At the Sewerage and Water Board offices, employees at many levels complain about board member Benjamin Edwards. They describe a paradox: a man whose temper and meddling in agency operations belie the Ninth Ward community service for which he is often lauded.
An investigation by Gambit Weekly has turned up other contradictions. He wields considerable influence as chair of the S&WB Operations Committee; yet Edwards, 47, had no experience in sewerage or water management, maintenance, or any related field prior to his initial appointment to the S&WB by Mayor Sidney Barthelemy. Moreover, he was arrested earlier this year on bad check charges in Jefferson Parish.
Complaints about Edwards have been lodged all the way up to the S&WB president, Mayor Marc Morial, who has protected Edwards as a Board member and even reappointed him to the Board in the midst of complaints from other Board members. The mayor has indicated he likes Edwards' style of stirring things up and of pressuring the S&WB to hire minority firms. Edwards has been a staunch supporter of the mayor's push to privatize the S&WB. Morial has refused to answer questions about Edwards.
Edwards' May 31 arrest went largely unnoticed. Gambit Weekly had learned of an outstanding warrant for him on bad check charges filed in Jefferson Parish in 1997, and made an inquiry to the parish District Attorney's Economic Crime Division. Edwards has since made restitution to the victim.
Edwards gets praise for his work as executive director of his Ninth Ward church, Third Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, as well as a housing program tied to the church called Third Shiloh Housing Inc., which renovates blighted homes. But a Gambit Weekly investigation shows that Edwards has arranged for contractors, financed by the S&WB, to work on Third Shiloh-owned or affiliated properties.
Some S&WB employees tell Gambit the biggest "Edwards problem" is the money they say his meddling has cost the agency -- hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnecessary or improperly awarded contracts.
Professionally, Edwards claims to own and operate Edwards Telecommunications LLC. It's listed in the phone directory without an address; in S&WB documents Edwards listed a 2844 Piety St. address as its location. However, the Louisiana Secretary of State shows no record of any such company. According to the city Revenue Department, Edwards held a city occupancy permit in 1992 for the company at 2614 Tulane Ave. That permit expired in 1992 and has not been renewed, the city says. The Tulane Avenue address houses the administrative offices of the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office. It was formerly owned by the labor union in which Edwards had been active, the Communication Workers of America, says the sheriff's Chief Administrative Officer, Michael Geerken.
Sewerage and Water Board appointments are unpaid, part-time jobs that generally require a few hours a week. By many accounts, Edwards spends the bulk of his week on S&WB activities.
Edwards did not respond to interview requests for this story. The agency has issued a blanket refusal to answer questions about Edwards and will not allow anyone except S&WB spokesman Joe Puglia to communicate with Gambit Weekly. Puglia told Gambit last week that Edwards asked that all media requests for him be routed through Morial's office.
Documents obtained through the Louisiana Public Records Act -- along with a series of interviews conducted with board employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity -- paint a portrait of a man who has assumed an unusual amount of control over what is supposed to be an independent city agency.
Dollars Down the Drain
The traditional role of corporate board members is to set broad organizational policies and not become involved in routine, day-to-day operations. S&WB members who spoke to Gambit say that's how they perceive their role. But, critics say, nearly every day Edwards contacts management and workers directly to orchestrate activities, personnel matters and contracts. "He's drumming up work where work doesn't need to be done," says one S&WB employee.
Several S&WB employees and one Board member, all of whom asked not to be identified, describe Edwards as verbally abusive, saying they have observed him swearing and screaming at employees to follow his directives. They cite one instance last year in which a contract generated by Edwards cost the S&WB hundreds of thousands of dollars unnecessarily.
The way in which projects, such as repairs and renovations, are assigned at the S&WB's General Superintendent's division is this: Field personnel generally send a request for work, and a justification for the request, to the Engineering Department. Engineering then determines which projects should be given a priority, comes up with an estimated cost for each project, and requests funding for the projects through the Budget Department. Emergency situations are handled immediately.
This is done on an annual basis, usually at summer's end, and generally takes a couple of months for Engineering to complete a timetable for the list of necessary projects. One particular contract pushed by Edwards didn't go through the normal channels, however. In fact, S&WB documents question the project's necessity. The job ultimately cost far more than the $15,000 public bid threshold, yet no bids were sought.
The paper trail on that contract starts with Edwards.
