Sources have told Lincoln Parish News Online (LPNO) that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is investigating the Interstate 20 Economic Development Corporation, a quasi-public non-profit corporation formed in 1996 to promote economic development along the I-20 corridor in Monroe, LA.
The revelations came in a board meeting two weeks ago, said the sources who were present at that meeting. The sources offered no details as to the nature of the investigation, except that the chairman of the organization, Dr. Claude Minor, had said in the meeting that he had been interviewed extensively by the FBI.
Phone calls to Minor were not returned.
Federal authorities have been active in the Monroe area for the past several years, most recently securing felony convictions of two City of Monroe councilmen – Robert “Red” Stevens and Arthur Gilmore.
Last year, former Ouachita Parish Sheriff Royce Toney plead guilty to misdemeanor computer fraud after an extensive FBI investigation, and OPSO Deputy Michael Davis was enrolled in a diversion program on similar charges.
Last week, this reporter attempted to attend a meeting of the group, but was kicked out. The board members cited the group’s status as an “economic development” entity, which they claim makes them exempt from Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law (LA RS 42:11, et seq). Economic development negotiations are often sensitive, and can’t be made public, they claimed.
See here an agenda of the 5/22/13 meeting.
LPNO was able to learn some of what happened behind closed doors from several sources who were in the meeting.
There was an attempt to replace Minor as chairman, but the action was tabled, the sources said. The board wasn’t sure if such action was allowed by the group’s bylaws.
Also, there was discussion of hiring Denmon Engineering to begin design on an extension of the I-20 North Service Road from Garrett Road to Millhaven Road. It is unclear if a valid vote took place on the issue.
Board members are Minor, Charles Theus, Otis Chisley, Kenny Wilson (District 4, Monroe City Council), Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, Charles Marsala, and Charles Pritchard.
Two board members – Minor and Wilson – may be replaced at tonight’s meeting of the Monroe City Council. Resolutions replacing the two are on the agenda and are up for a vote.
Now back to the board’s claim that they can meet and do business in secret with the public’s money.
Presumably, the group is relying on LA RS 33:9024 C.(2)(b), which says that:
The presence on the board of directors of said public officials shall not alter the private, nonprofit nature of the corporation and shall not make it an agency of the state or of the local governmental subdivision.
However, that statute was amended in 2010 to make such organizations subject to both the Open Meetings Law and the Public Records law.
LA RS 33:9024 E.(2)
Without altering the private nature of economic development corporations, any economic development corporation which obtains funds from the state or any agency or subdivision thereof of ten thousand dollars or more in any calendar year shall, as a condition to the receipt or expenditure of such public funds, maintain all of its books and records with respect to the use or receipt of any public funds as public documents and make them available for inspection and copying pursuant to the provisions of the public records law, R.S. 44:1 et seq., hold any and all meetings of such corporation with respect to the receipt or expenditure of public funds in public after due notice thereof in accordance with the provisions of the Open Meetings Law, and comply with any conditions of funding.
When the group was first formed in 1996, the original bylaws provided for open meetings.
10. All meetings of the Board shall be open to the public and shall be called after posting a notice and agenda for the meeting, at the place of the meeting, at least 24 hours before the meeting.
However, that provision was deleted by amendment in December 2000.
See here the original bylaws and subsequent amendments.
In 2005, another amendment was made to the bylaws. That amendment increased the number of board members from five to seven, adding the mayor and a council member to the board.
A legal opinion on the 2005 amendment was solicited, and rendered by Monroe attorney Louis Scott.
Scott opined that adding the two officeholders to the board would make it subject to the state’s Open Meetings Law, as it would become “an agent of the City of Monroe.” Ironically, the amendment was submitted by the now-convicted Arthur Gilmore.
See here Scott’s opinion.
Also, the the latest independent audit of the city by Luffey, Huffman, Ragsdale & Soignier tends to reinforce Scott’s opinion. From the audit for the year ended 4/30/12:
Blended Component Units
Economic Development – Two not-for-profit entities perform administrative functions for the City’s incremental sales tax economic development districts. These entities are the Tower Drive Economic Development Corporation and the Garrett Road Economic Development Corporation. For financial reporting purposes, all of these entities are considered an integral part of the City, not component units. This decision is due to the City keeping the books and records for these entities, the City as a whole reaping the benefits from the use of the proceeds of the incremental tax bonds issued by the not-for-profits, and that the districts and the separate not-for-profits are ministerial and structural in nature, as disbursement of funds is subject to the control of the City through the plan of government.