I-20 Board President Otis Chisley

Members of the Interstate 20 Economic Development Corporation’s board of directors scrambled last week to explain conflicting statements they gave about a vote they secretly took in executive session to hire an Alexandria attorney, who had been billing the corporation days before he was even hired.

The I-20 board’s action in executive session was at odds with Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law, which requires votes or final action to be taken in open session. The board also later sought to conceal its secretive activity by replacing the board meeting minutes — detailing the permanent action taken in executive session — with an edited version of the minutes, which was given to the press.

An investigation of the matter by The Ouachita Citizen revealed that Monroe city attorney Nanci Summersgill arranged for Steven Oxenhandler, the Alexandria attorney, to bill the I-20 board in advance of the board’s meeting in which he was to be officially retained. Summersgill met with the I-20 board in executive session to persuade the board to hire Oxenhandler.

Oxenhandler is an attorney with the Alexandria law firm of Gold, Weems, Bruser, Sues & Rundell. His firm billed the I-20 board for his some 26 hours of work that amounted to some $6,000 in legal charges before the I-20 board hired him, according to records obtained by The Ouachita Citizen.

Those legal fees have since been dropped.

I-20 board members’ stories at odds with each other, themselves

The I-20 board oversees an economic development district seated along I-20 within the city of Monroe’s corporate limits, and receives a portion of sales tax revenues generated at retail stores within the district’s boundaries.

Lately, the I-20 board has been embroiled in negotiations with Monroe businessman Eddie Hakim, who has announced on several occasions during the past 10 years that he would develop some 82 acres within the economic development district.

When the I-20 board met Nov. 17, the board agreed to convene in executive session to discuss a lawsuit Hakim filed against the economic development corporation. Through his company I-20 Corridor Properties LLC, Hakim sued the I-20 board, claiming it owes him for “incalculable damages” and is obligated to drain his 82 acres since he is allowing the board to spend $2.8 million on the construction of a boulevard with curbs, gutters and brick roundabouts through his property. That boulevard would cause enormous drainage problems and would thwart retail and commercial developments without significant amounts of filler dirt and other costs, Hakim claimed.

When the I-20 board exited executive session at its meeting last month, I-20 board president Otis Chisley told members of the press the board had simply discussed who it could hire as legal counsel to represent the board in the litigation with Hakim but had not made a final decision. Louis Scott, who maintains a law practice as a criminal defense attorney, has served as the I-20 board’s attorney since 2005, when Chisley was first a board member.

“We have to make a decision at some point or another about legal counsel, and that’s what we were dealing with today,” Chisley said. “We’re not surprised (at Hakim’s lawsuit). It’s unfortunate we have to go through this.”

Chisley was asked at that time whether the I-20 board had decided who it would hire as legal counsel in the lawsuit against Hakim. In response, Chisley said, “We have discussed hiring several different attorneys.”

When asked again whether the board had hired an attorney, Chisley said, “No.”

Acting on a tip about the I-20 board’s actions on Nov. 17, The Ouachita Citizen approached I-20 board members Johnny Bryant and Charles Pritchard prior to the board’s meeting last week. When asked repeatedly whether they had voted in executive session to hire an attorney, Pritchard remained silent while Bryant said, “No, we haven’t voted.”

“We haven’t voted. No, we haven’t,” Bryant repeated, looking at Pritchard.

Later that evening, Bryant supplied The Ouachita Citizen with a copy of the minutes from its Nov. 17 meeting. He circled the section of the minutes that showed the board had hired Oxenhandler during executive session.

“I don’t recall the timeline of what we did before or after executive session,” Bryant said.

At the end of last week’s meeting, The Ouachita Citizen questioned Chisley about the matter. By that time, Chisley had changed his story.

“(After executive session), we came back in open session and discussed different lawyers,” Chisley said.

The Ouachita Citizen corrected Chisley, reminding him that the I-20 board did not discuss hiring lawyers in open session. Chisley was informed a recording of the meeting would show Chisley told the press the board had not hired anyone at that time.

“I don’t recall making that statement because we have that information here, and you can see that information in the copy of the minutes,” Chisley said.

Later that night, Chisley called The Ouachita Citizen and explained he had stayed after the meeting with Bryant and Pritchard to discuss the matter and wished to amend his statement.

“I did make a mistake in reference to my comments,” Chisley said.

When asked whether he was referring to his Nov. 17 statement that the I-20 board had not hired an attorney, Chisley said, “That statement was made by me.”

