Still ensnared in a "sexting" scandal involving a then-high school boy, Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni made an appearance before the Jefferson Parish Council Oct. 19 and repeatedly cast his "iniquity" in religious terms, citing his Catholic faith and his quest for redemption. Yenni did not, however, do what the council and many in the audience wanted him to do — step down as parish president — and the council cannot force him to do so.
Outside the Council Chamber, two people from the newly formed group Recall Yenni (www.recallyenni.com) gathered signatures on a petition to formally recall the parish president. Inside, several people had signs saying "Resign" and "Take a Hike Mike: Resign."
Yenni has admitted sending "im- proper texts" to a 17-year-old high school senior at his Catholic alma mater, but he insists he broke no law. Under Louisiana law, the age of sexual consent is 17. Federal law, however, criminalizes sexting to a person under 18 years of age.
Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of New Orleans has banned Yenni from all Catholic schools and church gatherings where youth are involved. He likewise has been barred from his alma mater. The Jefferson Parish School Board is expected to adopt its own resolution banning him from campuses and public school functions.
In response to a WWL-TV report that the FBI was looking into the matter, Yenni paid for a commercial that ran on local news, stating, "Last summer I was old enough to know better, but I guess I was still young enough to do something stupid (Yenni was 38 at the time). I chose to send improper texts to a young man. I won't go into details out of respect for the rights and privacy of all parties."
Yenni said at the time that he has not been contacted by the FBI, then refused to discuss the matter further. He skipped a Jefferson Parish Council meeting earlier in the month.
Finally, at last week's Jefferson Parish Council meeting, the embattled parish president addressed the council right after the Pledge of Allegiance. He made a brief statement that was long on contrition but short of what virtually every elected official in Jefferson has asked of Yenni: resigning. Citing his Catholic faith as having "guided me through this storm," Yenni said he had "prayed longer and harder than I ever have before."
Speaking of what he called the "immorality that once weakened me," he added, "I never expect you or the people I disappointed to forget my iniquity. My personal life has been invaded, but I shall not let my professional life be invalidated," Yenni said. "But now it is my job to lead our parish forward, and I humbly ask you to let me do this job."
No one on the council replied.
Rumors of indiscretions related to text messages have dogged Yenni's political career for years, beginning with his 2010 race for Kenner mayor. At that time, two high-ranking staffers in the city's technology office resigned amid an investigation into whether Yenni's text messages had been supplied to his opponent, Nick Congemi.
Rumors of the current sexting scandal spread among politicos last year, when Yenni ran for Jefferson Parish president. They bubbled up again earlier this year when a college freshman (the same high schooler Yenni sexted) published an online essay about his encounter with a man he called "Kevin" — whom he described as "a politician with a wife and young child."
"Kevin," the student wrote, "discussed the possibility of eventually meeting to sleep together," repeatedly texted him, bought him designer underwear and kissed him in the bathroom of a local mall.
The student's essay was a cautionary note to other young gay men. It ends with a warning:
"After my own experience, I feel the need to warn other young, gay men — particularly those in relatively conservative environments — to steer clear of older men, especially in clandestine, intimate situations. These men abuse the immaturity and lack of experience of younger men. ... If any young men find themselves in a situation similar to mine, I urge them to consider the predatory nature of anyone sexually pursuing someone half his own age."
At last week's Jefferson Council meeting, the first public speaker was the only one to express support for Yenni. Pastor Aubrey Wallace of the Louisiana Coalition for Change called Yenni's actions "sleazy" and "the lowest you can get," but stressed God's redemption: "All of us got flaws. I don't think Sheriff Lee (the late Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee) would ask this man to resign, but maybe I'm wrong."
Waggaman resident George Peterson called the flap an "inter- national embarrassment" and added, "Mike, please. Do the right thing. Resign."
Throughout the meeting, Yenni sat with his back to the audience. At no time did he turn to face his accusers — or his constituents.
When public comment was over, Yenni suggested "political antagonists" were working against him as "moral police" on this issue and reeled off a list of his accomplishments in office as proof he should continue.
"I'm deeply sorry for my actions," he concluded — still addressing the council, not those in the room.
The council cast a unanimous vote of no confidence in Yenni.
If Yenni continues to refuse to step down, the recall petition will proceed under state law, which allows 180 days to gather signatures from one-third of Jefferson's registered voters. Meanwhile, a host of Jefferson Parish officials has called for Yenni's resignation, including the Gretna, Westwego, Kenner and Harahan City Councils, Sheriff Newell Normand, Assessor Tom Capella, Clerk of Court Jon Gegenheimer and the Republican Party of Jefferson Parish.