Friday, November 22, 2013

Kenner Councilwoman DeFranchesch Defends Mayor Yenni’s No-Bid Contracts

At the last Kenner City Council meeting, the Council approved over $600,000 in non-emergency, no-bid  professional services contracts at the request of Mayor Mike Yenni.

The two companies that received the contracts, Digital Imaging & Engineering and Harman Engineering, both contributed the maximum amount allowed by law to Mayor Yenni’s campaign, and also contributed to each of the 7 Kenner City Councilmen including almost $5,000 to Councilwoman DeFranchesch’s campaign account.

Last year, the Kenner City Council unanimously approved allowing Kenner voters to vote on a charter change which would allow council oversight and public comment on all no-bid professional services contracts valued at over $100,000. The vote was approved by a 70%-30% margin.

The contributions to Mayor Yenni and the council were not disclosed at the council meeting and none of the councilmen in attendance (Councilman Kent Denapolis was not present at the meeting and Councilwoman Jeannie Black walked out of the council chambers during one of the votes) abstained from votes that directly benefited the companies that contributed money to their campaigns.

And, despite the charter change, except for a couple of questions from District 2 Councilman Joe Stagni regarding the selection process, there was no discussion from the council regarding the qualifications of the winning bidders, the price involved in the contracts, or the fact that both contracts were given to two different companies for work at the same location.

In addition, Fox 8 and have done an excellent job discussing issues with Jefferson Parish contractors who contribute Millions of dollars to the campaigns of Parish councilmen and, in return, receive lucrative no-bid professional services contract.

In May of 2012, the Bureau of Governmental Research issued a scathing report regarding Jefferson Parish’s contract selection process.

Until the Fall of 2011, price was considered in the Parish’s contract evaluation process. However, District councilmen were still given wide latitude to select any vendor they wished regardless of the score given to the contractor by the Evaluation Committee.

While agreeing that price should not be the only consideration, BGR stated that price should be a factor.

“Price is not necessarily the most important factor for selecting services that depend on technical or specialized skills. But the inclusion of non-price considerations results in a more subjective process – and the potential for favoritism, waste and abuse.”  

Jefferson Parish President John Young agreed.

In a article, Young said:

“I asked the Parish Attorney to draft an ordinance placing price back in the equation. Though price shouldn’t be the sole determining factor, it should be a factor to be considered.”

Young also said that, when the Parish was recommending a vendor that was not the lowest-priced vendor, his staff would include a letter stating why the lowest-bidder was not selected.

“I requested my people to put that in writing in the resolution (to explain) why we didn’t go with the low-bid process.”

“In public bids, the contract must be given to the lowest responsible bidder. But when hiring professionals, like engineers and attorneys, the council can select anybody regardless of price or the rankings by evaluating committees.”

The Editorial Board also endorsed another recommendation from BGR: including price as a factor in the selection process.

“The parish also should include cost as part of its evaluation process, and cost should also be an important factor in selecting the firms. As of now, price is not required to be a factor at all, meaning taxpayers are often paying more than they should for services. Indeed, almost every professional contract that local governments have recently opened for competition has led to savings.”

At last night’s Kenner City Council meeting, Councilwoman DeFranchesch took to the microphone to defend Mayor Yenni and the council’s decision to award the two non-emergency, no-bid professional services contracts.

Citing state law and the Federal Brooks Act, DeFranchesch, reading from a prepared statement despite the fact that it was on the council agenda as a “discussion” item, said that she wanted to clear up “confusion regarding whether these contracts should be put out for bid.”

Despite it being a "discussion" item, there was no discussion from any council member expect for DeFranchesch. 

The state law, which has been amended several times since its introduction in 2006 (most recently in 2012 to allow the Port of New Orleans to include price in their professional service contract evaluations), states:

“It is the policy of the state of Louisiana, its political subdivisions, and agencies to select providers of design professional services on the basis of competence and qualifications for a fair and reasonable price. Neither the state nor any of its political subdivisions or agencies may select providers of design services wherein price or price-related information is a factor in the selection.”

And that makes perfect sense.

You don’t always want the lowest-priced vendor. However, you do want the most qualified vendor that you can afford and who will provide the best value for your constituents.

The Brooks Act cited by Councilwoman DeFranchesch, is a law specifically related to Federal contracts and has no applicability to local bodies like the City of Kenner.

The Brooks Act does describe a process whereby firms should be selected.

That process was parroted several times by Councilwoman DeFranchesch.

“Price is a secondary factor – it is negotiated after a vendor is selected,” DeFrancesch said.