Open Meetings Law vs. I-20 board

As a local governmental subdivision of Monroe created by the state Legislature that depends on public tax dollars for its revenues, the I-20 Economic Development Corporation’s board is subject to Louisiana Open Meetings Law, including provisions prohibiting the taking of votes during executive session.

When asked whether he understood taking a vote during executive session violated state laws concerning open meetings, Chisley said, “Yes, I realize what you’re saying.”

Louisiana R.S. 42: 16 states that executive sessions are limited to discussion of matters that are not appropriate for open meetings, but forbids any “final or binding action” to be taken.

“An executive session shall be limited to matters allowed to be exempted from discussion at open meetings by R.S. 42:17; however, no final or binding action shall be taken during an executive session,” the statute states.

The statute also forbids a public body from using any executive session “as a subterfuge to defeat the purposes of this Chapter.”

On separate occasions following last week’s I-20 board meeting, The Ouachita Citizen spoke with Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo and Monroe City Councilman Ray Armstrong. Both are members of the I-20 board.

Though both men participated in the vote to hire Oxenhandler during executive session, they later declared the vote was wrongly taken following questioning by The Ouachita Citizen. Mayo is seeking re-election; Armstrong is running against him.

Armstrong first denied any vote occurred during executive session.

“We didn’t vote,” he said. “There was no vote.”

Later, Armstrong acknowledged a vote had occurred but offered clarification that he meant the vote should not have happened. He said the I-20 board’s actions ran afoul of Open Meetings Law.

“We can’t do that,” Armstrong said. “We don’t have the right to do something like that.”

Mayo echoed a similar position, describing the vote taken during executive session as a “mistake.”

“It was a mistake that was made, and it should have been done in open session,” Mayo said. “I think because there was an urgency to get an attorney, I think that the members and also the attorneys who were there made a misstep. You can go into the executive session to talk about the litigation, but you’re not supposed to vote on it. Usually somebody will catch that, but nobody caught it.”

Scott, the I-20 board’s attorney who attended the executive session on Nov. 17, was unavailable for comment concerning the I-20 board’s action.

Armstrong and Mayo both said they believed the I-20 board would need to vote again, since the first vote occurred under illegal circumstances.

“That still hasn’t been done,” Mayo said. “That vote still has to be taken in an open session.”

Prior to the beginning of the I-20 board’s meeting last week, Summersgill waited outside the Mayor’s Conference Room at Monroe City Hall where the I-20 board regularly meets. She told The Ouachita Citizen she was waiting to speak with Pritchard, who serves as the I-20 board’s secretary and keeps the minutes of the board’s meetings. Shortly thereafter, Bryant asked where Pritchard had gone since they needed him to form a quorum and begin the meeting.

After Pritchard arrived, the I-20 board took a roll call and then voted unanimously to approve a set of minutes Bryant handed to The Ouachita Citizen. Those minutes showed the I-20 board’s hiring of Oxenhandler during executive session on a motion passed unanimously.

When Pritchard discovered Bryant had given The Ouachita Citizen a copy of those minutes, he asked for them to be returned. The Ouachita Citizen took a photo of the minutes and returned the piece of paper to Pritchard.

“You can’t keep those,” Pritchard said. “You can have a redacted copy, a copy that has the executive session redacted.”

Pritchard then gave The Ouachita Citizen a copy of the minutes that had replaced the information about Oxenhandler’s hiring and the vote taken by I-20 board members with the phrase, “REDACTED FOR PRIVACY PURPOSES.”

The I-20 board’s action in executive session on Nov. 17 was not surprising in light of the board’s history of holding meetings, largely in secret. Before mid-2014, the board regularly held its meetings privately, forbidding entry to the press or other members of the public until minutes before adjournment when board members entered open session and took a brief vote, sometimes on an undefined or vaguely explained matter. During those private meetings, the I-20 board also took a roll call, adopted its minutes and agenda.

Mention of the I-20 board’s secretive practices appeared in reports by Ouachita Citizen reporter Johnny Gunter as well as in reports by Walter Abbott, editor and publisher of the online news blog, Lincoln Parish News Online. Abbott submitted a formal complaint about the I-20 board to Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell as well as two criminal complaints to Fourth Judicial District Attorney Jerry Jones. Jones never addressed Abbott’s two criminal complaints submitted in May 2013 and in January 2014, asking his office to enforce Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law at I-20 board gatherings. Caldwell’s office later intervened, leading to the I-20 board agreeing to conduct their meetings in open session.

