Irons' fiery campaign style -- and her shots at Mayor Marc Morial for his patronage practices -- made her the darling of conservative Republicans and political reformers. She won the endorsement of the Alliance for Good Government, and she is poised to become the New Orleans' first woman mayor.
But can her top political allies survive her promises?
A Gambit Weekly investigation shows that when it comes to political patronage, Irons' record as a state senator differs sharply from her campaign rhetoric. For example:
· Irons herself has held as many as three public jobs at one time -- sometimes billing taxpayers for all of them while attending legislative sessions. State Attorney General Richard Ieyoub's office recently concluded that Irons had violated Louisiana's dual officeholding law. Irons and her allies dispute the AG's conclusion and claim it is politically motivated.
· She has steered public consulting contracts to one of her top political supporters and closest personal friends, attorney Bernard "Bunny" Charbonnet of New Orleans. In 1997, Irons helped Charbonnet get a $49,000 state contract to conduct a feasibility study for a Louisiana Golf Trail. Irons admits that she helped Charbonnet get state contracts. She says his work was exemplary and helped promote tourism and economic development. Charbonnet echoes Irons' comments and says he gets even more work -- and more high-profile work -- outside Louisiana.
· Irons helped her campaign consultant and spokeswoman, Cheron Brylski, obtain more than $115,000 in state public relations contracts from 1997 through 2000. Irons admits helping Brylski get the work, but again says it paid off handsomely in increased tourism and economic development. Brylski says her work helped the port triple its cruise ship business.
Polls consistently show Irons is a co-leader in the crowded Feb. 2 primary. By all accounts, her campaign has been a textbook study in political marketing and campaign management. In particular, Irons gained a lot of support for criticizing Mayor Morial's patronage practices. She stands by her promises to change the way New Orleans does business and says that's why her opponents have launched an orchestrated effort to derail her candidacy.
A look at Irons' record, however, shows that she is no stranger to the ins and outs of politics, Louisiana style.
Last week, Irons came under fire in connection with her work as a $23,000-a-year staff attorney for Orleans Parish Recorder of Mortgages Desirée Charbonnet. She took the job in May 1998 but has been on a leave of absence since Dec. 1 to run for mayor.
Desirée Charbonnet is a key ally and top supporter of Irons. She emceed Irons' announcement for mayor last September. She also is the sister of attorney Bernard "Bunny" Charbonnet, another top Irons backer and close friend.
In response to a query from the judges of Civil District Court, state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub's office issued an opinion stating that Irons had violated Louisiana's dual officeholding law by accepting the full-time "appointed" position in Desirée Charbonnet's office.
Irons and Ms. Charbonnet say the opinion is flawed because Irons is only a "part-time" attorney. Irons says she accepted the position based on a 1992 AG's opinion stating that it was okay for a part-time assistant district attorney to serve in the Legislature. Irons campaign press secretary Cheron Brylski added that the judges' recent request for an AG's opinion was motivated by one of Irons' votes in the Senate -- against a pay raise for judges.
"We are running first in the polls," Irons said. "We are doing extremely well, and all this is meant to tear us down. That's all this is about. I've been working in that office for four years. And for four years this has never been a problem. I voted against a judges' pay raise in June ... and all of a sudden it hit the fan. If this was a problem, then it should have been a problem four years ago. ...
"It's just pure politics."
Ms. Charbonnet has asked Ieyoub to reconsider and re-issue the opinion, based on Irons' status as a part-time attorney.
"It is deeply troubling to me that you would allow the Attorney General's office to be used in such a political fashion," Ms. Charbonnet wrote in a letter to Ieyoub. She also denies a statement in the opinion -- attributed to her -- that Irons' employment was full time. "She did not work more than 35 hours per week and handled legal work as assigned," Charbonnet wrote afterward.
However, Irons' and Charbonnet's claims that the senator's employment with the mortgage office was part time do not square with public payroll records.
Technically, all employees of the mortgage office (and most other offices at Civil District Court) work for the Judicial Expense Fund, which is overseen by the Civil Court judges. The judges do not allow part-time employment except by formal approval of the entire court -- which Irons never received. Furthermore, Irons' payroll records expressly indicate that she is a full-time employee.
