Non-profit girls’ softball teams have shelled out thousands of dollars over the past ten years in gate-opening fees that have gone directly into the pockets of a Houma recreation district’s field manager to allow their use of tax-payer owned facilities, a practice that potentially violates state ethics laws.
The revelation emerged during a Times investigation of Terrebonne Recreation District 2-3, one of eleven such districts that oversee fields, gyms and other facilities. That investigation has uncovered several potential irregularities related to operations of the five-member board including:
• A chronic history of actions taken by the board that do not appear on its admittedly sparse agendas, contrary to Louisiana’s open meetings law.
• A policy that allows the district’s field manager to directly pocket fees for locking and unlocking gates at a Houma ballfield.
• Unanswered questions about whether employment of board members by the Terrebonne Parish Recreation Department constitutes an ethical breach.
• Board members stating they are ignorant of ethics laws even though they say they have taken annual courses the law requires.
Since being advised of these issues, District 2-3 board president Gary Beeson has sought assistance from the Terrebonne Parish District Attorney’s Office, which is reviewing the district’s practices. Beeson has sought an advisory opinion on the employment question from the Louisiana Board of Ethics and said he intends to seek an advisory opinion on the pocketing of gate fees by employees as direct payment for performing duties they are already paid to do.
District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. says he is aware of the issues from thus far “limited information” but has seen no proof of criminal intent thus far regarding potential open meetings law violations.
“Based on limited information provided to the District Attorney’s Office, there may be a concern regarding language on meeting agendas not being descriptive enough as required by LA R.S. 42:19,” Waitz said, a reference to the open meetings statute. “As of now, no evidence has been presented to this office that shows malice, ill will, or intentional acts to defy open meeting laws. Meetings appear to have been held in a public forum with open access to the public, but some mistakes may have occurred pertaining to meeting procedures. Preliminarily, these seem to be honest mistakes, but do warrant correction in order that citizens can be fully advised and aware of public business. We will offer our assistance, as we’ve done in the past, to lend guidance on any questions pertaining to governmental ethics and compliance with open meeting laws to help board volunteers who want to serve our community.”
Waitz’s office generally neither interprets nor enforces provisions of the state Ethics Code.
The Times verified that board members have taken the annual online ethics course each year for the past three years as law requires, but did not check prior years. Members of other boards who have received the same training, as well as elected government officials, said it is clear to them that an employee should not t take money for doing his or her job from anyone other than the entities they work for already.The employee at the recreation district — although apparently required to take ethics training — shows no recent record of having done so.
Until questions were raised last week by The Times, Beeson acknowledges, guidance and advice had not been sought regarding those matters. He and other District 2-3 board members say they were unaware of the requirements contained in ethics and open meetings laws, in some cases dismissing them as “technicalities,” complaining that nobody ever advised them until now that anything was wrong.
Some parish council members who are currently examining Recreation 2-3’s records say that in itself is a reason for concern, with or without criminal intent.
“State law says that public servants and public employees must attend one hour of ethics training every year,” Councilman Darrin Guidry said, after being briefed on The Times’ findings. “If that has been done then the board would have known they were operating improperly. The whole purpose of the one-hour training is so that there is no ignorance. If all this is true then I think resignations would be in order.”
District 2-3 is currently engaged in construction of Terrebonne’s most expensive and ambitious recreation project to date, the Bayou Country Sports Complex, a $23 million sports multiplex that is slated to be managed by the district as part of an agreement with the parish.
The ethics law issue concerns management of District 2-3’s Westside Girls Softball Complex on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Teams from public and private schools routinely play or practice at the complex, along with teams organized by Terrebonne Parish Recreation as well as travel teams and leagues, private entities whose players travel to other venues for play, often staying overnight. At recreation districts throughout the parish, various arrangements are made to accommodate teams wishing to use fields, in some cases as simple as giving coaches keys in return for deposits that get refunded at the end of the year. In most cases travel teams are welcome but TPR and school teams usually get preferred dates and spots.
At the Westside park a field manager, Daryl Karpinski Sr., schedules games and practice.
Travel team coaches said during interviews last week that a $25 fee was required for them to practice after regular hours for the complex. The money is paid to the field manager, and they said they were expressly told it is to compensate Karpinski directly. The Times obtained video of one such payment.
The Louisiana ethics law, R.S. 42:1111 (A) states “No public servant shall receive anything of economic value, other than compensation and benefits from the governmental entity to which he is duly entitled, for the performance of the duties and responsibilities of his office or position.”
A board member of Louisiana Magic, a long-standing softball team that hosts a highly successful weekend tournament in May, said Karpinski charges them $500 to unlock and lock the gates, and that the practice has gone for a decade.
“He unlocks the gate, he unlocks it and locks it for the last ten years, that has been since as far as I know,” said Louisiana Magic board member Deanna Cunningham, who is also a parent. “Daryl is the only one I pay,” she said. “We are a non-profit organization, and this is the one tournament we have to raise money to get things for our kids, uniforms and equipment.”
