Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Greg Gachassin’s role in Lafayette’s low-income housing fiasco appears headed for a state ethics investigation, but what price will he pay — if any at all? by Leslie Turk

Development consultant Greg Gachassin’s potential ethics dilemma won’t end with The Independent Weekly’s April 20 cover story, “How Gachassin Games the System.” And it shouldn’t.

That report revealed that the low-income housing fiasco that has been dogging Lafayette since last summer, and which led to a federal investigation of the Lafayette Housing Authority, involves some very well-connected local professionals. And at least one of them, Gachassin, appears to have violated the state’s Code of Governmental Ethics.

The Louisiana Board of Ethics is now compelled to take the matter up, because on May 2 state Rep. Rickey Hardy, who helped blow the whistle on the LHA’s troubles, lodged a formal complaint. “It would seem as if Mr. Gachassin has violated the ethics laws of the State of Louisiana while serving as chairman and member of the Lafayette Public Trust Finance Authority... [and] appears to have been in ethics violation even after his resignation from the [LPTFA],” Hardy wrote to the state’s top ethics administrator, Kathleen Allen. 

The LPTFA is a trust organized under the laws of the state that holds millions for the benefit of Lafayette Consolidated Government. Gachassin, while serving as a Lafayette City-Parish Council-appointee on the public trust’s board, helped orchestrate low-income housing deals in north Lafayette that involved both LPTFA funding and federal low-income housing tax credits. He then signed on as a development consultant for two of them, Villa Gardens and Cypress Trails, while still on the public trust’s board or within weeks of his Nov. 17, 2009, resignation. (Gachassin also stands to earn a $1 million consulting fee for Joie de Vivre, a downtown affordable housing complex partially funded by LPTFA.)

The state’s ethics code appears clear on this “post-employment” restriction: After leaving a public board, you must wait two years before engaging in a transaction, for compensation, that involves the board. The definition of transaction is broad, covering just about anything the governmental entity is a party to or has an interest in. In the case of Cypress Trails, LPTFA — at Gachassin’s urging — spearheaded the $10 million project.

Gachassin’s cut on the Villa Gardens and Cypress Trails developments? More than 1 million bucks (he gets about half of the developer fee).

With the story out for more than a week before Hardy’s complaint and the fact that an ethics board member, attorney M. Blake Monrose, lives right here in Lafayette, we’d like to think Hardy’s letter came long after a decision was made to look into this matter.

After all, this state set the “gold standard of ethics” back in 2008, right Gov. Jindal?

For her part, Allen would neither confirm nor deny if her office received Hardy’s complaint or any others, as such complaints are confidential. “Generally speaking, when a complaint is received by our office, it is presented to the Board of Ethics at one of its monthly meetings for consideration in executive session,” she says. “If the board refers the matter to investigation, the subject of the investigation is given notice, and a confidential investigation is conducted by a staff investigator. The investigator gathers the facts, and a report is presented back to the board for consideration in executive session to determine whether a violation of the Code of Governmental Ethics occurred and what action should be taken.”

What’s most appalling in what appears to be a flagrant ethics violation is that the LPTFA’s attorney, Richard Becker, allowed it to take place right under his nose. The attorney told this newspaper he felt it was Gachassin’s responsibility to conduct his due diligence on the issue and said he took Gachassin’s word — knowing full well the LPTFA board member had a million reasons to clear himself. Becker, more than anyone, was aware of Gachassin’s duplicity: The attorney himself also represents each of Gachassin’s developments and is special counsel to the LHA (Villa Gardens is an LHA development; in the wake of the LHA controversy, Becker et al kicked the housing authority out of Cypress Trails). Additionally, Becker is an assistant city-parish attorney.

If an investigation is pursued and finds that Gachassin broke the code, he can be ordered to pay up to $10,000 per violation. Additionally, Allen says, there can be enhanced penalties for economic gain — meaning he can be forced to pay back the full amount of his economic advantage plus one half. Contracts can also be rescinded.

We’d argue that anything less would surely make Louisiana’s “gold standard of ethics” mere fool’s gold.

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