Oxenhandler’s arrangement with the I-20 board

According to the full minutes of the I-20 board’s Nov. 17 meeting, Pritchard offered the motion to hire Oxenhandler to represent the I-20 board in its litigation with Hakim. Armstrong seconded the motion following Summersgill’s recommendations.

“Mrs. Summersgill opined on the Hakim lawsuit (against the I-20 board over possible drainage problems on his property),” the minutes continued. “(Summersgill) presented the names of Brian Crawford, Tom Hayes and Steven Oxenhandler as potential attorneys to handle the Hakim suit. Mrs. Summersgill presented her evaluation of the attorneys. A general discussion ensued.

“Motion was made by Mr. Pritchard and seconded by Dr. Armstrong as follows: The Board shall engage Steven Oxenhandler to represent the Board in the issues with the Hakim group and to provide answers to pending lawsuit as needed at a billing rate of $190.00 per hour plus charges for paralegals and expenses, such as charges approved for an initial amount up to $10,000.00 with additional charges and service to be approved and needed. Motion passed unanimously.”

The minutes then state that Pritchard offered a motion to reconvene the meeting in open session, which received a second by Armstrong.

According to Gold, Weems, Bruser, Sues & Rundell’s web site, Oxenhandler’s areas of practice include employment and labor litigation (primary), civil rights defense, insurance and public liability defense and appeals.

According to the invoices from Gold, Weems, Bruser, Sues & Rundell obtained by The Ouachita Citizen, the Alexandria law firm charged the I-20 Board for $6,042.29 for 26.40 hours worked by Oxenhandler in the litigation against Hakim. The invoices are dated Dec. 3 for legal services rendered from Nov. 13 to Nov. 30.

The first date containing charges to the I-20 board is Nov. 13, four days before the I-20 board took Summersgill’s recommendation to hire Oxenhandler. Oxenhandler also charged for hours worked on Nov. 14, Nov. 16 and Nov. 17, the day of the I-20 board meeting. On Nov. 14, Oxenhandler’s charges include professional fees charged for communications with Summersgill.

During last week’s meeting, Armstrong and Bryant questioned why Oxenhandler had charged them prior to their vote to hire him.

“We discussed legal representation at our last meeting but the invoice from Mr. Oxenhandler is dated before that, all the way to Nov. 13,” Armstrong said.

Bryant held up Oxenhandler’s invoice, echoing Armstrong’s remarks.

“He’s charging us for $6,000 worth of work before we even hired him,” Bryant said.

Chisley said he had spoken with Oxenhandler but “did not talk to him prior to these dates.”

“We entered into a contractual agreement and agreed to hire him at our last meeting,” Chisley said.

“Well, I don’t think we’ve actually seen the contract,” Bryant replied. “I don’t know if he sent you (Chisley) a contract, but we haven’t seen it.”

Chisley didn’t answer Bryant’s remark but said Oxenhandler had been “moving with haste” to address the litigation.

When asked how Oxenhandler knew to begin work responding to the Hakim lawsuit before the I-20 board had voted to hire him, Chisley said, “I don’t know the answer to that.”

Mayo — who received political contributions from Oxenhandler of $2,500 in 2012 and $500 in 2014, according to state campaign finance records — said he did not have any communications with Oxenhandler concerning the Hakim lawsuit prior to Nov. 17.

The Ouachita Citizen filed a public records request for copies of emails and/or written communications from earlier this year to the present day between Oxenhandler and Summersgill as well as other top officials in Mayo’s administration, including Dr. Dwight Vines, economic development director for the city and unofficial advisor to the I-20 board; and director of administration David Barnes, who serves as the financial advisor to the I-20 board, among others.

Earlier this week, Mayo said Summersgill had communicated with Oxenhandler about the Hakim lawsuit and then made the recommendation to the I-20 board to hire the Alexandria attorney.

“I think Nanci had probably spoken with him and she made the recommendation, but that’s the only one (Mayo’s department heads) I’m aware of who spoke with him,” Mayo said.

On Tuesday, Oxenhandler told The Ouachita Citizen he began working on the Hakim lawsuit on behalf of the I-20 board after Summersgill notified him about it before the I-20 board’s meeting on Nov. 17.

“Well, we started working on it when I was notified about it by Ms. Summersgill,” Oxenhandler said. “We have since eliminated those billing entries, and we ate those charges.”

“We’re not charging them for anything before they hired us,” he added.

Summersgill was unavailable for comment Tuesday, and had not yet responded to The Ouachita Citizen’s public records requests, submitted on Friday, Dec. 18.

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