“If you cannot come to an agreement that is fair with the first company (selected), you go to the second. Then, you can go to number three. You can pick up to three that is (sic) reasonable”.

So, now we’ve gone from the Top Three (which is reasonable) to the Top 13?

According to Councilwoman DeFranchesch, if the process is that you select the top rated, most qualified company and negotiate price with them, it would appear that the Top 8 companies were negotiated with and all declined to come close to the city’s estimated price.

With all of that negotiating, it’s a wonder that anything gets done in Kenner.

The reality is, there was never any negotiation between any of the companies other than Mayor Yenni telling his two campaign contributors, “I’ll give you this contract and I’ll give you this other one that’s for a little less money. Next time, I’ll make it up it to you.”

While Councilwoman DeFranchesch can continue defending the indefensible and carrying Mayor Yenni’s water, since the Mayor didn’t comment at the council meeting or to and walked out of the Council meeting when I got up to address the council the council about Councilwoman DeFranchesch’s comments, the fact is that these contracts don’t pass the smell test.

There is no possible way that Mayor Yenni or Councilwoman DeFranchesch can claim that these contracts are in the best interests of the people of Kenner. They were payback for political contributions – nothing more, nothing less.

Are we to believe that contracts are dispensed to the most competent vendors regardless of political contributions and influence, when the 9th and 13th highest rated vendors are selected and Councilwoman DeFranchesch wants to look into the camera and say in essence, “Our hands were tied. We talked to the first 8 companies and we couldn’t agree on a price”?

The Kenner City Council is the steward of Kenner tax dollars. How can Kenner taxpayers trust that the Council is seeking out the best value and using our tax dollars wisely?

With all of the debate and scrutiny over Jefferson Parish contracts, it would appear that the antics of Mayor Yenni and members of the Kenner City Council deserve some further scrutiny too.

Perhaps the next editorial in should be to demand reform in Kenner and rebuke Mayor Yenni.

I can dream, can’t I?  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fox 8/ Shed More Light On JP’s Pay For Contracts – JP Council Pushes Back

The joint effort from Fox 8 and to expose campaign contributions and their ties to influencing contracts, particularly no-bid Professional Services Contracts, focused on Jefferson Parish and the discrepancy in campaign contributions from companies that were bidding on contracts and those seeking the lucrative, no-bid contracts.

Jefferson Parish Councilmen are permitted to select the recipients of no-bid professional services contracts up to $300,000, despite the recommendations of an evaluation committee.

Allowing this process has afforded the Councilmen to receive millions in campaign contributions from firms and then giving those contributors huge contracts, all without a bid process to ensure the spending is efficient and, often, without the most qualified firm receiving the contract.

The Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) and Citizens For Good Government (CFGG) have long criticized this process and pushed for reform.

In fact, CFGG regularly lists the amount of contributions received by Councilmen from companies seeking parish contracts. At the October16th Council Meeting, Councilmen received over $505,000 in contributions from companies seeking contracts at that meeting alone.

The members of the Jefferson Parish Council have repeatedly defended this practice and maintain that, despite the contributions, they distribute contracts fairly. They also complain that running for office is expensive.

"I don't sit and look at it like, 'This contractor gave me that amount,'" said Councilman Mark Spears. "Contributions have nothing to do with it."

District 4 Councilman Ben Zahn even had the audacity to defend the contributors.

"To blanketly impugn the reputation(s) of entire industries, when qualified professionals submit their proposals for consideration publicly, and such proposals are graded by independent committees, then ranked for council selection, is simply unfair," Zahn said.

In typical fashion, Zahn issued a statement probably written by his political consultant, Greg Buisson, instead of speaking directly to a reporter.

Spears received 75% of his campaign contributions and Zahn 62% of his contributions from companies that received no-bid professional services contracts.

"I can only speak as to my personal experience in this process, which has never been guided by contributions," Zahn's statement said.

Yeah, right.

Councilman Zahn may claim that the contributors have no input in the contracting process but that doesn’t stop him from spending their money to enhance his own personal lifestyle.

Apparently, Zahn is as quick to spend taxpayer’s money as he is to spend campaign contributions.

Of course, the companies selected had given Mayor Yenni the maximum campaign contribution allowed by law and also contributed to each of the 7 Kenner City Council members. 

Both ordinances passed unanimously. 

Mayor Yenni spent $50,000 on parades and beads; $16,000 in framing and thousands more in gifts and meals (including $10,000 funneled to Chateau Country Club which is owned by his father-in-law and run by Mayor Yenni’s wife) from his campaign account and using other people’s money.

