not my client of record,'" Godshall testified. "God, he was really mad," added the appraiser, explaining that the most heated exchange took place after the appraisal was in the hands of the state and Davidson came to know the value. "He said, 'If this value gets out, I will sue your ass.'" Godshall, who has three decades of experience in his field, took an entire month to complete the appraisal because of the controversy surrounding the then-proposed swap.
Harold Lambert, a local real estate developer, broker and appraiser, was among a large contingency of local professionals questioning the original $3.25 million price tag and sees no problems with Godshall's follow-up appraisal. "If Authement gets another appraisal from anyone worth his salt, it's going to come in where Lane's came in. It's sound; it's logical."
As is often customary, Davidson gave Godshall a tour of the property, bringing him through the two homes and to the "industrial site," the back portion of the residentially-zoned property Davidson's family has used for years to manufacture plastics ("Horse Play," Oct. 19). Godshall said he did not share any information on the figures in his report with Davidson, and it is unclear how the local attorney came to know the value in the appraisal.
The appraisal document was picked up from the Facility Planning office in Baton Rouge by Dr. Wayne Denton ' the university official who introduced the idea of the horse farm land swap to Authement sometime in 2004.
Facility Planning's administrative director, Denise Marrero, testified that the envelope was sealed with tape when she handed it to Denton, who walked away from Marrero for a moment and then returned to her desk. "It was sealed; he came back and asked me to put further tape on the envelope," she said.
Other records obtained by The Independent indicate that the board did seek some supporting evidence of Parker's appraisal, but it was Denton who was instructed to gather the information. The UL official turned to real estate appraiser Cope, a close associate of Davidson's, to study Parker's 2003 appraisal and assess the impact increasing land values might have on it.
In a Sept. 8, 2005 letter, Cope (who was called in only as a consultant and did not actually appraise the property for the university) said that land values had increased at least 10 percent since Parker's appraisal, a factor that would have boosted the value to about $3.6 million.
Denton wasted no time getting that opinion to the UL System. In a fax to system staff member Doug Lee the following day, Denton wrote: "As requested, the following is a more definitive current value on the Davidson property estimating an increase of $325,000 in value since the 2003 appraisal. However, we will, of course, continue to use the [$3.25 million] value in the documents Linda [Law Clark] is preparing."
To get the horse farm acreage up to that $3.25 million value, university officials said it would take 36 acres, but the deal called for 6 acres to be returned to the university by the developers, Dan Menard and Jerry Brents. The university has never explained this oddity.
"We have done this so correctly. Everything is above board," Denton said in an Oct. 7, 2005, interview.
Denton also originally told The Independent the horse farm had been appraised as commercial land because the university was seeking to rezone it for Menard and Brents' retail development, but that statement was false ' the university planned on selling the property at a much lower residential valuation. When it was re-evaluated on Dec. 1 as commercial property by Russ Wilson, the appraiser the university originally retained to value it, the price went up more than $2 million, prompting Kirkpatrick's request for independent appraisals.
However, e-mail correspondence from Marrero's office indicates the state's growing suspicion even before Wilson's update (both Marrero and her boss testified they, too, thought the equal values were questionable), but Marrero was asking that 24.24 acres, not the 36 acres proposed in the trade, be re-appraised. The discrepancy did not escape appraiser John C. Doiron of Baton Rouge, who responded to Marrero in a Nov. 18, 2005, e-mail: "Please note that the acreage in the 'horse farm' appraisal is different from the size cited in the newspaper articles you provided."
Doiron did not conduct the appraisals because he had a potential "conflict of interest," according to e-mail correspondence between the UL System and Facility Planning. But Marrero continued to use the 24.24 acres when seeking quotes from other real estate professionals; Godshall was the only appraiser who agreed to do the work.
Since ordering the independent appraisals in December, representatives for the UL System and its board of supervisors have been silent, and they plan to maintain that posture. "We understand from Dr. Authement that the university has withdrawn the proposed land exchange. Hence, no further action by the Board of Supervisors is necessary," says Bradley O'Hara, the system's associate provost and vice president of student affairs.
Should she decide to move forward, IG Robinson will discover that the deal was brought to Authement by Denton, who wanted to help his friend Menard get his hands on the horse farm property (though Denton claimed last year he did not know Menard was involved when real estate developer Tommy Vervaeke told him of a group's interest in the horse farm). Much to their disillusionment, Denton and Menard, who were close to Walter Comeaux's administration, couldn't ramrod the rezoning measure through the current administration. The parties to the land swap also abysmally underestimated the power of two passionate young UL students who formed the Save the Horse Farm group and rallied the community behind an effort to preserve the raw acreage. Those efforts continue, with the organization meeting weekly to explore potential revenue sources to purchase the 100-acre horse farm ' with a goal of one day converting it into a city park with bike trails and other passive recreational opportunities for all residents.
Robinson would also find that attorney Davidson and appraiser Parker were way too close for the university's best interests to be served ' and that perhaps Authement and Davidson, who has coached the UL ski team since 1995, are too cozy for the same reason. Menard's partner, Brents, is member emeritus of the UL Foundation's Board of Trustees, where Davidson was president in the late 1980s and continues to serve to this day.