The contract involved the renovation of the annex building at the S&WB's Central Yard, located on Peoples Avenue in the Gentilly area. An inter-office memo from Howard Noland, Director of Support Services, to S&WB General Superintendent Joe Sullivan on March 21, 2000, states that "Mr. Benjamin Edwards has request[ed] that an assessment of the building be done for the possibility of re-modification."
No other documents show that work on the building was necessary, warranted or requested by anyone other than Edwards. The first paperwork that shows up regarding the renovation of the building -- which is used by field crews before they leave for their shifts -- is not an evaluation of the facility's condition, nor complaints by the workers who use it.
The initial document on the Annex Building renovation is the minutes of a March 28 meeting involving Edwards, Sullivan, Noland and two other S&WB engineers. It details a long list of changes specified by Edwards. "Mr. Edwards led the attendees on a walking tour of the Annex Building and stated to them that the following improvements are needed," the minutes begin. "Also, he instructed Mr. Nolan[d] to prepare a cost estimate for these improvements by the end of the week."
The estimate totaled $89,500, and a subsequent memo by Sullivan states, "It has been authorized that Exceptional Temporaries contract to perform this work."
Exceptional Temporaries is the company that holds the current S&WB maintenance labor contract, which provides skilled or semi-skilled workers, and tools specific to their craft, as a supplement to regular S&WB work crews. An S&WB memo calling for bid proposals contains a list of tools the contractor is expected to provide.
The Annex Building project called for a company to do construction and provide supplies beyond the scope of Exceptional Temporaries' agreement, and so another contract should have been awarded, S&WB employees say. Instead, the job simply went to Exceptional Temporaries, under the premise that the work would be covered under its existing contract. Ultimately, the project's cost exceeded the $15,000 public bid threshold.
Soon after Exceptional Temporaries began the work, alarmed supervisors saw that, instead of making renovations to the building, workers were demolishing it. Facility Maintenance chief Glenn Semel issued a stop-work order on April 20, telling Exceptional Temporaries to furnish a final labor cost for the work the company had done so far. The $31,486.21 total included the costs of tools and sub-contracted workers -- extras that Board employees say were not covered in the Exceptional Temporaries contract. But the S&WB paid the bill without comment, according to Exceptional Temporaries president Randall Moore.
He told Gambit that the S&WB never gave his company the chance to finish the job. "You've got to do demolition before you do renovation," Moore says. "They gave us a notice to proceed. We started the work, and they told us to stop."
When asked whether the S&WB had approved the tools and sub-contracted workers that were paid outside the scope of his contract, Moore referred the question to the Sewerage and Water Board, which refused to answer it.
By April 20, the S&WB was left with a demolished, unusable building. S&WB engineers surveyed what was left of it and estimated it would cost $213,000 to repair the facility. The total cost of Edwards' intervention thus came to $245,086.21.
The agency had to scramble to come up with money to pay for the demolition and repairs. S&WB supervisors were infuriated and resisted using money budgeted to their departments to pay for a questionable job generated by a board member.
Wrote Public Works Maintenance Superintendent Stephen J. Schneider in a May 4, 2000 memo: "There are serious questions that should be answered before any payments are made. I would recommend sending this invoice to the Legal Department for the following reasons: 1. Who requested work to be done? 2. Where are the contract and permits? 3. This building was repaired approximately 1 year ago. Was this work necessary? 4. This was not an emergency. Who authorized overtime and why? 5. Why were eleven carpenters and two Class A electricians needed for demolition work?"
Schneider's specific questions never got answered at the board level. Instead, when the Central Yard Annex Building came up for discussion at a board meeting last May, it caused considerable confusion among board members. Most couldn't understand how the contract came about in the first place, or why it had become so bungled.
As General Superintendent Joseph Sullivan stood at the podium, with Edwards and the rest of the Board seated in front of him, Board members repeatedly asked him who was responsible for the contract. Sullivan groped for an answer, and came up with the name of Semel, the Facility Maintenance chief.
"Was he at the site?" then-board member Mary Zervigon asked.
"No," Sullivan admitted.
"Then he's not in charge of the job!" Zervigon retorted.
Board members wanted to know about the condition of the building before the demolition. Edwards stepped in: "There are 390 men who cannot use or occupy that building, and I want to say for the record they did not use or occupy that building before the demolition, because of the deplorable conditions."
