There is no doubt in the mind of one former Opelousas Housing Authority employee about the role Garnette Thomas played in a bid-fixing scheme that went on at the agency from 2007 to 2009 and favored a single company. “I believe she was instructed to make it happen,” says our source, who asked to remain anonymous. “I think it came from higher up.”
Thomas, now 75 and a resident of San Augustine, Texas, pleaded guilty Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
According to evidence presented at the guilty plea, Thomas was employed as the OHA’s grant and capital funds coordinator from 2005 to 2009 and admitted that she conspired with other unnamed conspirators to send and receive fake bids by email in order to circumvent state and federal bid laws. 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.
Thomas and her co-conspirators accomplished this by using letterhead and other information to create fake bid documents from companies that were not placing bids on the contracts. These fake bids were then filed so records showed that more than one company had bid on the projects, when in fact only one company bid, the one company that was awarded the lion's share of construction projects the housing authority undertook.
While the contractor has only been identified in court documents as “K.A.,” The IND has maintained that Kendall Anderson of Anderson Iron Works is the contractor allegedly involved in the scheme.
Anderson all but confirmed as much when The IND spoke with him in June, right after a bill of information charging Thomas was filed. Reached on his cell phone in June, 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 return The IND’s call.
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.
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 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.
Among a number of questionable practices, the legislative auditor found that the city of Opelousas, under Mayor Don Cravins, 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.
|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.
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 legally followed state bid law in awarding the work.
Thomas faces up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, a $250,000 fine, and restitution for conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
She will be sentenced Jan. 10.
Read more about the relationship between Cravins, Guillory and Anderson here