When former St. Charles Parish councilman Marcus Lambert nominated local businessman Neal Clulee to serve as the parish’s appointee to the New Orleans Aviation Board, no one could have anticipated the ensuing struggle that would soon evolve.
A year and a half later the seat is still vacant, St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre has vetoed Clulee’s appointment to the aviation board only to have it overturned by the Parish Council and the City of New Orleans failed to appoint Clulee to the board in a 3-3 vote. The St. Charles Parish council then reaffirmed their selection of Clulee despite New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s request for three nominations.
That move caused Landrieu to file suit asking a judge to declare that he has sole appointing powers to the aviation board. However, Parish Council members continue to insist that a 1985 agreement gives them the power to appoint a representative. The lawsuit could have major repercussions for St. Charles Parish that include St. Charles being stripped of a parish representative on the aviation board and the loss of around $300,000 in yearly tax revenue that comes from the parish’s involvement on the board.
St. Pierre is also facing a separate lawsuit from Clulee that claims the parish president spread malicious information that kept Clulee from securing the airport board seat. Shortly after Clulee filed suit against St. Pierre, his wife, Mary Clulee, entered the Parish Council District 2 seat race.
Case could possibly end up in Supreme Court
The Parish Council voted, against St. Pierre’s wishes, to set aside $100,000 to help special legal counsel Timothy Marcel fight Landrieu’s suit over the parish’s airport board appointment.
Marcel said although $100,000 has been provided for a legal fund, that does not mean he automatically gets the entire amount.
"People tell me ‘you’ve got $100,000 now, you must be rich,’" he said. "The way it really works is that I am contracted with the parish at an hourly rate. So I don’t just get that $100,000."
However, Marcel said that if the court case drags on there is a potential that the fund will be exhausted and would have to be replenished. If the case should go to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which Marcel said is a possibility, it could cost the parish quite a bit more than what they have already set aside.
As far as providing a timeline for the successful conclusion of the lawsuit, Marcel said that would be nearly impossible to pinpoint.
"If I had a crystal ball, I would give you a precise answer, but with these matters it is almost impossible to predict," Marcel said. "We are hoping to get the matter resolved as quickly as possible."
Marcel said there is a possibility that the parish could settle the lawsuit, but that would almost assuredly mean giving up some of the parish’s rights in the process.
"The 1985 airport extension agreement sets forth two things as it pertains to this controversy–the right to have an appointee on the board and the procedure to have an appointee selected," he said. "From a legal standpoint, by agreeing to deviate from what the contract says you are agreeing to essentially terminate those contractual rights and the manner in which the representative is selected."
The first move Marcel has made on behalf of the parish is to attempt to have a change of venue granted. Currently, the case has been filed in the Orleans Parish Central District Court.
He is seeking to have the case moved to the 29th Judicial District Court in St. Charles Parish.
"St. Charles Parish is where the case should be filed. The cause of action arose in St. Charles Parish," Marcel said.
However, the Orleans Parish judge in charge of the case disagreed with the parish’s motion and the matter was sent to an appellate court to decide, prolonging the legal battle for now.
"At the time, I did what I thought was best"
All of this started with a simple up or down vote initiated by Lambert in 2011. Lambert, who is no longer a politician, said he saw nothing wrong with his appointment of Clulee.
"At the time, I did what I thought was best. If someone else wants to put up their appointment, they can do so. That’s why the system is set up the way it is," he said.
However, Lambert said he is no longer involved in the situation and did not want to speak on the merits of offering Clulee up as the appointee.
Councilman Paul Hogan, who was one of two votes against overturning St. Pierre’s veto of Clulee’s nomination in a 7-2 vote, said he would like to see a quick resolution to the parish’s lawsuit with the City of New Orleans.
"What is going to be the resolution? I don’t know. Hopefully it is resolved soon because we need to move on," he said. "Personally, I don’t want to see the decision come before a judge and jury. If there is a way to resolve this - to maintain our position on the board - we need to do that before we go to trial."