Several S&WB employees who are familiar with the Annex Building emphatically deny Edwards' claim.
The agency would not comment on the current status of the building, though S&WB employees told Gambit the renovation work was nearly completed at press time.
Zervigon now says members of the board had two fundamental problems with the Central Yard Annex Building project. First, no one could seem to identify who was in charge of it. The other, she says, is the questionable manner in which the project got started.
"When they walked through the building and pointed out what needed to be done, who was there? And were they actually within the scope that the board had given them, the authority that the board had given them?" she asks, in an apparent reference to Edwards. "I'm not at all sure about that."
Line by Line
The term "Sewerage and Water Board" refers both to the agency's governing board and to the name of the agency itself, a self-governing institution created by the state. The Board includes Morial, who serves as president, and 11 other members, three of whom are City Council members.
At the S&WB, there are no written requirements for board members, no job descriptions and few guidelines, most of them dealing with the appointment of Board members. Board members must abide by the Code of Governmental Ethics.
The Board's bylaws set forth guidelines for appointments, committee responsibilities and meeting procedures, but none identifies the proper role of board members for the agency -- or grounds for their termination.
Some board members told Gambit their role is to set procedure, hire executives, and remain connected with the agency at the policy-making level, making contact only with employees that the board itself has appointed.
Board President Pro Tem Henry Dillon expressed his understanding of a board member's role during a September 1999 meeting with S&WB workers. "Mr. Dillon said that he normally didn't like to get involved in management," the meeting minutes read. "It is the board's role to set policy, not get involved in the day to day management of the staff."
Mary Zervigon, who left the board in late January of this year after her term expired, echoes that sentiment. "It is not the role of the board to micromanage," she says.
But that has not been Edwards' style. Few people at the S&WB are more involved in the contract process than he. Edwards sometimes has attended pre-bid contract hearings generally attended by engineers, consultants and prospective bidders; board members are not typically notified of such meetings and have to seek them out themselves. S&WB employees tell Gambit they can't recall any other Board member attending these meetings.
Agency workers recall that in 1999, when the agency was negotiating its lucrative maintenance labor contract, Edwards contacted mid-level managers and supervisors daily to request specifications of the contract and sometimes to make line-by-line changes. Memos from that time period detail Edwards' interest in the labor contract. "Mr. Edwards was insisting that something to be done to amend the contract with Exceptional Temporaries," writes S&WB Special Counsel John D. Lambert in a memo dated Sept. 27, 1999.
"He'll say, 'Article X -- I want it to read like this,'" says one S&WB supervisor.
Other internal memos obtained by Gambit Weekly support the claim that Edwards has long been intimately involved in the S&WB's contracting process. "Mr. Ben Edwards has requested the following information about Contract 8079 as soon as possible," reads a 1992 memo from General Superintendent Joseph Sullivan.
The memo lists a number of questions about the contract holder, DiGiovanni's Insulation and Refractory Inc., a Kenner company that had competed with Exceptional Temporaries for the S&WB maintenance labor contract.
Questions attributed to Edwards include "Need to know something about the employees and where they live, who they work with and who they are hiring," and "Need a makeup of personnel this Company is hiring, the ethnic background, etc." Such questions likely generate from Edwards' involvement with the S&WB's Economically Disadvantaged Business Program, formulated to give disadvantaged businesses (DBEs), such as those owned by minorities and women, the maximum chance to compete for S&WB contracts.
Agency employees say they cannot recall any other Board member asking such questions.
Meanwhile, in 1998 DiGiovanni sued the S&WB, claiming the agency illegally modified the contract requirements -- after the contract had been bid -- to add "an unreasonably high" DBE participation requirement. The suit charged that the S&WB told DiGiovanni to contact two DBE businesses "pre-selected by the SWB" to add to the contract.
The suit was settled out of court, and the contract ultimately went to Exceptional Temporaries.
In 1999, S&WB attorney Lambert wrote to Superintendent Joe Sullivan saying that Edwards was intervening on behalf of a contractor. "This office has been advised by Mr. Ben Edwards, a board member, that Exceptional Temporaries ... needs a change in the contract in two areas." Both areas, Lambert continues, involve special concessions for the contractor, at least one of which contradicted S&WB policy by asking that the agency reimburse the contractor for the cost of a supervisor or coordinator.
