In 2007, Michael Ronsiek was trying to persuade the German manufacturing firm he worked for to open its first U.S. distribution center near Mandeville. The $350 million company, whose name Ronsiek asked not be used, does a lot of defense contracting work and was looking to open half a dozen such centers in the U.S., and the Mandeville area was high on the list to be home to the first one.
The company needed 25,000 square feet of space and was considering property on La. Highway 59, near Interstate 12, just north of the city limits. Good schools, good food, a booming economy, and south Louisiana’s unique cultural blend were very attractive to the Germans.
Ronsiek says his boss, the vice president of the company and president of its North American Division, visited the Mandeville area several times. For a national distribution center, the city’s proximity to the Port of New Orleans and its location at roughly the midpoint between the east and west coasts, were important considerations.
“There were a lot of positives,” says Ronsiek, who has lived in the Mandeville area for 30 years. “My boss loved this place.”
There were also some negatives. One of them was then-three-term Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price, whose dark side was just beginning to show.
“The big negative was Eddie Price and the entire mess going on here,” Ronsiek says. During their due diligence, company executives learned some troubling things about the way business was being done in Mandeville.
In February 2006, Price made a phone call that temporarily stopped Mandeville police from arresting a friend of his for beating a woman nearly senseless in a bar. In December 2006, the city’s former public works director, and long-time Price pal, Joe Mistich, pleaded guilty in a federal corruption case. Then in April 2007, first-term Councilman Jerry Coogan, also a long-time friend of the mayor’s, was reprimanded by the state ethics board for taking a city police car to visit his wife and kids who had evacuated to Florida before Hurricane Katrina. Police Chief Tom Buell said the mayor gave Coogan permission to use the marked police car, which turned out to be a violation of state ethics laws.
“The Germans were very aware of Louisiana politics, all the way over in Munich,” Ronsiek says. “They love our music and food, but they hate our politics.”
The German firm was also considering Charlotte, North Carolina. In the end, the Germans chose Charlotte. Mayor Price wasn’t the only reason Charlotte got the nod over Mandeville, according to Ronsiek, but he was a significant factor.
“If you have one thing that tips the scales in somebody’s mind,” Ronsiek says, “that’s enough to throw a $650,000 payroll out the window.”
What the Germans had learned by mid-2007, though, was just the beginning of the mayor’s ethical and legal problems. There was more to come?much more.
The following year, a scathing Legislative Auditor’s report documented shady accounting practices and uncovered numerous violations of state law on the part of Price and his administration, and a pair of drinking and driving incidents involving Price made headline news for weeks. Then state and federal investigators opened up criminal investigations, and a citizens group kicked off a determined recall effort. Now, not everyone views the amiable, good-old-boy mayor?now in his fourth term?as an asset when it comes to luring business to the area. To many, he has become a liability. The question is: How far will the Price-effect spread?
At least a couple of 10/12 corridor parishes?including St. Tammany ?claim to be Louisiana’s fastest growing, but regardless of which one actually holds the title, there is no doubt that St. Tammany has been one of the state’s most desirable locales for the last two decades.
According to the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation, the parish’s population jumped nearly 30 percent between 1997 and 2007. With one of the top public school systems in the state, good neighborhoods, good roads, a well-educated workforce, low cost of living, low crime, a modest tax burden, and plenty of room still left to grow, St. Tammany Parish is the kind of place business people want to be. It’s what initially attracted the German manufacturing firm.
“I don’t think our quality of life is going anywhere but up,” says James Hartman, the foundation’s public relations consultant.
What concerns some local business people, though, is not the parish’s long-standing reputation for good living and a business-friendly environment, but its growing reputation for scandal, led by investigation-plagued Eddie Price.
“The entire city government of Mandeville has come under scrutiny and under fire,” Hartman says. Still, he insists, he hasn’t seen any evidence that the investigations have had a negative effect on business. “I think it’s had more of a political impact.”
