BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Two days after returning from Las Vegas, Nevada for the National Association of Counties conference, Ascension Parish leaders who attended have turned in their expense reports from the business trip and the 9News Investigators have uncovered just how much money it could cost parish taxpayers.
WAFB’s Scottie Hunter requested a copy of those records, which reveal Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa and other leaders racked up more than $10,000 in charges for registrations fees and hotel rooms.
According to parish records, Matassa was joined in Sin City by Chief Administrative Officer Ken Dawson, Chief Executive Administrator Kemlyn Bailey-Lomas, Parish Finance Director Christy Burnett, Facilities Director Thomas Pearce, Purchasing Director Joan Shivers, and Councilman Oliver Joseph. Councilman Randy Clouatre was supposed to attend, but dropped out at the last minute.
Records obtained by WAFB show only six conference registrations at $490 each were paid for by parish government. Those same records show the parish made six room reservations at Caesars Palace Las Vegas Hotel and Casino with a total of 11 guests.
In an investigative report earlier this week, Ascension Parish Councilman Doc Satterlee slammed the timing of the trip, which fell at the same time Hurricane Barry was set to impact south Louisiana. In fact, Matassa chose to catch a flight just one day after declaring a state of emergency for the parish.
“I just cannot fathom how anybody can declare a state of emergency for the entire Parish of Ascension and then step on a plane and go to a conference in Las Vegas,” said Satterlee.
Satterlee represents District 4 in Ascension Parish and calls the move irresponsible. The lavish Vegas business trip was for an annual conference for parish and county leaders from across the nation to come together and talk business. Satterlee though, remains concerned there may have been more than business going on all while Barry bared down on Louisiana. The councilman says he was shocked when he realized at a briefing Thursday morning that the top decision-maker in the parish chose a trip over his duty to Ascension.
“It was there that I first noticed that President Matassa wasn’t there, but honestly it wasn’t until later on my Facebook page that one of my constituents pointed that out and was asking those questions,” said Satterlee.
When the media started asking questions, Matassa fired back in a statement Monday, July 15, defending his decision and saying he chose to go because it was already paid for and scheduled.
The Ascension entourage stayed in the Caesars Palace hotel from Thursday, July 11 through Monday, July 16. Three key members of his staff and a councilman joined Matassa on the trip. One staffer could not go because of a family emergency and Councilman Randy Clouatre Sr. was supposed to attend, but dropped out last minute. It’s a decision he says was a no-brainer judging by the forecast.
“I can at least be here to coordinate and help them and talk to them and get some resources out,” said Clouatre. “They elected me to represent them and that’s what I chose to do.”
Despite being two people short, it appears the cost of business is quite high. The Nevada getaway racked up a bill of about $2,524 in flights through Southwest, nearly another $3,010 was spent on conference registrations, and around $6,773 was spent six rooms at Caesars Palace. Those rooms, by the way, were not at either of the host hotels for the conference. The rates at those spots were between $149 to $179 per night, but the rooms Matassa’s crew chose cost taxpayers anywhere from an extra $1,400 to $2,000 more over the course of the trip.
“It’s just mind boggling,” said Satterlee. “If you’re going to leave in a crisis like this, it’s worse if you’re going to cause amounts of money to be spend in excess of what would have to be spent.”
While $10,000 may not seem like a lot to some who have come to the group’s defense, the costs do not yet include any meals or other expenses that may soon show up on future expense reports. Parish employees can write off up to $75 per day for meals as long as they have receipts.
"When it’s all said and done, I believe the estimates are going to be somewhere probably more around $20,000 or $25,000,” said Satterlee.
Matassa defended the trip and praised his team earlier in the week, saying they had everything under control. Matassa further defended his decision Monday, saying the trip was already paid for and adding the following statement.
Those back problems did not seem to prevent him from taking off Thursday, July 18 though when WAFB started asking questions about his time in Las Vegas and the bill now left to the taxpayers.
“That’s another thing,” said Satterlee. “He’s shirking an obligation he has and so all I’d say, Scottie, is if you’re interested, keep on digging because what you’re doing is reporting to the people you know of what was spent and for what."
The parish president holds key powers to make important decisions, such as whether to issue evacuation orders or direct the purchase of emergency equipment. If absent, the parish president must appoint his designee. Under the chain of command laid out in the home rule charter, that person is usually the chief administrative officer. That person, Ken Dawson, was also in Las Vegas. Gwen LeBlanc, the parish finance director, was given the job, according to the council chair.
West Baton Rouge Parish President PeeWee Berthelot and some of his staff also attended the conference separately.