That situation happened again more recently, as seen in another internal memo dated Oct. 12, 2000, from Budget Analyst Lawrence J. Federico. "I have received a number of visits and phone calls from Mr. Ben Edwards requesting additional funding for the labor contract," Federico writes. "I want to make sure that everybody involved clearly understands that spending is usually restricted to the limit authorized in the budget."
It could be argued that Edwards simply likes to ride herd on the S&WB staff, seeing first-hand that they comply with the board's decrees. As ex-board member and City Councilman Oliver Thomas puts it: "You can take it two ways. Maybe that board member is a little too involved in day-to-day operations, or maybe that board member sees the management's lack of initiative."
But the memos also can be read to suggest an extraordinary situation: a board member working against the agency's financial interests to provide more money to a particular contractor, Exceptional Temporaries, at the public's expense.
Church Work, Criminal Trouble
In a 1990 article, Times-Picayune reporter Coleman Warner, in his "City Hall Notebook," commented that Edwards was "not bound by a job." On his original S&WB confirmation questionnaire, Edwards listed his employment as "President -- Edwards Telecommunication Company." In a confirmation questionnaire Edwards filled out in March 2000 for his reappointment to the board, Edwards listed his employment as "Chairman of the Board, Third Shiloh Enterprises," and "President of Edwards Telecommunications L.L.C. -- 1984 to present."
A check with the Louisiana Secretary of State's Corporations Division shows no registered business or LLC by the name of Edwards Telecommunications. The company's address, listed on Edwards' confirmation questionnaire, is a small, nondescript yellow house down the street from Edwards' home. City records show the house is owned by Third Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.
The relationship between Third Shiloh and Edwards also figures into Edwards' arrest. The warrant claims Edwards issued worthless checks totaling $1,006.33 to a Harahan company, Signs Now. Edwards is accused of writing two checks on behalf of Third Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, for $387 and $619.33, on July 21 and 22 of 1997. Both checks bounced.
The Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Economic Crime Division subpoenaed Edwards at Third Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, requesting that he respond to the victim's charges. Edwards did not reply, and the arrest warrant was issued in August 1998.
After Gambit contacted the Economic Crime Division, division chief Earl J. Claunch said the case had been relegated to a low priority status. Another arrest warrant was issued this year, and Edwards was arrested May 31 on the bad check charges.
Claunch says Edwards made full restitution almost immediately, the funds were delivered to the victim, and the case is now closed.
Both Third Shiloh Housing Inc. and the Third Shiloh church are on file with the Secretary of State. Both share the same facility, a tidy brick building in a Ninth Ward neighborhood.
Edwards has attended Third Shiloh since his teenage years. He has been lauded for its work purchasing abandoned houses in the area, renovating them, and offering credit counseling and legal help to low-income residents interested in buying them. The two agencies have become respected in the Ninth Ward for their charitable activities.
Edwards' ties to Third Shiloh factor into another complaint about him: that he has violated S&WB policy and governmental ethics laws by using S&WB contracts to benefit the church.
The complaints stem from Edwards' involvement with the S&WB's Economically Disadvantaged Business Program. Internal documents show that Edwards had arranged for the agency to pay one DBE contractor to clean up lots affiliated with Third Shiloh's housing work. According to S&WB documents, Edwards directed water board staff to select JLJ Construction Inc. for the contract, though the company did not submit the low bid.
S&WB documents obtained by Gambit show that $3,000 was authorized to "properly dispose of the fallen tree at 2700 Louisa Street, cut down weeds and remove debris from 2944 Louisa Street/2945 Metropolitan Street, remove all trash and debris from both properties and dispose properly." The 2700 Louisa St. lot has no owner listed in public records, but a sign on the property pronounces it a "Third Shiloh Community Revitalization Housing Project." The 2944 Louisa Street lot belongs to Third Shiloh, city records show.
CC: Ben Edwards
Most S&WB contracts arise from a documented need to have work done. In the church lots' case, the paper trail starts with a memo written by the board's Network Engineering supervisor Gerald Preau, saying that his department "has no way of knowing the names of the property owners of these sites. Perhaps Mr. Edwards could assist us by providing the names of these property owners." Internal S&WB memos do not show whether Edwards ever answered that question.