The fee was lower a decade ago, Cunningham said, but it changes annually.
“Every year he tries to go up,” she said.
The Times contacted Karpinski to determine if he has taken the annual online ethics course required for public employees, who specifically authorized him to take cash payments for himself, and whether he has ever sought an opinion from the Board of Ethics as to whether the practice is allowed.
“I do not want to talk about any of this stuff,” Karpinski said, and disconnected the conversation.
Board Vice Chairman Ivy Bernard stated that no counsel was ever sought as to whether the practice is legal. The Board of Ethics routinely gives formal opinions on whether specific practices are legal if asked.
“That’s been ongoing because the guy is not being paid by the district, he is being paid by the team that is using that facility, it’s been that way for at least five, six years,” Bernard said. “We never went to the parish attorney or anyone about that, not that I recall. We saw no reason to question it.”
“We would like to have one of our employees out there,” board member Bobby Arceneaux said, when asked about the practice. “That’s his fee to be out there. We don’t pay him for that, he makes the money.”
Beeson said the $25 fee for travel team practices is a new development related to newly formed teams and that he isn’t sure who specifically authorized Karpinski to take that money from the teams.
“That just happened, and our board just found out,” Beeson said.
“That’s an agreement we made with them, and there might be another group that comes in, too,” Beeson said. “They pay our guy to make sure that they hire him. We asked them to hire him. We don’t have to pay overtime. They take care of him and he takes care of them. We don’t charge them to use the field. Whatever he gets, he gets, and we have no problem with that. We never ran it by the ethics board. I know it’s more than $25 because he is there for three days solid. The team has a big tournament and they make money, a lot of money for weekends. All the stuff has to be taken care of. We have to have somebody there to protect the property.”
Beeson identified the tournament team as Louisiana Magic, the one whose board member confirms the $500 fees.
The manager of another travel team acknowledged that his team pays Karpinski the $25 “or whatever he tells us” and halted the conversation.
Speaking for herself as a parent, Cunningham expressed reservations about the requirement that the team pay an individual for access to a public field.
“The way I see it, I put on the tournament by myself, I do not get paid nor do I expect to, I do what I do because the kids need it,” she said.
Board members from other districts say that when they accommodate tournaments or practices for travel teams, their district receives payment from the team or league, which is permitted under the law.
The law Karpinski may be violating is the same one that applies to the board members themselves – which they are required to have knowledge of – and which also requires that any member of a board or commission who learns of a violation must report it to the Bureau of Ethics Administration.
Penalties can include removal or dismissal, fines of up to $10,000 per violation, as well as forfeiture of any payments made.
With no records of the cash payments to Karpinski or any other field manager or employee, there is no way to independently determine the precise amount over the period of years the practice has occurred.
Another parent willing to talk about the field payments, whose daughter belongs to a travel team that has paid them, said that as a taxpayer within the boundaries of District 2-3 he finds it “highly disturbing that a public employee whose salary and benefits are funded by my tax dollars could be allowed to sell me access to a public facility, which is also funded with my tax dollars, so that my kids can practice.”
“It is akin to the bridge tender at the Dularge Bridge charging people $25 to drive across,” said Houma resident Jeffrey Motichek, who would like the ethics board to investigate. “An employee willing to sell access to a public facility undermines the citizens’ faith in government.”
On the agenda for District 2-3’s board meeting scheduled for Wednesday is an item titled “Travel Teams.”
Board members acknowledged that the discussion will involve determining what to do if – as they have now been told – the $25 payments are illegal.
One option is for the district to charge for the field manager’s time and then compensate him appropriately.
Other districts have dealt with the issue by staggering hours of their managers, or in many cases utilizing key deposits with no employee present. Members of other boards say their goal is to keep their facilities open and used by as many teams as possible.
Although Beeson has not contacted the state ethics board about his employee getting paid directly for field access, he did send a request for an advisory opinion Thursday on whether his own status as a part time employee of the Terrebonne Parish Recreation District constitutes an ethics breach, a situation he has heard complaints about for years but until now never chose to check.
Ethics laws are complex, and a determination of whether they have been violated requires close examination by the Ethics Board.
The discussion on travel team access was likely scheduled for a Sept. 21 meeting at the Southland Ballpark Office Building, at Prevost Drive, although it would have been difficult to determine that since the posted agenda contained few specifics
The agenda contains items for approval of minutes for two prior meetings, reading of current financial statements, time for members of the public wishing to address the board – after the conclusion of all other business – and adjournment.
There are two other items, marked “old business” and “new business” with no other information.
Beeson said that on the afternoon for which the meeting was scheduled he was contacted by an assistant district attorney who asked him questions about the agenda, as well as the manner in which it was posted. Informed that the notice given as well as the lack of detail on agenda items could be construed as violations of the Louisiana open meetings law, Beeson canceled the meeting.
“(Assistant District Attorney) Jason Dagate notified me and said this is something that we need to do,” Beeson said.
