Thursday, October 29, 2009

A math word problem for journalists

Update It appears that the Oct. 29 column will not be posted online. See the comments if you're interested in reading it. I'll add a few comments after the Saints game if I'm not too tired.

I couldn't find the link that would make the point of the problem obvious.

Ray's brother-in-law Cedric's friend Glenn* stole $550,000 of the city's money. The city later gave Glenn $650,000 to settle a lawsuit. If Glenn is forced to repay the $550,000 that he stole, how much of the city's money does Glenn still have?

*Who doesn't appear to have been a friend of Ray's friend Greg. Believe it or not, the problem was not suggested by a Pete Finney column -- just a column that read like a Pete Finney column.

From do-gooder to federal target

Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) - Thursday, October 29, 2009
Author: Stephanie Grace

When Greg Meffert bought a house on tony Park Island near his then-boss, Mayor Ray Nagin, he quickly learned that he had another prominent neighbor named Glenn Haydel .

But while Meffert and Nagin were pals and even vacationed together (under circumstances that we'd all hear about years later), Meffert and Haydel apparently never bonded. The likely reason: Meffert, then Nagin's chief technology officer, had ridden into City Hall on a white horse, determined to root out the patronage and self-dealing that flourished under prior mayor Marc Morial. And Haydel, Morial's uncle, had held a contract to manage the city's Regional Transit Authority that embodied just those things.

Funny how time changes your perspective.

Haydel eventually went to prison after pleading guilty to stealing $550,000 from the transit system he managed. And now Meffert, long since thrown from his metaphorical steed, is a target of a criminal investigation for his own involvement in City Hall contracts.

There's one more interesting similarity. Both criminal investigations were largely spurred by related civil actions.

Before he found himself in the U.S. attorney's cross hairs, Haydel starred in a confusing round of suits and countersuits over his behavior as head of Metro New Orleans Transit Inc., which managed the RTA, and his company's termination.

After Nagin took office, his appointed RTA chair, Jimmy Reiss, not only fired Haydel but pushed a lawsuit alleging he had been "unjustly enriched" because his consulting contract had been altered -- after the agency's board had approved it -- to increase his monthly payment and add a half million dollar termination penalty.

Haydel sued for defamation and attempted in a separate suit to recoup roughly $400,000 in back pay and the $504,000 that Reiss refused to pay. The RTA also filed a civil RICO suit, which alleged actual criminality.

After some damning sworn testimony from Haydel in court -- including his admission that he'd added the termination penalty in order to make it more difficult for a new mayor to fire him -- Haydel settled, walking away with $650,000 in a deal that called for all litigation to end.

RTA officials were none too happy to have to settle, but they were clearly pleased to have provided a road map to federal investigators, who had no trouble following it all the way to an indictment. That, in turn, led to a plea deal that required Haydel to return much of his settlement.

That was all just before Hurricane Katrina, a lifetime ago in the city's collective memory.

Meffert's story is playing out as we speak. Following a trial overseen by Judge Rose Ledet -- the same judge, it turns out, who presided over the Haydel litigation -- an Orleans Parish jury is now deciding whether to hold Meffert, the city, computer giant Dell and firms run by Meffert friend Mark St. Pierre, a city subcontractor on his watch, liable for stealing crime camera technology from two jilted vendors.

It was St. Pierre who provided Meffert with a corporate credit card while he was still at City Hall, on which he charged $130,000 in all manner of personal expenses, from restaurant meals to strip club visits.

Testifying under oath, Meffert insisted that use of the credit card had nothing to do with the lucrative work he sent St. Pierre's way; rather it was a separate business arrangement condoned by the mayor. He also answered questions in a sworn deposition about his relationship with St. Pierre and his companies. The credit card may have been the most dramatic piece of evidence in the trial, but Meffert's attorney Randy Smith called it a red herring.
"Ah, the credit card! The credit card burning a hole in Mr. Meffert's wallet. Well, it doesn't have to do with the actual evidence of this case," Smith said in his closing argument.

Yet when the feds look at whether Meffert traded in influence as a city employee, the card will be central, as will the other links to St. Pierre established before and during the trial. Unlike Haydel, Meffert won't walk out of Civil District Court with a six-figure check, but it's not inconceivable that he could emerge from the litigation on top. But victory, if it comes, also could be fleeting. The RTA didn't get what it wanted through civil litigation, but by pursuing it, the agency helped the feds make a criminal case against Haydel. The ousted contractors suing Meffert might not get what they want either. But they've also drawn the feds a pretty clear road map.
extra credit.

how much orleans parish tax money dollars will be pissed away in the next six months?
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