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Louisiana flood-recovery deal scrapped amid conflict claims

May 22, 2019
FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2016, file photo, standing floodwater closes roads in Sorrento, La. Louisiana has voided a planned flood recovery contract, with the state's top procurement official saying key staff involved in the deal shouldn't be allowed to participate because they have a conflict of interest and may have given the winning bidder an unfair advantage. (AP Photo/Max Becherer, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana has voided a planned flood-recovery contract, with the state’s top procurement official saying key staff involved in the deal shouldn’t be allowed to participate because they have a conflict of interest and may have given the winning bidder an unfair advantage.

The potentially lucrative, federally financed Restore Louisiana contract overseen by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration is intended to help people whose homes were damaged by the 2016 floods, either with rebuilding or buyouts.

Louisiana’s chief procurement officer Paula Tregre, whose office oversees the bid review, rescinded the contract award May 10 and called for a new evaluation team to choose among the two other vendors who sought the work.

Tregre found several flaws in the contract award. Among them, she said, winning bidder Hunt Guillot and Associates, known as HGA, intended to use a subcontractor with two employees who had obvious conflicts of interest. In particular, Tregre said one worker, Stacy Bonnaffons, has been a contract employee with the state’s disaster recovery agency as it developed the request for bids and appeared to have supervisory authority over at least one bid evaluator.

“It is impossible to ignore or underestimate the impact which Ms. Bonnaffons’ name listed as one of HGA’s ‘three most relevant key staff’ may have had upon some of the (bid) evaluators,” Tregre wrote.

Baton Rouge-based Hunt Guillot said Louisiana’s ethics board in April cleared Bonnaffons and the other subcontractor employee to do the new contract work. The company said Tregre was wrong in determining a conflict of interest.

Tregre “has no authority to simply disregard the opinion of the ethics board because she does not agree with its analysis or the facts under which a conflict of interest is present within the accepted interpretation of the ethics code,” wrote Loretta Mince, an attorney representing Hunt Guillot.

The disaster recovery firm has appealed Tregre’s decision to her boss, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser. Whatever decision Dardenne makes can be challenged in state district court.

The flood recovery contractor is supposed to help Restore Louisiana with management of a program that is winding down rebuilding assistance and moving toward buyouts of flood-destroyed property from the March and August 2016 floods, along with other flood mitigation work.

Three companies bid in January for the contract, overseen by the Edwards administration’s Office of Community Development. Hunt Guillot was selected in March. Losing New Orleans-based bidder Hammerman and Gainer, known as HGI, filed a formal protest of the award. Tregre scrapped the deal in response to that protest.

The Office of Community Development defended the selection of Hunt Guillot and claimed HGI couldn’t protest because its proposal didn’t comply with the bid specifications. Tregre disagreed.

A spokesman for the Office of Community Development wouldn’t comment on the scrapping of the contracting award, citing a blackout period during the ongoing appeal process. The agency also wouldn’t provide information about how much the contract could be worth.

Edwards said Wednesday that scrapping the deal won’t slow ongoing flood recovery efforts, which are operating under an older contract.

“There isn’t anything that happened that’s going to delay any recovery,” the Democratic governor said when asked about the issue on his monthly radio show.

In a 21-page letter explaining her decision, Tregre said Bonnaffons’ contract work since 2017 as an adviser, and at one point interim chief of staff, to the Office of Community Development gave her internal access to information about the Restore Louisiana program. Tregre said she was involved in revising plans that “became integral components” of the bid solicitation.

Mince said Bonnaffons did not participate in the bid solicitation, “not in drafting specifications, working on the invitation for bids or exercising any influence on the evaluators.” She also said Bonnaffons’ advisory role hasn’t involved the buyout work that is the majority of what the contractor will perform.

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