Although Mandeville is St. Tammy Parish’s second largest city, its 12,000 residents comprise only 5% of the parish’s population. Whatever problems the mayor of Mandeville has, Hartman says, they aren’t going to have much impact on the rest of the parish. “If it were a parish-wide official, it might be different,” he says.
Eddie Price is a tanned, affable New Orleans native who moved to Mandeville more than 30 years ago. He has been married to the same woman for more than half his life. They have five grown children. He loves fishing, hunting, and golfing, but joked that he only does them on days that end in “y.” The rest of the time, he’s all business.
A former concrete company representative, Price slid easily into politics in 1980 when he won a seat on the City Council, mostly on the strength of his personality. He has been described as jocular, friendly, likeable, and as a rising Republican star.
In 1996, he moved from the council chamber into the mayor’s office.
Less than a year ago, Price looked like a good bet to succeed long-time Parish President Kevin Davis, whose third and final term in office coincides almost perfectly with Price’s own last term as mayor.
Parish and city charter rules prevent each man from running for re-election.
In the December 2007 edition of New Orleans City Business’s North Shore Report, Price was on the cover, wearing a Santa hat and holding a golf club. The article was titled “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the article, Price said, “My goal has always been … to run for parish president.”
Then the scandals started to surface.
The Legislative Auditor documented dozens of potential criminal violations, including abusive spending from a Police Department-managed children’s toy fund; tens of thousands of dollars in trips for the mayor and some of his top staffers, paid for by businessmen with long financial ties to City Hall; and the intentional skirting of public bid laws.
Then the well-publicized Causeway drunk driving incident, in which Price, who admitted to police he’d been drinking, was caught on camera crashing his city-owned SUV through a tollbooth barrier and driving at night without his headlights. Price skated on the DWI charge, but the incident cost the chief of the Causeway police and three of his officers their jobs.
In November, Price told 10/12 the media overplayed the Causeway episode. “Eighteen times I was on the front page, because I didn’t get a breathalyzer test and I didn’t get a DWI,” Price said, adding he wished he had gotten the DWI. “I’d have been on the front page one day, and it would have been forgotten.”
Not long after the Causeway incident came the revelation that in 2006, Mandeville police had stopped Price for suspected drunk driving. Instead of giving the mayor a sobriety test, they gave him a ride to City Hall. A short time later, Price was again spotted behind the wheel. This time at a gas station. The attendant who called the police said the mayor looked too drunk to drive. When police arrived, Price had left.
Since being stopped on the Causeway, Price says he has completed a 12-week, outpatient alcohol abuse program, but he denies he ever had a serious drinking problem. “I’m not an alcoholic,” he tells 10/12. “I’ve just been a very poor social drinker.”
In February 2008, Price acknowledged in court testimony that in 2006 he made a telephone call to the Mandeville police on behalf of a wealthy friend, Gary Copp, whom police had in custody for knocking a woman to the floor at the Cru Wine Bar and stomping her head.
After the mayor’s phone call, the police let Copp go with a misdemeanor summons, although the beating he gave the woman was severe enough that Copp was later convicted of a felony, for which he could have spent 15 years in prison. Copp, however, apparently still had friends in the right places, because he drew only a six-month prison sentence.
Price is now the subject of federal and state criminal investigations.
Mayor Price says that despite the scandals and the investigations, most Mandeville residents support him. To prove it, all he has to do is point to his last re-election. In the bid for his fourth and final term, Price faced no opposition.
Not everyone in Mandeville, though, is a Price fan. A grassroots recall effort is under way. Those leading the charge to send Price to an early retirement need one-third of the city’s roughly 8,000 registered voters to sign the recall petition by February 20.
Mike O’Connor is chairman of the effort to oust Price. “He’s absolutely unfit to govern our city,” O’Connor says, adding that he has nothing personal against the mayor. “I’ve never even met the guy,” O’Connor says. “He’s probably a good guy, but the power has gotten to him.”
