A six and one-half-year-old lawsuit has taken a dramatic turn following a Mangham contractor’s claim that the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) denied payments for work performed by his company because he resisted shake-down efforts by a DOTD inspector.
Jeff Mercer owner of the now-defunct construction company that bears his name, worked as a subcontractor to several prime contractors on six different projects for which he says he has not been paid. He first filed his lawsuit against DOTD on Sept. 7, 2007, in state district court in Monroe, claiming that the state owes him nearly $9 million for actual work done for which he was never paid, plus interest and delay costs which bring the total to more than $11.6 million.
He raised the stakes when he and 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, Mercer’s affidavit says.
Foreman John Sanderson, carpenter Bennett Tripp and traffic control supervisor Tommy Cox, all employees of Mercer at the time, signed similar affidavits attesting to the same sequence of events in which they each say Jenkins tried to extort either cash or equipment from their boss.
The incident, all four said, occurred in 2007 when Mercer was contracted to perform work on a $79,463 project on Louisville Avenue in Monroe.
“While working on that project,” Sanderson said in his sworn statement, “I was approached by Willis Jenkins. Mr. Jenkins informed me at that time that he could make things difficult on Jeff Mercer, LLC.
“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.
Tripp, in his signed statement which was notarized by Baton Rouge attorney Jennifer Dyess, also said 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 from Mercer, Jenkins was subsequently removed from the project 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.”
Cox likewise said he heard Jenkins tell Mercer employees he wanted a generator in his carport. “Willis (Jenkins) further indicated that he “wanted his generator to be new,” or “this could be a long job.”
Mercer, who founded his company in 2003, said that Jenkins approached him and said he needed “to put some green in his hand.” Mercer says in his affidavit that he asked Jenkins to repeat himself, and he did so. “I then replied that ‘I don’t do that,’” Mercer said.
Jenkins responded that Mercer “better do that or you won’t finish this project or any other project in this area.”
During their exchange, Mercer said that Jenkins told him, “This is going to be a long job if I don’t get the green or the generator.”
Mercer said in his sworn statement that he call Jenkins’ supervisor Marshall Hill and advised him of Jenkins’ action. “Marshall advised that he would remove Willis from the Louisville Avenue project,” Mercer said, adding, “Marshall also stated, ‘Off the record, this doesn’t surprise me.’ Shortly thereafter, (Jenkins) was removed from the …project.”
It was after that incident that Mercer’s problems really began, he says. After receiving verbal instructions on the way in which one project was to be done, it was subsequently approved but several days later, DOTD officials, including defendant John Eason, advised that the work was not acceptable.
Work for which Mercer says he has not been paid includes:
- 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).
Mercer claims in his lawsuit there was collusion among DOTD officials to “make the jobs as costly and difficult as possible” for Mercer.
He claims 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 would result, and that job specifications were routinely changed which in turn made his work more difficult.
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 that no one in the administration had offered to intervene or even investigate his allegations.
It was not immediately clear if the Louisiana Office of Inspector General had been notified of the claims.