Preferential treatment by Purchasing Department under Matassa administration

James Moore (l) with his pal, Gonzales Chief of Police Sherman Jackson.

Within weeks of assuming the parish presidency, Clint Cointment’s administration made personnel decisions which, if not overturned by the Parish Council, would result in over $1 million being pared from Ascension’s annual expenditure toward salary.  Word has it that counter-revolutionary elements on the council are pushing to undo several terminations and four individuals have appealed.  Two of those appeals were lodged by former (?) high-ranking Purchasing Department officials, both scheduled for Executive Session on Thursday’s Council agenda.

Purchasing, under former president Kenny Matassa’s administration, was roundly, but privately criticized by vendors too worried about their government-dependent livelihoods to speak out publicly.  A purported nest of nepotism, alleged favoritism in awarding contracts without adherence to applicable bid law, much of the carping was directed at then Purchasing Director Joan Shivers.  Shivers and her $90,744 salary under Matassa were early casualties of Cointment’s “restructuring.”

NOTE: The current administration declined further comment for the purposes of this piece.

An inordinate amount of that criticism centered around James Moore and his company, Expert Maintenance Services, LLC.  Anybody with a passing familiarity of local politics and government is well aware of Moore’s influence.  May 16, 2019 was even proclaimed “James Moore Day in Ascension Parish” by Matassa.

In a tangible sense every day of Matassa’s tenure was James Moore Day, particularly after the diminutive politico put all his own people in place when the calendar turned to 2017.  In the last half of Matassa’s tenure Moore’s company pocketed over $1.62 million, a vast portion of it without having to compete with other bidders.

At the urging of multiple job aspirants denied “meaningful opportunity” to bid jobs with Ascension Parish, Pelican Post submitted the following records request:

“Please produce all invoices and bids submitted to Ascension Parish Government by Expert Maintenance, LLC; along with every cancelled check evidencing payment by Ascension Parish Government to Expert Maintenance, LLC from January 1, 2016 through the present day.”

Upwards of 80 separate canceled checks were provided, roughly half of them to pay Expert for concrete-related jobs (constructing catch-basins and replacing driveways after East Ascension Drainage ditch work most often, but a few slabs and sidewalks are sprinkled in for good measure).  Expert pocketed over half-a-million dollars for concrete work, the majority of it without having to beat out competing bidders.  In the lengthy production there is not a single bid submitted by Moore on behalf of Expert that did not result in the company receiving a check, i.e. the company got every job on which it bid.

Two potential competitors claimed ignorance that the jobs were even being contemplated by Ascension Parish, much less bids being solicited.  In August 2017, when Project Manager Devin Russ began appearing in produced emails, Moore was reminded to submit a bid for all but a handful of jobs which Expert landed.  A sample…

It is a courtesy not extended to others.  That, in and of itself, provided Expert a leg up on the competition.

There was no bid information, at all, provided pursuant to our request for 2016-17, and 2019 records are comparatively sparse.  2018 records, though, are comprehensive and it happens to coincide with Expert’s best year.  Its “expertise” extends beyond forming/pouring concrete and building catch basins if those other canceled checks are an accurate barometer.

Let’s call them, for lack of a better term, “miscellaneous” as Expert executed such tasks as:

  • delivering washed gravel
  • constructing a cinder block wall to backstop errant throws at La La Regira Field
  • changing out insulation
  • removing trees/shrubs at one residence (a “no bid” contract for $3,785)
  • replacing rotten window frames at the Donaldsonville Courthouse (Expert’s original price, $8,750 was for a single window with no increase when four windows were added), etc.

And, yes, Expert Maintenance does “do windows” in the traditional sense.  It received a “no bid” contract to “clean/wash” 12 windows at $1,600 apiece, a $19,200 total.

Was there no manpower to spare in Matassas 540+ personnel pool to wash a few windows?

Expert’s biggest ticket jobs were “re-roofing” numerous parish buildings, $1.6 million over four years in a contract received at the recommendation of MB Design Consulting and approved by the Parish Council.

36 separate concrete-related invoices were paid from 2017-19, the number of jobs escalating as the parish’s roadside ditch maintenance program progressed.  Culvert replacement requires the removal/replacement of driveways.

The largest single check written was…

$54,517 pursuant to an invoice dated September 26, 2018 as part of a $60,571 job at Oakline Drive to improve drainage, a commendable goal if ever there was one.  But Expert was the only bid according to the records provided by Ascension Parish.  Two potential bidders we spoke to had no idea the job was being contemplated.