Another meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday and its agenda includes the items previously hidden under the catch-all “old business” and “new business” categories.
On the new agenda four items – some of them high-ticket items – will be discussed regarding the Bayou Country Sports Park including dugout and parking lot construction, as well as lighting for the girls’ softball field and an unspecified contract. Some of those discussions, the new agenda notes, may result in board action.
Had the original meeting proceeded with no advance notice to the public of these things, any actions taken could have been nullified had a complaint been made to a court, Beeson was told. The potential that a board’s actions can be reversed as a consequence of open meeting law is limited to 60 days after the action was taken.
A Times examination of District 2-3 agendas for all of 2017 show that in cases where action was actually taken or discussions held, the public had no advance notice because those items were not stated on the agendas. They were hidden behind “old business” and “new business” categories.
From January through July of 2017, Rec 2-3 held five meetings, four general and one special.
Comparisons with the official minutes confirm 22 separate discussions or actions taken that in most cases would have been of interest to the public, especially people following the progress of the Bayou Country Sports Park. Costs ranging from $10,000 for some items to hundreds of thousands were on the table for either action or discussion. But the public had no way to know that was the case, because they had not the slightest mention on the agendas.
Among the items never announced on the agendas from various months:
• A motion, seconded and approved, to repave two tennis courts for $10,900
• Discussion of the Bayou Sports Complex parking lot.
• Approval of $72,800 for dugout covers
Agendas can be changed by a vote during the meeting under some circumstances, allowing members to discuss or vote on matters not originally included. There are no indications in the minutes that this occurred in any of these cases.
In addition to hidden agenda items, there are questions about whether what scant notice there is can be seen anywhere by the public at large. Last week notice for the cancelled July 21 meeting was posted on the window of the building where the meeting would occur. The building is behind a locked gate, however, and a parent wishing to read the agenda had to focus on it with a cell phone and then magnify the image. Beeson and Bernard said notices are sent to a local newspaper.
Notice of meetings and what will be discussed at them is a crucial component of the Louisiana Open Meetings Law.
RS 42:19 states that all public bodies shall give written public notice no later than 24 hours before the meeting occurs.
“Each item on the agenda shall be listed separately and described with reasonable specificity,” the law states.
The District Attorney or the Attorney General may institute enforcement actions against a board that violates the open meetings law.
“A maximum of $100 per violation can be assessed against an individual who knowingly and willfully participates in a meeting conducted in violation of the Open Meetings Law.,” the statute says.
Jenifer Schaye, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s general counsel, could not comment on specifics regarding Recreation District 2-3, but was willing to talk about general provisions of the open meetings law and how it relates to such entities.
“Open meetings and public records laws are written for the people, not for the officials. They can’t conduct their business in a vacuum in a room without lights, that’s the point of the law,” said Schaye, noting the individual responsibility members of a board have.
“If I am on a board and I realize there is not proper notice and that there is not a following of the open meetings law I should really leave the meeting,” Schaye said. “I don’t want to participate in a meeting like that. It is part of my fiduciary duty as a member to follow the open meetings law.”
Chronic flouting of the law could be construed as malfeasance by a judge in some cases, Schaye said, although prosecutions rarely occur.
Beeson acknowledged Sunday that the “old business” and “new business” formula has been in use for decades.
“It’s what has been done since the beginning,” Beeson said. “Your old business was what was already in your minutes as things you had discussed that are on the books. Then you go to new business which is what we need to get done. Everyone talks about their area that they take care of.”
A beloved bookkeeper, the late Wanda LeCompte, who died in 2012, had instructed board members decades before on how to prepare their agendas, Beeson said.
“She had done accounting for years and this lady worked for government before, and she knew government in and out,” Beeson said. “Everything she said when we were young board members we listened to. When we were young she kept us straight and this was the way she did it. I don’t care if I got kicked off the board, if I do something it’s because I did it the way she told me to do it. She knew the laws and she wouldn’t do anything wrong.”
Beeson and some other board members said they have attended workshops Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. hosted, conducted by the late Jimmy Dagate, but they are not certain of details from those gatherings.
“I never heard them explain everything,” said Beeson, recalling that there was some discussion of open meetings law. “I know I have been to council meetings and the council does an agenda.”
Beeson acknowledged that those agendas have detailed explanations of items up for discussion or action, but that he didn’t think that was necessary for his recreation district.
“With the Parish Council agendas I know there’s a lot of information,” Beeson said. “They make laws and stuff. The public has to come and talk to them about the laws. They may approve building a subdivision. But at the Recreation District this is the way we had our meetings. We had our minutes out there with information.”
Minutes, however, are the record of prior meetings and give no clue as to what will be discussed or voted on at future meetings in most cases.
Further discussion with an assistant district attorney was going to occur on Friday, Beeson acknowledged, but schedules did not mesh.
“I will get with the DA’s office to see what they think about how we are doing our agendas,” Beeson said. “We are going to address that. We changed the way we have been doing it and are moving forward.” •