Hopefully, these reports from Fox 8 and will lead to real contract reform and campaign finance and ethics reforms.

Until then, despite a charter change in Kenner and the continued protestations of BGR and CFGG, this indefensible practice will continue and we’ll keep getting the best elected officials money can buy. 

In Jefferson Parish and in Kenner. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

387 Down – 357,613 To Go

According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 387 Louisiana residents signed up for health care plans during October through the ObamaCare Marketplace.

7,700 Louisiana residents submitted applications but didn’t choose an insurance plan yet.

It is estimated that 265,000 Louisiana residents are without health insurance and another 93,000 have already had their current insurance policies cancelled due to ObamaCare.

Nationwide, in October, 106,000 people chose a health care plan. About 3/4 of the 106,000 have signed up through state exchanges with only 26,800 actually coming through the federal web site.

Louisiana does not have a state exchange so all 387 signups came through

President Obama had estimated that 500,000 would purchase health insurance through the web site during the first month and 7 Million by the end of March 2014.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Report: Alario, Martiny Accepted Tens Of Thousands In Excess Campaign Cash

Two longtime Jefferson Parish State Senators, one on each bank of the river, Westwego’s John Alario and Kenner’s Danny Martiny, are reported to have accepted tens of thousands of dollars in excess campaign contributions from Political Action Committees or PACs.

The Fox 8/ report alleges that Alario, the Senate President, exceeded the amount of contributions that PACs can contribute to a district candidate for his past two elections and has already exceeded the limit for his next election. Alario received almost $79,856 in PAC contributions in 2007, almost $102,846 in 2011 (despite running unopposed) and has already accepted $95,512 in PAC contributions for 2015.

For the 2007 election, Martiny accepted $96,007 in PAC contributions and another $92,103 in the 2011 election cycle. The report did not disclose Martiny’s PAC contributions for the 2015 election cycle.

The maximum amount of contributions that a Senate candidate can accept from PACs is $60,000 per election.

Alario and Martiny are longtime State Legislators and are well aware of the rules. Prior to their elections to the State Senate in 2007, Alario spent 36 years and Martiny served 14 years in the State House.

In addition, Martiny has acted as the Campaign Treasurer for other candidates including Jefferson Parish District 5 Councilwoman Cynthia Sheng and has been involved in the campaigns of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand.

In one report, Martiny reported receiving $0 from PACs but within the report it showed PAC contributions of over $92,000.

The State Ethics Board can impose a fine of twice the amount of the violation or $10,000, whichever is greater.

One of the problems is that the State Ethics Board simply processes the campaign finance reports and doesn’t audit them. They’re not checking the reports, just ensuring that the reports arrive on time.

On, UNO Political Analyst Ed Chervenak hit the nail on the head when he said:

"There may some sense that, 'Well, we can get away with this and then, if we do (get caught) we'll just pay the fine,'" Chervenak said. "If they have violated the law, they should be investigated."

Sadly, that is the moral code of many elected officials – let’s push the envelope as far as we can and, if they catch us, we’ll just plead ignorance or blame a “clerical error”, pay the fine and move on. We can always raise even more money.

And, voters will have forgotten by the time the next election rolls around.

Monday, November 11, 2013

As The Country (and most of the World) Celebrates Veteran's Day, Mike Yenni Declares Today "Richard Simmons Day" In Kenner

Veteran's Day, a Federal holiday since Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day as November 11, 1919, and celebrated in many countries around the world, was celebrated not today like the rest of the country but last week in Kenner.

November 11th was declared Armistice Day by Wilson to celebrate the end World War I.

In a speech, Wilson said, "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations."

In 1938, Congress declared that November 11th was a legal holiday. The Congressional Act said, "a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as 'Armistice Day'."

In 1954, Congress amended the act and Armistice Day was changed to Veteran's Day to honor World War II Veterans as well.  

The City issued a Press Release saying that Kenner would honor Veterans on November 7th. 

"I hope everyone will come out to honor our military and listen to one of the state's top officials (former Congressman Rodney Alexander) on Veteran's Day," said Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni.

If you went out today to "honor our military", in Kenner at least, you were too late. 

Today, while the Post Office and government buildings were closed Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni proclaimed November 11th as "Richard Simmons Day" and delivered a proclamation to the fitness celebrity who was performing at the Pontchartrain Center.

The City did not issue a Press Release noting "Richard Simmons Day" but there was a video on

"Instead of exercising, I thought we'd have a crab boil," Simmons said.

