Parish council investigating ex-admin

Published 1:05 am Monday, March 15, 2010

GRETNA, La. (AP) — A parish council is asking hundreds of companies that make money on community contracts whether they also buy insurance from an agency owned by a former parish administrator.

The letters to 404 companies are the broadest sweep yet of several investigations of Tim Whitmer’s activities and the administration of former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard.

‘‘I think we need to know the lay of the land with the vendors and who they’re doing business with,’’ Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng said.

Deputy Parish Attorney Louis Gruntz said the letters already have brought one more parish contractor to disclose business with Lagniappe Industries, owned by Whitmer and his wife, Dawn. Seven companies had already been identified by the news media or parish officials.

The letters ask each company to describe any arrangement with the Whitmers, former Parish President Tim Coulon and his wife, Mary, or the late Maurice ‘‘Hippo’’ Katz and his wife, Judy. All six were insurance agents with ties to Lagniappe or THT Group, a partnership among Coulon, Whitmer and Katz.

The insurance scandal led federal authorities, the media and parish investigators into a web of political connections and potentially unethical behavior in Broussard’s administration. Broussard and two of his closest aides resigned, an assistant parish attorney was suspended, and the government eliminated the jobs of three people on the parish payroll, including Broussard’s ex-wife, Karen Parker.

The parish and federal investigations began after The Times-Picayune reported in November that Lagniappe was making commissions off insurance policies sold to employees at West Jefferson Medical Center, the publicly owned hospital in Marrero.

The council’s letters to all contractors expand an investigation by the parish attorney’s office. Until now, Gruntz said, parish investigators had sent letters only to companies known to have connections to Whitmer’s insurance business.

The new letters preempt the April effective date of a new parish law requiring all contractors to disclose all insurance agents, companies and affiliates when they apply for public work.

Gruntz said parish officials can’t cancel existing contracts with companies found to be doing business with Lagniappe. However, state laws do prevent similar conflicts of interest, so such cases will be sent to state investigators, he said.

Nothing in the letters forces companies to comply with the council’s requests. But Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, praised the action.

‘‘I’m all for that; that’s apple pie,’’ he said. ‘‘I think for too long the parish council didn’t take the initiative. When they started to take the initiative, you started to see some results. And so I applaud this.’’