Port commission anxious to close books on audit report

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 20, 2001


LAPLACE – The South Louisiana Port Commission is anxious to close the books on an audit report which came out last year and turned up a host of improper payments, including to two former port directors. According to the audit by Kushner LaGraize of Metairie, several alleged irregularities were revealed. These included the improper payment of $5,000 for moving expenses for former executive director Richard Clements to his present home in Florida. Another was an improper payment of $30,215 for accumulated sick leave and annual leave to Clements’ successor, Gary LaGrange, to which he was not entitled by state law. LaGrange, now executive director of the Mississippi State Port Authority, rewrote his original 1997 employment contract in mid-1999, allowing the payment. LaGrange added the new sick leave clause two months before hiss voluntary departure in August 1999. Normally, the sick leave payment could only have been made if LaGrange was terminated. Instead, he departed by his own choice to become port director in Gulfport, Miss. Audit attorney Peter Butler Jr. said the payment violates the state constitution and added that a 1990 attorney general opinion states that such illegal payments are more serious when paid to an unclassified employee, as LaGrange was. The commission voted to have Butler call the attorneys representing Clements and LaGrange and determine if either would consider repayment of the improper payments, write a final demand letter to the pair and set a cutoff date to receive responses. “We want to close this out by July 9,” said Commissioner Joey Murray. “I urge the commission to put this matter behind us.” Voting in favor were E.J. Martin, Gregory Gravois, Louis Joseph and Lawrence Jackson, with Murray and Bill Hubbard voting against and Jay Roberts abstaining, and added he thought the matter was “ludicrous.” “I’ve never been involved in any organization so petty,” Roberts said later. “I’d just as soon resign as be a part of an organization that would rather look backward than move forward. I’m totally on Mr. LaGrange’s side.” Once the responses are received, one way or the other, the matter will be forwarded to the Legislative Auditor’s office by July 9, the commissioners decided. Work continues on the Port of South Louisiana’s Globalplex facility in Reserve, both through taking down the old Godchaux-Henderson sugar refinery buildings or making improvements to the port facility itself. At the meeting, the lowest of nine bids was accepted from Abatement Services Inc. to take down the exterior walls of the 11-story Building B of the former sugar refinery. The approved bid to remove the building’s walls came to $124,999, according to the port’s executive director, Joseph Accardo. The commission also approved a $25,100 bid, one of two received, to plant 440 leland cypress trees along West 10th Street alongside Globalplex as a screen from passing traffic. Each tree will be five to six feet in height when planted near the complex. In other activity, the commission heard a presentation from Gen. Tom Sands, executive director of the Millennium Port, on its plans to attract container cargo to Louisiana. Sands explained most container ships do not want to proceed far into the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. The Millennium Port, wherever it is eventually located, will be designed to accept container vessels and ship them inland, mostly by rail. Either one major port facility will be built, possibly near Port Fourchon or near Lake Charles, or several smaller facilities will be built, as a part of existing ports in the lower Mississippi, especially at the Seapoint facility in Plaquemines Parish. “The closer to the mouth of the river, the better,” Accardo said. Also attending the presentation was Millennium Port representative for St. Charles Parish, Otto Candies III of Luling. Also, the commission approved an extension of Bollinger Shipyards Inc. to expand their foreign trade subzone, now headed for final approval by the U.S. Commerce Department. And, Eagan Insurance Agency Inc. received the insurance contract for the port, with a submission of $311,498 for all coverages for the year, out of three proposals received.