The recent Legislative Auditor’s report documented thousands of dollars in gifts Price received from the so-called Toys for Tots program. Although the program’s real name was the Police Citizen Service Fund, the Mandeville Police Department promoted the fund each year under its nickname and promised that money donated to the fund would be used to provide Christmas gifts to needy children.
But as the audit report showed, Mayor Price was the single biggest beneficiary of the fund. His gifts included a $700 hunting bow, a $200 to $300 gun cabinet, and at least $1,300 in Wal-Mart gift cards. Police Chief Tom Buell said he used the fund to pay for the mayor’s Christmas and birthday gifts because he didn’t want his officers and other city employees, many of whom make considerably less than Price’s $96,000 annual salary, to have to kick in cash for presents for the mayor.
Recall Chairman Mike O’Connor wants to know why the mayor feels entitled to lavish gifts from his employees. “You’re the mayor,” O’Connor says, “not some potentate, some king whose subjects have to give you gifts.”
Not everyone is willing to speak out publicly about the mayor. Some, especially business people who have to deal with the city bureaucracy ?headed by Price’s appointees?are reluctant to go on the record. One business owner, who asked not to be named, but who has had several run-ins with the mayor, says, “He thinks he’s a king. He runs everything by intimidation.”
Looking back on some of the delays he faced in getting the necessary city approvals to open his business, the business owner says he now feels like the mayor and his cronies were looking for a cash payment.
One former city official, who also asked not to be identified, said that while he never saw anything so blatant as money changing hands, he feels certain there was an implicit kickback scheme involving private companies doing business with the city. “The inside joke was, ‘ten percent goes to the house,’” the former official says.
Some things were more blatant, like free trips.
10/12 discovered that in 2001, just before the city’s five-year garbage contract with Browning Ferris Industries (now known as Allied Waste Services) was set to expire, executives with rival trash hauler Waste Management Inc. took the mayor and several city officials on an all-expenses-paid overnight fishing trip. After the BFI contract expired, the mayor signed a five-year, $3 million deal with Waste Management.
According to the Legislative Auditor’s report, in 2005, just after the city’s exclusive contract with Pepsi expired, a sales representative with Coca-Cola took the mayor, city finance director Milt Stiebing, and Councilman Jerry Coogan fishing in Grand Isle. Coke picked up the entire tab, and the next year Price signed a three-year exclusive deal with Coca-Cola.
The Legislative Auditor’s report also exposed the mayor’s vacation trips to golf tournaments in Pebble Beach, Calif. and other luxury destinations with Rick Meyer, the owner of the city’s long-time contract engineering firm, and local real estate developer Don McMath. According to the report, Meyer and McMath paid for nearly all of the mayor’s expenses on those trips, including Price’s $7,000 entry fee for the annual Pebble Beach golf tournament.
Between 1998 and 2008, Meyer’s engineering firm billed the city more than $7 million.
On July 4, 2008, a Times-Picayune editorial called for the Price to resign. “Mayor Price has become an embarrassment,” the editors wrote.
Price has said he will not step down. “The vast majority of my constituency supports me,” he tells 10/12.
City Councilwoman Trilby Lenfant says the council has little control over the mayor, but she is leading an effort to implement a new code of conduct for all employees and officials?including the mayor.
“We are working to try to restore the confidence of the people in our government,” Lenfant says. “From the council’s standpoint, we have tried to react to the audit with what we think are reforms … in terms of accountability and transparency.”
Councilman Jerry Coogan is on record as opposing the new conduct code.
Lenfant says that despite the negative press the mayor’s scandals have generated, they are not what concerns business people the most. “Business people are talking about property taxes,” she says. “That’s what’s hurting them.”
Rafael Goyeneche, head of the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission, told 10/12 the mayor’s legal problems can’t help but have a negative impact on business.
“I think that he needs to go,” Goyeneche says. “You’ve got a sitting mayor that’s firmly in the crosshairs of two criminal investigations. That is not a plus for any governmental entity competing to lure business.”