Authement confirmed in his deposition that it was Davidson who drew up the property exchange agreement that was presented to the board, auspicious documents that would have allowed Davidson and his family members to stay on the property rent-free for up to two years, a violation of the UL System board's own public bid rules. In the agreement, the university also waived its rights to ever hold Davidson liable for any known or hidden defects in the property ' residential property that at the time included a plastics manufacturing business. Authement tried to keep the deal under wraps, initially misleading local media by not disclosing the proposed exchange.
What no autopsy of this dead horse farm exchange will ever uncover is why Ray Authement put his stellar reputation on the line for this sham and continues to advocate a position that is clearly not in the best interest of the university and taxpayers who support it.
After receiving the Godshall appraisal, Authement called off the deal in a mid-June meeting at his office with Denton, Davidson, Menard and Brents present, but he didn't publicly confirm its dissolution until a month later ' nearly a year after the swap quietly won the UL System board's approval and was well on its way to consummation.
Because he's devoted all of his efforts to acquiring Davidson's land, Authement missed recent opportunities to buy property in the Girard Park area at a fraction of the cost of the Davidson family land, including the late Francis Mouton's family property at 234 Girard Park Circle. Contiguous with the university, the 1.42 acre site and home were purchased by Jim and Penny McGehee in July 2005 for $210,000, according to records in the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court's office.
In his Aug. 31 deposition and since that time, Authement maintains his interest in the Davidson property, which is not connected to UL's main campus. "It's directly across the street from Girard Park. It's close to Lafayette General, where we have an interest in our nursing program. It's on the opposite end of the street where the foundation and the museum is located. And I've always said that we would like to acquire other properties that may become available 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now for the growth of the university. So it's for all those reasons."
HORSE FARM LAND SWAP DEAL TIMELINE
Aug. 26 UL System Board approves deal to swap 36 acres of horse farm for 4.1 acres of Davidson family property on Girard Park Drive, both valued at $3.25 million
Sept. 7 UL applies to rezone 36 acres of horse farm land from residential to commercial
Sept. 9 UL official Wayne Denton faxes letter from appraiser Gene Cope to UL System; Cope estimates Davidson property has increased 10 percent since first Parker appraisal in December 2003, bringing its value to $3.6 million
Sept. 28 Independent Weekly breaks story of rezoning effort; university officials don't return calls for comment
Oct. 5 Daily Advertiser publishes story about university selling horse farm land for property closer to campus; Authement does not reveal that swap has been approved and is under way
Oct. 7 University officials issue press release revealing some details of the previously secretive swap
Dec. 5 Zoning Commission denies university's request to rezone horse farm for commercial development; measure heads to council for a vote
Dec. 7 In an editorial, The Independent calls for Authement to kill the deal and exposes concessions the university has made in the transaction that favor property owner Davidson
Dec. 7 UL System Board attorney asks state Division of Administration to recommend "independent" appraisers for horse farm and Davidson properties after amended appraisal reveals horse farm property is worth $2.12 million more than the $3.25 million in the swap
Dec. 8 UL Physical Plant Director Bill Crist writes letter to DOA's Facility Planning and Control saying Authement believes he has already satisfied the board's requirements for the transaction and will not pay for another appraisal
Dec. 15 Crist now says Authement will pay for horse farm appraisal but not Davidson valuation because the Davidsons are out of town. "He does not want this to take place until they return," Crist tells FP&C's Denise Marrero. "As soon as he receives their approval, he will authorize that work."
Feb. 23 University yanks rezoning request (an irritated Crist tells Marrero that Authement pulled the request because new appraisals had not yet been ordered by her office)
April 5 Crist tells Marrero to proceed with Davidson appraisal first
April 24 FP&C contracts Lafayette appraiser Lane Godshall to value the Davidson land
May 31 FP&C receives Godshall appraisal
June 8 UL's Crist asks if he can send someone to BR to pick up appraisal
June 9 Denton drives to Baton Rouge to pick up appraisal
June 13 Independent Weekly requests new appraisal from Authement
June 14 University spokeswoman says press release with findings from appraisal, along with university's "next steps," is being prepared
June 15-16 Authement summons parties to land swap to his office and calls off the deal
June 19 University denies public records request, invoking FP&C's long-standing, unwritten policy of keeping appraisals from public under the guise they are all ordered "in anticipation of litigation." (The university claims it may one day expropriate the Davidson property.)
June 30 Independent Weekly files suit against Authement's office for appraisal
July 10 Authement confirms to Daily Advertiser that horse farm land swap is off
Aug. 23 Independently Weekly reports that Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel asks Authement for first right of refusal on horse farm; Authement verbally agrees. Says Durel, "He said he'd talk to us before he does anything."
Sept. 11 State District Judge Ed Rubin rules in favor of The Independent Weekly and says appraisal is a public record
Sept. 18 Independent Weekly gets Godshall appraisal valuing Davidson property at $1.5 million
Sept. 19 Authement tells Daily Advertiser he wants another new appraisal of Davidson property