Nearly two years ago, LouisianaVoice broke a story about a Mangham contractor’s claims that the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) had bankrupted his company when it denied payments for his work. http://louisianavoice.com/2014/04/09/contractor-claims-in-lawsuit-that-dotd-official-attempted-shake-down-for-cash-equipment-during-monroe-work/
The reasons payment were denied? Because, contractor Jeff Mercer said, he resisted shake-down efforts by a DOTD inspector who demanded cash and equipment from him.
On Friday, after eight years of legal battles, Mercer won a unanimous $20 million judgment from a 12-person jury in 4th Judicial District Court in Monroe.
Work for which Mercer says he was not paid included:
- Two projects on I-49 in Caddo Parish ($1.6 million);
- A Morehouse Parish bridge project ($7.1 million);
- Louisville Avenue in Monroe ($79,463);
- Well Road in West Monroe ($50,568);
- Airline Drive in Bossier City ($57,818);
- Brasher Road in LaSalle Parish ($70,139).
While the Monroe News-Star gave substantial coverage to the court decision, LouisianaVoice was the first media outlet to give Mercer the time of day back in April of 2014 when we first learned of his troubles with DOTD. Monroe television station KTVE did a brief interview with Mercer following our initial story, but that was it—until yesterday’s decision. http://www.thenewsstar.com/story/news/local/2015/12/04/contractor-wins-20m-suit-against-dotd/76813444/
In our 2014 story, Mercer said that three of his employees filed sworn affidavits with the court in which all four say DOTD inspector Willis Jenkins demanded that Mercer either “put some green” in his hand or that Mercer place a new electric generator “under his carport” the following day.
One employee, John Sanderson, said he was approached by Jenkins who informed him that he “could make things difficult” on Mercer. “He indicated that this burden would not necessarily be on the Louisville Avenue project but on future jobs awarded to Jeff Mercer, LLC,” Sanderson said. “I replied, ‘You didn’t mean to say that,’” whereupon, Sanderson said, Jenkins repeated his threat. “During that conversation, I heard Willis tell Jeff that he ‘wanted green,’” Sanderson said.
Incredibly, Jenkins admitted making the comment but said it was a joke. Despite getting complaints about the shakedown attempt, DOTD never investigated the allegations. (Note to Jenkins: don’t joke like that in airports.)
Another Mercer employee, Bennett Trip, said in a signed statement that he heard Jenkins tell Mercer he “wanted some green.” He said he also heard Jenkins tell another Mercer employee that Jenkins, pointing to a generator in Tripp’s truck, said he “wanted one of those under his carport.”
Following complaints by Mercer, Jenkins was subsequently removed from the Louisville Avenue project by DOTD Engineer Marshall Hill who said it was not the first time he’d heard such claims about Jenkins. But Tripp said the shakedown continued when another state official told Mercer employees, “Y’all had my buddy removed and we’re going to make the rest of the job a living hell.”
Mercer claimed in his lawsuit there was collusion among DOTD officials to “make the jobs as costly and difficult as possible” for him. He told LouisianaVoice in April of 2014 that after receiving verbal instructions on the way in which one project was to be done, it was subsequently approved but later, DOTD officials, including defendant John Eason, advised that the work was not acceptable.
He said that DOTD officials provided false information to federal investigators; that he was forced to perform extra work outside the contract specifications; that a prime contractor, T.J. Lambrecht was told if he continued to do business with Mercer, closer inspections of his jobs would result, and that job specifications were routinely changed which in turn made his work more difficult.
Doughty said DOTD officials in Baton Rouge threatened his client with federal prosecution when he asked for payments for work he’d done. An FBI investigation initiated by DOTD was subsequently dropped.
Mercer eventually was forced to shutter the doors on his construction firm which had employed 20 to 40 people.
DOTD interoffice emails obtained by LouisianaVoice seem to support Mercer’s claim that he was targeted by DOTD personnel and denied payment on the basis that the agency was within its rights to “just say no.”
One email from DOTD official Barry Lacy which was copied to three other DOTD officials and which stemmed from a dispute over what amount had been paid for a job, made a veiled threat to turn Mercer’s request for payment “to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General.”
Still another suggested that payment should be made on a project “but never paid to Mercer.”
“I did everything they told me to do,” Mercer told LouisianaVoice. “But because I refused to allow one DOTD employee to shake me down, they put me out of business. They took reprisals and they ostracized me and broke me but now I’m fighting back.”
Both Mercer and his Rayville attorney David Doughty indicated they had reported the events to the governor’s office but no one in the Jindal administration, which has spent eight years touting its ethics record, offered to intervene or even investigate his allegations.
Not only did the jury hold DOTD liable for damages, but it also held four individual DOTD employees—Willis Jenkins, Michael Murphy, Eason and Barry Lacy—personally liable.
That, of course raises the obvious question of will there now—finally—be a criminal investigation of the four individuals? After all, the jury’s verdict centered on Mercer’s claims of extortion, bribery and plain old shakedowns in the purest sense of old-time Louisiana politics.
Granted, civil and criminal trials are vastly different. In a civil trial, a verdict can be reached on the lower standard of a “preponderance of the evidence” while criminal charges must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In a civil suit, the plaintiff must only prove that there was a greater than 50 percent chance, based on all reasonable evidence, that the defendant committed the action that caused damages. In criminal matters, however, there is a higher standard. The prosecutor must prove that the accused committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
But even with required higher standard of proof, the fact that a civil jury was unanimous in its decision should be sufficient to prompt at least a criminal investigation by the Ouachita Parish District Attorney’s office. Because federal funds were involved in the construction projects, and because Mercer was a contractor under the federal Disability Business Enterprise (DBE), a federal grand jury probe should ensue. “Who protects the DBE from the DOTD?” Doughty asked. “The people who are supposed to guard DBE companies are within DOTD itself (and) he didn’t get any help from them.”
Additionally, offenses committed under the funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 carry even stiffer penalties. ARRA funds were used on the I-49 projects.
The civil award puts the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office in an awkward position. The AG’s office defended the state’s interests in Mercer’s lawsuit and now that the jury has cited public corruption in its award, the office now finds itself in the unenviable position of being required to investigate public corruption in a case it had just defended in civil court. http://www.ag.state.la.us/Article.aspx?articleID=6&catID=8
“It’s been a long fight,” Mercer told the News-Star. To LouisianaVoice, he exulted, “We waxed their butts.”
He still has two more suits for more than $10 million in contractual losses pending in Baton Rouge district court.
Doughty told the News-Star that people “are tired of corruption and tired of reading about this type of thing” and that the jury “was sending a message.”
DOTD is expected to appeal the jury verdict to the Second Circuit Court of Appeal and if the state court decision is upheld, most likely the state will apply for writs with the Louisiana Supreme Court. If the decision is upheld in the higher courts, the State Legislature would then have to appropriate the payment.
All that means it could be years before Mercer sees a dime but judicial interest continues to run from the date the lawsuit was filed and the state ultimately could be forced to pay as much as an additional 50 percent.