Hopefully Simmons had some tips for Mayor Yenni to help the Mayor deal with his stress eating issue.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Kenner Mayor Yenni Loves a Parade – and Spending Other People’s Money

Three groups spend other people’s money: children, thieves, politicians. All three need supervision.
-          Dick Armey

Zahn spent thousands of dollars from his campaign account on meals at area restaurants, gifts and gift cards, all allegedly with or for “constituents”. Of course, Councilman Zahn never responded with the name of the “constituent” that he purchased a gift card for on Christmas Day (nothing like last minute shopping) or the names of any of the “constituents” that he dined with or purchased gifts for.

Today, I thought it might be interesting to look at some of the ways that Yenni is spending those campaign contributions.

Yenni has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from companies that seek to do business with the City of Kenner. These contributions buy the contributors a seat at the table when Yenni is carving up the Holiday Pork that is the way contracts are given in the Kenner.

These contributors give Yenni money and, since Louisiana’s rules are so loose, he can pretty much spend that money on anything that he can justify as a campaign expense.

And, when it comes to politicians, they can justify pretty much anything.

Remember how Zahn spent $3.61 on a “Breakfast Meeting” at McDonalds and $1.99 on “Water with constituent” at La Madeleine?

Yenni’s spending and expenses are even more egregious.

Parades/Mardi Gras Krewes
When you consider that Kenner doesn’t have a Mardi Gras Parade and, for that matter, the only thing resembling a parade in Kenner is the Driftwood Neighborhood Parade, it might be surprising for Kenner’s residents to learn that their Mayor has spent tens of thousands of dollars from his campaign account on Mardi Gras Krewes, beads and parade throws. 

In 2010, Yenni spent $9,000 from his campaign account on “Dues, Dubloons, Cups, Beads” and other expenses related to the Krewe of Excalibur. He spent another $13,200 in 2011 with Excalibur and expenses associated with Excalibur, and another $8,400 in 2012.

Yenni has also spent thousands on the Endymion Parade, founded by his mentor, former Kenner Mayor Ed Muniz.

Yenni’s campaign account also spent almost $576.38 in 2011 providing flowers to Excalibur from, you guessed it, Zahn’s Florals.  

In addition, Yenni has spent tens of thousands more on St. Patrick’s Day Parades and the Irish-Italian Parade.

In 2013, Yenni spent $1,100 for beads for the Driftwood Parade.

From 2011-2013, Yenni spent $30,697.58 on beads, throws and gifts at Beads by the Dozen. For its part, Beads by the Dozen has somewhat reciprocated and contributed a few thousand back to Mayor Yenni. Beads by the Dozen is owned by Dan Kelly. You may remember Kelly’s name as a Director of Kenner City Events, Inc. which promoted the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfasts and was involved in the Laketown Fest. 

Yenni has also spent thousands more from his campaign account at New Orleans Promotions, down the street on Edwards Avenue in Harahan from Beads by the Dozen and owned by Kelly's wife. 

All told, Mayor Yenni has spent almost $50,000 on parades, Krewes, beads, gifts and other expenses.

It’s not just parades that bring out the campaign spending in Yenni – he also loves frames, particularly from The Frame Shoppe.

Since his inauguration, Yenni has spent $16,198.73 in “Framing” with The Frame Shoppe. Included in that figure is $1,142.82 for “Holiday Gifts”.

I wonder who the lucky folks were who woke up on Christmas Morning to find framed photos of Mayor Yenni under their Christmas Trees.

On a positive note, at least The Frame Shoppe is located in Kenner.

Chateau Golf & Country Club
In addition to moving his annual Prayer Breakfast and other events, and,possibly, exuding direct or indirect influence on other people to move their events, Yenni has spent almost $11,000 in campaign contributions for “Food & Beverage”, donations and other expenses at the Chateau Golf & Country Club.

Mayor Yenni said that he moved the Prayer Breakfasts from the Pontchartrain Center to Chateau to save money and generate more income for the Kenner Food Bank. Since the City of Kenner is allotted several rent free days at the city-owned Pontchartrain Center, it is hard to believe that holding the Prayer Breakfast at Chateau would cost less than ZERO and, we’ve already shown that the Prayer Breakfasts have earned little, if any money for the FoodBank.

In addition to the direct payments, Chateau receives thousands more in free advertising from their hosting of these events.

We’ll also never know how many City of Kenner Contractors moved their Christmas Parties and other events to Chateau in part to curry favor with Mayor Yenni.

The Chateau Golf & Country Club is owned by Yenni’s father-in-law and managed by the Mayor’s wife.