JLJ Construction, the DBE company Edwards chose for the contract, is a small Gentilly business owned by James L. Jones and his wife, Daisy. The company gained some notoriety a year ago when it was the subject of a WVUE-TV news report saying that JLJ, while working for the S&WB, had been photographed filling open street excavations with garbage and then paving over them.
JLJ began gaining substantial contracts with the S&WB in the mid-1990s, according to water board documents. The S&WB was not JLJ's only customer, but it turned out to be a lucrative one. JLJ reported to the S&WB that at the end of 1994, its gross receipts totaled $64,860. In 2000, according to water board documents, the S&WB alone was directly paying JLJ $105,520.
But the company has made more than that from S&WB projects. Other S&WB contractors have hired JLJ as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) sub-contractor for 16 jobs since 1995, the S&WB says. The agency has no record of how much money JLJ made as a sub-contractor, because such figures are negotiated between JLJ and the main contractors. Gambit found no link between Edwards' support of JLJ as a main S&WB contractor, and any work that JLJ has obtained as a subcontractor.
James Jones, a former shipyard and construction worker who started the company in 1983, did not return calls for comment in connection with this story.
JLJ was the second-to-lowest bidder for the church lot contract, and the S&WB's Network Engineering department recommended that the board choose the company that submitted the lower bid. However, at the bottom of the purchase order reads a typewritten note: "JLJ Constrs. selected by direction of Ben Edwards."
S&WB employees tell Gambit Weekly that because Edwards does not put his orders in writing -- always making them in person, over the phone or through an S&WB manager -- they try to document when Edwards makes specific instructions contrary to established S&WB policy. They do so, one S&WB employee says, "to cover our asses."
On another occasion, a S&WB official tried to help JLJ obtain a waiver from state licensing requirements. In a January 2000 letter written to the State Licensure Board for Contractors, EDBP director Alton DeLarge wrote, "As a result of JLJ's past experience and excellent work performance we are asking that you consider waiving the state licensing test for highway and streets construction relative to this company."
DeLarge copied one Board member on that letter: Ben Edwards.
The state refused DeLarge's request for a waiver. One year later, faced with a legal challenge from a competitor, owner Jones took the licensing test and passed.
Since DeLarge wrote to the state licensing board praising JLJ, the company defaulted on a major job and reportedly cost the Board substantially more money than it would have cost to use in-house workers.
'Get to the Bottom'
As part of hurricane preparedness at the Sewerage and Water Board, work crews from the S&WB's Building and Grounds Maintenance department clean the debris out of wetwells and drainage canals at the agency's 22 drainage pumps. This allows the pumps to work more efficiently when hit with heavy rains.
In March 2000, the S&WB decided instead to have an outside contractor clean out the wetwell at Drainage Pumping Station 7, located on Marconi Drive near Tad Gormley Stadium. In a letter obtained by Gambit Weekly, S&WB Engineering Chief Rudolph St. Germain wrote to JLJ Construction, saying the General Superintendent's Office had directed him to get a price quote from JLJ for the job. St. Germain didn't specify who had issued the directive -- but S&WB employees say Edwards was behind the request.
JLJ originally responded with a $30,000 figure, but three days later reduced the quote to $14,800 -- $200 short of the $15,000 public bid threshold.
The S&WB awarded JLJ a contract specifying that the S&WB would provide heavy equipment and equipment operators -- but inexplicably would spend $14,800 to temporarily hire four JLJ workers. S&WB managers became outraged. Pumping Superintendent Bob Moenian sent an angry memo about the contract to his superviser, Jack Heurkamp.
"If we do the math, it is clear that we will be paying an outside contractor $66.07 per hour per laborer to get this job done with our equipment, money we do not have," Moenian wrote. "Our less senior Utility Plant Worker II currently is making $7.46 per hour. We can provide four Utility Plant Workers to get this job done, straight time and/or overtime, at a fraction of the contractor's cost, if we are allowed." There is no documentation to show that his concerns were addressed, and handwritten notes on the memo initialed by Heurkamp indicate he agreed with Moenian's opinion.
JLJ finished the work satisfactorily, but the company would soon be at the center of an expensive fiasco.
Edwards steered a contract to JLJ in March of 2000, when the S&WB needed to install a "Venturi vault" at the main water purification plant at 8800 S. Claiborne Ave. The entire project consisted of two parts: to replace the leaking "Venturi," a water line, and then build a brick cap over it -- a trap door that would give workers easy access to the Venturi water line in case it should break or leak again. The plan was for S&WB workers to replace the Venturi, and then hire a contractor to build the brick cap, or vault.