However, Hogan has maintained he would have liked to have seen more candidates offered up for the position or at the very least more scrutiny of Clulee as the council’s appointee.
Although Clulee has served on the Planning and Zoning Commission for numerous years, Hogan said he never got a good idea of who Clulee was before the vote came up.
"We don’t know that Mr. Clulee was the best person to represent us," he said. "I don’t know that Mr. Clulee is the best, most qualified candidate for the job."
Councilwoman says Clulee best man for the job
St. Charles Parish Council President Wendy Benedetto pointed to Clulee’s resolve to become the next appointee to the aviation board when he claimed to have facilitated the transfer of $740,000 to the parish in back taxes from the parish’s aviation board contract with the City of Kenner. However, parish spokeswoman Renee Simpson said the parish had already been aware of the back taxes and had been working on a resolution since 2009.
"They weren’t working on anything until Mr. Clulee brought it up," Benedetto said.
Benedetto also said Clulee’s leadership on the Planning and Zoning Commission is proof that he would be a good representative for the parish on the aviation board.
"If he was good enough to sit on our Planning and Zoning Commission for a number of years, then what is the difference?" she said.
Parish says Clulee violated planning rules in 2009
In 2009, St. Charles Parish ruled that Clulee was in violation of the zoning code when he allowed Phylway Construction, LLC to store trucks, fuel tanks and job trailers on two tracts of land he owns.
One of the properties was zoned for residential use, while the other was zoned as a wetland. After the parish sent Clulee a letter that he was in violation of zoning codes, he had the property rezoned for commercial use.
When asked about Clulee’s rezoning of the land, which brought about a complaint to the state ethics board, Benedetto said everyone is prone to making mistakes.
The ethics complaint was eventually resolved in Clulee’s favor when the Ethics Adjudicatory Board found that Clulee, as a Planning and Zoning Commission member, was allowed to seek rezoning for his own property as long as he did not enter into contractual relationships with the parish government.
Pertaining to Clulee’s personal lawsuit against St. Pierre, Benedetto said the lawsuit would not change her opinion of him.
"I did not have the privilege to know Mr. Clulee before my election," Benedetto said. "I don’t know him in a personal aspect. I know he owns quite a bit of land in the parish. I know just from being around him that he does not seem like a shady person to me."
She said she wants the entire situation to be resolved as quickly as possible.
"I want it to be over with. It’s not something I’m enjoying at all and I think it has gotten out of hand and I think this is something absolutely ridiculous," Benedetto said.
Clulee claims St. Pierre
called him a crook
In his defamation lawsuit against St. Pierre, Clulee alleges the parish president told Councilmen Larry Cochran, Clayton "Snookie" Faucheux and former Councilman Dennis Nuss that Clulee was a crook and implied that he was in the mob. The suit said St. Pierre also "asserted as fact that Neal Clulee had previously unlawfully hauled and dumped contaminated material onto New Orleans airport property."
When contacted by the Herald-Guide, a representative of St. Pierre said he was advised not to speak about the lawsuit.
Hogan said Clulee has a long history of filing lawsuits in the parish.
"I know several of them are against the parish," he said.
Robin Durant, owner of Hahnville-based Bayou Fleet, said he has been in continuous litigation with Clulee for the past 30 years.
"Mr. Clulee just seems to really like litigation. He’s very litigious and I think he holds a grudge," he said.
Durant said after he won a judgment against Clulee - in a case that dragged out over a decade - he took over possession of Clulee’s home as well as a piece of batture property.
In total, Clulee is listed as a plaintiff in nine cases and as a defendant in 10 cases in the 29th Judicial District Court serving St. Charles Parish.
In addition to his activities as a business leader and Planning and Zoning commissioner, Clulee is also known for his political involvement. Since 1999, at least $30,100 has been donated to a variety of politicians from donors using his Luling address, including Neal, Mary and their son, Michael.
Clulee declined to comment on this article when contacted by the Herald-Guide.