The minute entry for the Parish Council’s July 19, 2018 meeting includes the following under its Consent Agenda:

The discrepancy is due to a $6,054 “retainage” which Expert would receive soon after pocketing the larger instrument’s proceeds.  Supposedly, the Purchasing Department’s website includes all bids/Requests for Quotes, but has no record of the “Oakline Drainage Improvement” RFQ referenced in those minutes.

Neither did we find any record of competitive bids for the work resulting in a $31,513 payment made to Expert in November 2018 (for constructing seven catch basins).  All told Expert did 16 concrete jobs in 2018 with evidence of competitive bidding provided in three instances.  Most were valued under $10,000 which could account for the lack of competitive bidding.

One job that was bid by multiple potential vendors, a concrete pad that needed pouring at St. Amant Park and involving the Recreation Department.

NOTE: Every job involving departments other than Drainage/Public Works would necessitate competitive bids if our deductions are correct.  Multiple jobs, under $10,000, at Lamar Dixon Expo Center all garnered multiple bids with Expert being hired.  In any event, competitive bids are evident in every instance involving other departments.

According to an email to James Moore from Project Manager Russ, the deadline to bid the St. Amant Park job was February 6, 2018 at 2:00 p.m.  Two bids were received on that day ($15,900 and $16,870) with no indication of the time received.  Moore submitted Expert’s winning bid, $14,785 via email at 2:05 p.m., five minutes beyond the deadline.  Expert was awarded the contract.

A second project requested by Recreation involved building a cinder block wall to act as a backstop at “LaLa Field” on the west bank.  Expert got the job for $12,500 when two competing bids ($9,052 and $9989.50) were kicked out because they “could not meet the deadline” (see below).  Maybe, had Russ solicited those delinquent bids in a timely manner they could have met the deadline; or is that practice reserved for Expert?

James Moore’s habit was, we were informed by the current administration, to submit his bids by amending the form provided in the Devin Russ email solicitations.  We were not aware that such a thing was possible, altering a form/spreadsheet in a received email; especially when, like in the Moore email above, the number seems to have been hand-written on the right side of the page.  It is the only such instance we could find in which the bid purportedly submitted by Moore was not typed onto the form.

In every other Moore bid the amount would also be included in text of the reply email to Devin Russ. For instance:

“Total Cost: $9899.50”

It was not included in the winning “LaLa Field” bid of $12,500, a rare instance when Moore’s bid was received before his competitors.  And Expert won the job with a quote nearly $3,500 higher than the lowest bid.

And, as evidenced by the Expert bid below, it was not held to deadlines for submission of bids.

Note bottom of page, “QUOTE DUE 11/28/2017 @ 3:00 P.M.”  Moore’s bid arrived at 9:41 PM.

More often than not Expert’s bid was the last received by Purchasing.  When five driveways on N Robert Wilson Road needed replacing, the job attracted three other bidders within the May 22 deadline.  The first ($16,276) was received on May 14, a second ($11,200) on May 16, and another ($16,375) the morning of May 22.

Then came Expert’s winning bid ($10,999) at 3:28 p.m on May 22, an hour before close of business on D (deadline) Day.

In July 2018 drainage work was contemplated on Henry Road, two culverts needed to be installed.  A competitor who had heard of the job, over $10,000 in value which seems to have triggered the need to receive bids (three according to multiple sources).  That competitor submitted a $13,385 bid at 4:41 p.m. on July 24.  Eight minutes later Devin Russ initiated the following email thread to James Moore:

Three days hence Moore responded, undercutting the first bidder by $885 via email at 9:17 a.m. on July 27 (see above).  55 minutes later and Russ would solicit a third and final bid…

which would be received 46 minutes later (at 10:58 a.m. on a Friday) from Sherman Jackson who, apparently, moonlights from his day job.  Jackson is the Chief of Police for the City of Gonzales.  His $13,000 bid came in second and Expert had the job.

As Purchasing Director, Joan Shivers approved approximately 3/4 of jobs, several others were approved by Matassa’s Executive Adminstrator, Kemlyn Lomas who is another appellant on Thursday’s agenda after suffering termination.  Assistant Purchasing Director Darilyn Berthelot, a third appellant scheduled to appear before the Council tomorrow, approved a handful.