Written by Walter Pierce
Wednesday, 10 March 2010

This week’s column pains me to write. I prefer lighter, more cumulus fare to the slate-gray miasma that has blown over my desk. I didn’t write last week’s cover story about City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin’s financial and legal problems, but I’ve moderated each of the many comments posted about it at theind.com. They have been plentiful and, save for a couple of defenders, overwhelmingly tinged with disgust.

Mr. Shelvin was aware weeks ago that the story was coming. He knew because I told him when he called to ask why a “white woman,” as he put it — Leslie Turk, the story’s author — was asking questions about him in his neighborhood. I urged him in two long telephone conversations to speak to us on the record for the story, to defend, dispel or deny allegations, to thread his personal narrative into the story. Mr. Shelvin’s personal narrative, after all, is compelling: a poor kid from a tough neighborhood who became the youngest C-P councilman ever. He declined to speak on record. Our conversations, nonetheless, were measured and civil. Brandon Shelvin is soft-spoken and articulate.

It is unpleasant to think that had the story not been in the works for several months and published March 3, Robley Broussard, Stacie Durham and EasyCare would never have been paid what they were owed. Broussard, who purchased a $1,200 warranty on a car he bought from Shelvin — one of many warranties that were purchased but never activated by the erstwhile auto dealer — was paid the balance of what he was owed plus interest by Shelvin less than two weeks before the story was published. EasyCare, the guarantor of those warranties, was paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000 by Shelvin just before the story went to the printing press for approximately 20 other warranties. And Durham, a single mother of two who was in the process of seeking criminal charges against the councilman, was paid $4,500 from Shelvin the day the story hit the street. Broussard and Durham had pursued Shelvin to make good on his obligations for months. In a matter of two weeks, with the cover story coming down the pike, he paid roughly $25,000 owed to Broussard, Durham and the auto-warranty company.

It is disturbing to imagine how an elected official so dogged by debt is now so flush with cash.

The story was the culmination of weeks of exhaustive research and investigation following a tip several months ago. Every member of the council was scrutinized, his name punched into court databases, but only one name emerged. Neither hatchet nor hit was applied to this job. I’m loath to even acknowledge the comments on our Web site — they are thankfully few — insinuating or insisting that Shelvin’s race was a motivating factor in the story. The Independent Weekly has been even-handed over the years in who it drags over the coals. Three of the four council members to receive a D from us last fall — the lowest grade we gave — were white Republicans.

For me, publication of the story has been unpleasant; Brandon Shelvin seems like a nice man. But the story also represents the highest pursuit of newspapers: keeping an eye on elected officials and holding them accountable. We don’t expect our office holders to be perfect — this is Louisiana after all — and a few financial travails or lawsuits do not a story make. This isn’t about just hitting a rough patch with the check book.

It’s about what appears to be an elected official pocketing money that didn’t belong to him. Customers purchased the warranties between July 2008 and February 2009, while Shelvin was a council member. He didn’t turn that money over to EasyCare until last week, more than a year after the last warranty was purchased.

And the story begs an important question: Should a councilman’s profound and persistent inability to manage his personal finances and business affairs raise a red flag about his ability to manage a $587 million city-parish budget?

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