Building the vault, according to an estimate by S&WB engineers, was expected to cost $20,000 -- $5,000 over the limit for a public bid. On March 22, the Construction Review Committee placed the contract to build the Venturi vault on the agenda for the following meeting of the Operations Committee, which Edwards chairs.
Instead of letting the Operations Committee approve putting the contract out for public bid, however, Edwards deleted the item from the agenda. He then told S&WB engineers to ask JLJ for a price quote, according to an internal S&WB report on the project.
JLJ responded with a $14,900 figure, a figure once again just shy of the $15,000 public bid limit. "At the April 3 Operations Committee meeting, Contract 1298 was removed from the agenda and not addressed further," the internal report reads. "A Notice to Proceed was given to JLJ on April 17." Because it was under the $15,000 limit, St. Germain issued JLJ a requisition for the job, instead of a contract.
Time was critical for this project, since S&WB workers had already dug an excavation to repair the Venturi water line, and the open hole needed to be covered. JLJ had 21 days to get the job done. But by the deadline date in mid-May, JLJ had done no work except to deliver a load of bricks and a backhoe to the job site, according to the internal S&WB report. The report says the agency tried to contact JLJ several times, but received no response. The S&WB then sent a fax on May 23 giving JLJ a 4 p.m. deadline the following day to state its intentions about the contract. "Completion is past due and the conditions could prove catastrophic if not addressed immediately," the letter read.
After the deadline passed, JLJ faxed a letter back to the S&WB, saying the company needed an additional $32,429 to finish the job. The S&WB canceled the contract on May 25, citing JLJ's default. Board records to not indicate whether Edwards supported or opposed JLJ's cancellation.
S&WB General Superintendent Joe Sullivan then ordered an internal report on the contract, saying that Executive Director Harold Gorman wanted "to get to the bottom of how we got JLJ in the first place. The greatest concern is that the contractor has requested more than double his original price and the open excavation is jeopardizing the chlorination system of the Water Purification Plant."
At press time, the Venturi vault had not been installed, and the agency would not answer questions about the status of that project. S&WB employees say that when JLJ defaulted, managers instructed them to just fill in the excavation area with dirt. Now, they say, if repair workers need access to the water line, it would require a costly emergency excavation.
The Early Years
"The Edwards Problem" seems to have begun soon after Ben Edwards was named to the S&WB in 1989.
In 1990, Times-Picayune reporter Coleman Warner, in his "City Hall Notebook," said Edwards had earned a reputation by some as "a loose cannon who meddles in the board's daily management." That year, an S&WB attorney filed a report noting that board members put themselves in danger of being sued if they became involved in S&WB activity beyond policy-making. But Edwards' involvement in day-to-day activities continued.
In late 1990, S&WB employees reported that Edwards had called them after service to his home had been shut off because he hadn't paid his water bill. In a memo titled "Rudeness of Board Member Ben Edwards," utilities assistant Jo Anne Jackson said Edwards demanded that his service be restored though he still owed the agency $426. In violation of S&WB policy, workers turned his water back on, Jackson wrote. The agency's Director of Management Services, Martin Comer, told The Times-Picayune that Edwards then lodged a complaint against Jackson, saying that, as a board member, "he had the right to call anyone he wanted and also expect their compliance with any business he requested."
Edwards denied the incident happened, telling reporters that S&WB employees were trying to discredit him because he raised sensitive issues at the agency dealing with, among other matters, the treatment of black workers.
Then-mayor Barthelemy urged Edwards to resign, reported The Times-Picayune. Edwards refused, and Barthelemy said he would file a full report to the state Ethics Commission. Had Edwards been found guilty of an ethics violation, he would have faced fines and removal from the board. However, Barthelemy submitted a truncated report to the panel, asking only if a Sewerage and Water Board member violated the Code of Ethics if he or she let a water bill become delinquent. Barthelemy's letter did not specifically mention Edwards, nor relay allegations that a board member was accused of misusing his influence.
Barthelemy now says he does not remember the incident.
The commission responded with an opinion that a board member did indeed violate the Code of Governmental Ethics by allowing a water bill to become overdue. Despite the ruling, Edwards did not relinquish his board membership.
