As the grant and capital funds coordinator at the Opelousas Housing Authority, Garnette L. Thomas was supposed to ensure that the agency followed federal and state bid laws and its own procurement process. Instead, the feds allege, she was part of a bid-fixing scheme to direct business to a single contractor.

anderson_iron_worksIn charging Thomas with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, the U.S. attorney says she “did willingly and knowingly conspire with others, both known and unknown,” in the scheme that benefited primarily one contractor from 2007 to 2009.

Thomas was the OHA’s grant and capital funds coordinator from 2005 through 2009. The OHA is federally funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide safe, sanitary and affordable housing to the poor.

The feds say Thomas worked with others to create false bids on projects to circumvent public bid laws. “She and others not named as defendants herein did this by using the letterhead and information of other contractors who were not placing bids on these projects,” the court document states. “These false bids were placed in the file in order to give the appearance that the bid rules were being followed.”

What’s most intriguing about the charge is the contractor allegedly involved. That contractor, identified only as “K.A.” in court papers, is likely Kendall Anderson of Anderson Iron Works. The bill of information states that “K.A.” sent Thomas an email June 24, 2009, that contained bid sheets for a project on Nichol Lane in Opelousas. The email was sent from a Yahoo account to Thomas’ email account with AT&T.

Reached on his cell phone Friday morning, Anderson referred The IND to his attorney, former U.S. Attorney Donald Washington.

“I guess,” was Anderson’s response to whether he is the “K.A.” in the court documents.

Washington did not immediately return The IND’s call.

Duson-based Anderson Iron Works was long the preferred no-bid (or, alleged fixed bid) contractor for the OHA, the Lafayette Housing Authority and the city of Opelousas, all of which was exposed in independent audits and audits performed by the Louisiana legislative auditor. In the case of the housing authorities, both FBI and HUD inspector general investigations were launched almost three years ago, and The IND learned in 2011 that the feds had requested files from the legislative auditor after it concluded a compliance audit of the city of Opelousas’ operations.
walter_Guillory-0102
Photo by Robin May
Former LHA and OHA Executive Director Walter Guillory

In the midst of the federal investigations, Walter Guillory resigned in October 2010 as executive director of the LHA (from 2005 to 2009 he held the top job at both authorities simultaneously), as did his deputy director.

On its website, Anderson Iron Works says it’s been in business since 1990, providing services that include welding repair and fabrication, machining, heavy equipment repair, metal sales, trailers and hitches.

Anderson, Guillory and Opelousas Mayor Don Cravins have long been the common threads in the housing authority fiascos involving both Lafayette and Opelousas.

Auditors who delved into the city of Opelousas’ books in 2011 also pointed to likely violations of state bid law. Except in an emergency, the state’s bid law requires written contracts for all public works projects over $5,000. “None of the public works projects performed by Anderson Ironworks was supported with written contracts including seven projects in excess of $5,000,” the state’s legislative auditor wrote, also noting there was never any documentation of an emergency to justify expediting the jobs.

But that was only the beginning; the city paid Anderson half of its $42,000 bid for a new roof and siding on the city library the same day the bid was submitted. State law prohibits advance payments for this type of work and requires contractors on public works projects in excess of $25,000 to provide a bond of not less than 50 percent of the contract amount as protection against potential claims from subcontractors and others. There was no such bond posted on the library project.

For this 2011 story on the city’s audit, "The Down-Player," The IND asked Opelousas Mayor Donald Cravins if he had any kind of “relationship” with Floyd Anderson or his son, Kendall, who owns the company. “None whatsoever,” the mayor said.

Then we asked the mayor if he knew the family very well. “Oh, I know them, I’ve known them for years. But, I mean nothing more than that; I’ve known a lot of people for years, but no, no relationship.”

The questionable Anderson Iron Works contracts with the LHA date back to at least 2008.

In a 2008 review of the LHA’s operations, independent auditors noted what appeared to be egregious violations of state bid law: Two of three contracts tested had work performed before the contract date and due date for the bids; no dates on bids to determine when they were received; a review of several other contracts for the same vendor, Anderson Iron Works, revealed that all work was done before contract date and bid due date; of the 30 contract files all but four or five were awarded to Anderson Iron Works, the low bidder on almost every single contract — though the work was done before the bids were due. A year later, it was more of the same when auditors did their work: In a test of three contracts covered under the Davis-Beacon Act (a federal law requiring that prevailing wages be paid on public works projects), work on two contracts was started before the contract date and the bid date.

Joe Ann Tyler, who replaced Guillory as executive director of the OHA in late 2009, told the IND in 2011 that after she took over the troubled agency she could not find a single instance where it had followed state bid law in awarding the work.

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Opelousas Mayor Donald Cravins

Cravins, who appoints the OHA’s board and had been under fire for appointing city workers, has maintained he did not influence its operations. “I never once attended a meeting of that board. When I took office there were two city employees on that board. I have never called Walter Guillory, ever, to ask him to give anybody any preference or to give anybody any work because I didn’t meddle in their business. Never called him to talk to him about contractual work, never. I can tell you I had enough to do otherwise.”

Others told The IND that just was not true. “Cravins had lots of control over the Opelousas Housing Authority,” former LHA commissioner Donald Fuselier said in 2011, adding it was Cravins who recruited Guillory to Opelousas while he was still full-time in Lafayette. “I told Walter not to get involved with in that, with those politicians,” Fuselier said.

In its audits of the LHA and OHA, both released in 2011, the legislative auditor questioned the legality of Guillory’s dual position, the excessive salary that came with it and contractual payments to Guillory when he left Opelousas. When he was doing double duty, Guillory’s salary alone from both agencies reached $242,000, the auditors noted.

Anderson, who did not return phone calls for that 2011 story, told The Daily Advertiser that Cravins personally called him for a quote on the city library project (in his response to the audit, Cravins said the library project was an emergency job because slate tiles were falling from the roof, creating a liability issue). The mayor, however, told the Advertiser he did not remember placing that call.

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