For its part, the Swanner family, Yenni’s in-laws, have contributed $24,500 to Mayor Yenni’s campaign so, I guess, as long as Mayor Yenni is getting his cut, he’s happy.

Wining & Dining
Not limiting himself to food & drink at Chateau, Mayor Yenni’s campaign account has spent $7,509.50 at area restaurants, almost exclusively at restaurants that aren’t in Kenner.

Included in that amount is a $1,461 bill from Antoine’s, another $1,003.24 at Antoine’s, as well as several other nights out on the town at Galley Seafood ($430.56, $258.03, $249.00, $200.00, $195.82, $160.61, and $125.00); Mr. John’s Steakhouse ($410.00, $371.00, and $219.00); Gordon Biersch ($308.30, $269.69); The Italian Barrel ($322); Chophouse ($322); Gallagher’s Grill ($160); Austin’s ($154); Shogun ($143); and other restaurants, all paid for by Yenni’s campaign account.

Also included is a $2.99 expense from Starbucks.  

I guess Mayor Yenni didn’t want a pastry that day.

Gifts – You Want Gifts?
Every holiday it seems, Mayor Yenni raids his campaign account for money to spend on gifts.

In February of 2011, Yenni’s campaign account charged $1,468.13 on “Holiday Gifts” at Raymond’s Jewelry Creations; $146.81 at Adler’s and $96.19 at World Market. The cynic in me wants to say that someone had a little something extra in their Valentine’s Day haul that year courtesy of Mayor Yenni's campaign account.

Also in 2011, Yenni’s campaign spent $3,371.25 in “Holiday Gifts” at John’s Tuxedos. John’s is a favorite of Mayor Yenni’s campaign account and has also received campaign money for purchases by the Mayor of other events.

Mayor Yenni’s campaign account has also spent hundreds more on gifts for Secretary’s Day, Retirement, and other Holidays.

Donations? Contributions? We’ve Got Those Too
Mayor Yenni, through his campaign account of course and not his personal income, has given thousands of dollars to other elected officials and non-profit groups including his high school.

Yenni has given $2,000 each to Sheriff Newell Normand and Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, although neither needs Yenni’s help when it comes to fundraising.

Yenni has also given over $6,000 to Jesuit High School and $2,600 to the Jesuit Church, all from his campaign account.

He has also contributed campaign funds to other organizations including $1,250 to J.P. Council of Garden Clubs, $2,000 to Parkway Promenade, and $1,800 to the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, among others.

The Mayor even made a donation to the Jefferson Convention & Visitor's Bureau. Of course, it's nothing like the amount of money that the City of Kenner now provides the JCVB which, by the way, is associated with his political consultant, Greg Buisson

And, it's nice that Mayor Yenni thought those groups were worthy of a donation. Of course, it would have been better if he had used his own money and not other people's money in an attempt to make himself look good and enhance his reputation.

To be fair, these expenses are not illegal under Louisiana’s current system of campaign finance reporting.

But, they should be.

And, Mike Yenni and Ben Zahn are not alone. There are dozens of other elected officials who are also using their campaign accounts to finance what should be personal spending. In the coming weeks, we will be writing about some of them too.

This week, Fox 8 and began to look at campaign contributions and their impact on influence.

It’s a great series and a great start.

However, until we can eliminate the buying and selling of our elected officials by campaign contributors, we should demand that the State Ethics Board impose more limits on their use of the money that they collect and not allow candidates or elected officials to use campaign money to enhance their personal lifestyles, their reputations through donations and their power base by allowing contributions to other candidates and elected officials.

Since Mayor Yenni has never held a private sector job or owned a business, the money that he is paid as the Mayor of Kenner is the largest amount of money that he has ever been paid in his life. By tapping into his campaign account for extravagant meals and gifts, Mardi Gras dues, parade expenses, and donations that he would have been otherwise not able to afford, the campaign contributors that are buying influence with Yenni are funding his lifestyle. Of course, they don’t care where the money goes or what Yenni spends it on.

But, we should.

And, the State Ethics Board should too.

If you would like to tell the State Ethics Board that “Enough is enough” and you want real campaign finance reform, their telephone number is 1-800-842-6630. You can also go to the State Ethics Board’s web site and click on the Contact Us tab to send them an email message.

We will only get change if we demand change. The elected officials love the system now. Wouldn’t you love to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in other people’s money for your meals, Christmas gifts and other expenses?

Who wouldn’t like to act like a Big Shot and pick up a $1,400 check at a restaurant?

I know Mike Yenni does.