For a while, Edwards kept a lower profile. In April 1993 he surfaced again, after the agency fired pumping plant operator Perry Senegal for bringing a gun onto S&WB property.
After Senegal's termination, Edwards filed a formal request to review Senegal's personnel file. Shortly thereafter, the S&WB reinstated Senegal with back pay. Senegal later requested that the incident be removed from his personnel file, but the agency refused.
Senegal would not comment without Edwards' permission. He is currently incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison, facing up to 15 years in prison on a charge unrelated to his employment at S&WB: the starvation death of his 2-year-old son and the malnourishment and neglect of his 3-year-old daughter.
Concerns Fall on Deaf Ears
Board members are reluctant to talk about Edwards except to acknowledge that he often has trouble controlling his temper, particularly toward S&WB employees. Former board member Zervigon allows that Edwards "gets very excited about things" and says S&WB managers tend to follow his demands because "it's human nature not to want to get in the way of someone who's extremely angry or mad ... I think there's some of that going on in the staff."
City Councilman Thomas calls Edwards "kind of high-strung," but blames S&WB managers for allowing him to have such influence. "I would think it would be all but impossible" to let a board member run the agency, Thomas said, "unless [managers] rolled over, unless they totally rolled over."
The combination of a board member who likes to take charge and S&WB managers who let it happen, Thomas acknowledges, is "a bad combination."
Board member and City Councilman Eddie Sapir declined to be interviewed about Edwards. However, a source close to Sapir says the council president resigned from the Operations Committee last June because Sapir was "disgusted" with the way Edwards spoke to S&WB employees. Another former board member, Thomas Coleman, reportedly quit the board largely because he was opposed to Morial reappointing Edwards last April to a term that expires in 2003. Coleman, a New Orleans businessman whom fellow board members called an asset to the S&WB, would not comment on his reasons for resigning.
Employees who do discuss Edwards insist on anonymity because they fear Edwards might try to get them fired. They also claim he often tries to intimidate S&WB workers. For instance, an internal S&WB report, written after the Central Yard Annex Building incident, showed that the entire mess began with Edwards' interference. After the report came out, Sullivan sent Gorman a memo saying that Edwards had read it, and "has requested that you identify the author or authors of the report."
The S&WB employees who spoke to Gambit Weekly say they resist paying for Edwards-generated expenditures, but are overruled by top managers. Morial reappointed Edwards to the Board this year, and S&WB employees and sources close to board members say Edwards continues to push his demands through multiple levels of the agency, in large part because complaints about him have fallen on deaf ears.
So why hasn't Morial, who as mayor is also president of the Sewerage and Water Board, stepped in?
Nobody knows, and the mayor isn't talking. He has not even acknowledged complaints about Edwards -- even those from fellow board members, say sources -- and he doesn't seem to have made any attempts to rein Edwards in.
Meanwhile, Morial reappointed Edwards in April as chairman of the Operations Committee, and as vice-chairman of the Drainage Committee, serving alongside the mayor, who appointed himself as chair.
At the same time, the wheels continue to turn on the "managed competition" or privatization issue, which Morial wholeheartedly supports. If awarded, the more than $1 billion deal to assume control of New Orleans' water and sewer systems would be the largest private contract ever granted by the city. The New Orleans Civil Service Commission has sued the S&WB, asking that it be consulted if the agency tries to negotiate such a contract.
If the agency is privatized, members on both sides of the issue -- S&WB employees, Councilman and Board Member Eddie Sapir, and the biggest private contender for the proposed contract, United Water Resources -- have all told Gambit Weekly they expect board members' roles to remain the same as now.
Whether that means Edwards' intervention will be allowed to continue, however, is not so easy to predict.
- Critic's say Ben Edward's 'hands-on' approach at the S&WB wastes time and money. However, he has pressured the agency to hire more minority firms.
- Former S&WB member Mary Zervigon believes that "it is not the role of the board to micromanage."
- The Central Yard Annex Building was partially demolished in a project initiated by S&WB member Ben Edwards.
- Mayor Marc Morial reappointed Ben Edwards to the S&WB last year, reportedly over objections of at least one board member.
- City Council President Eddie Sapir (right, conferring with Councilman Troy Carter) reportedly resigned from Ben Edwards' S&WB committee because of Edwards' style.