For example, the Judicial Expense Fund payroll register for Irons' Nov. 14, 2001, paycheck shows that she was paid $907.46 bi-weekly. Several lines beneath her name, the letters "FT" appear -- a payroll code indicating that she is a full-time employee. The same report shows that Irons contributed $34.46 to the city retirement system during that pay period.
That raises another problem for Irons. As a state senator, she also participates in the state retirement system. By law, the city bars its retirement system participants from belonging to other public employee retirement systems. Irons' payroll records from the mortgage office show regular deductions for the city retirement system. State Senate officials have confirmed to Gambit Weekly that Irons also participates in the state retirement system.
Irons' contributions to the city retirement system further underscore her critics' contention that her employment with Ms. Charbonnet was full time -- regardless of how much time she actually worked there.
Jerry Davis, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the New Orleans Employees Retirement System, told Gambit Weekly that Irons' contributions to the city pension system violate city law.
"Having learned of her deductions, that she is also a member of the state employees retirement system, we must conclude that she is ineligible under Section 114 of the City Code," Davis said. "Her contributions will be refunded."
Irons told Gambit Weekly that she never intended to join both retirement systems -- and that she objected to the city deductions when she noticed them on her first paychecks. She says she wanted to opt out but was told that the retirement contributions were automatic.
'I Did the Work'
Public records also indicate that taxpayers paid Irons to be Desirée Charbonnet's staff attorney while Irons attended legislative sessions in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001. Irons says that's consistent with her view of the position as part time.
Irons began requesting unpaid leaves of absence from the mortgage office last year, during periods when she was in Japan on a fellowship. However, she continued to draw her salary during legislative sessions, even as the mayor's race drew near.
Public records show that Irons took no leaves of absence from the mortgage office in 1998, 1999 and 2000. During those years, she attended seven regular and special legislative sessions for a total of at least 32 weeks -- and drew her mortgage office salary the whole time.
In 2001, Irons requested leaves from her mortgage job twice -- from Jan. 15 through March 5, and from July 20 through Aug. 5. She was out of the country at those times, she says.
Irons returned to the mortgage office payroll from her first leave in time to attend the first special legislative session of 2001 -- from March 11 through March 22. She took no leave during last year's regular legislative session, which ran from March 26 through June 18, 2001. Nor did she take any leave for the special session of Oct. 8-15, 2001.
Irons told Gambit Weekly that her work as a state senator is likewise part time, even during sessions. Senators generally meet Monday afternoons through Wednesdays or Thursdays. She says she had plenty of time to perform her part-time duties for the mortgage office.
Irons says her legal practice includes extensive work in property law. For the mortgage office, she made court appearances and filed writs, in addition to giving general legal advice to Ms. Charbonnet.
Prior to her mortgage office job, Irons worked for 18 months as a contract attorney for the office of First City Court Constable Lambert Boissiere III -- another Irons political ally and supporter -- from March 1997 through August 1998. She billed Boissiere's office $1,000 a month, including months during which she attended legislative sessions. Starting in January 2001, Boissiere contracted with Bunny Charbonnet as an attorney -- thus keeping the legal contract in the Irons political family.
And, for approximately four months in 1998, Irons drew checks from the state as a senator, from Charbonnet's office as staff attorney, and from Boissiere's office as a contract attorney. Irons actually started her job with Charbonnet on May 4, 1998, and received her first paycheck on May 20, 1998 -- while attending that year's regular legislative session.
"I was part time," Irons said of her work for the local officials. "As long as I don't exceed 35 hours a week, it's part time."
Irons' work for Boissiere's office is not an issue in the dual officeholding controversy because state law allows public officials to do contract work for other public entities -- as long as it is disclosed.
As a state senator, Irons is required to file personal financial disclosure statements each year showing any income she receives from public sources. In 1998, she listed her employment with Charbonnet's office -- but not with Boissiere's office. She told Gambit Weekly that she disclosed the work for Charbonnet's office in 1998, and any failure to disclose her work for Boissiere that year was "probably an oversight." She filed a disclosure statement regarding her work for Boissiere's office in 1997, she says.
Charbonnet put Irons on the payroll shortly after defeating veteran incumbent Recorder of Mortgages Michael McCrossen in early 1998. During her campaign against McCrossen, Charbonnet made the same kinds of reform promises that Irons is now making. For example, Charbonnet told the League of Women Voters, "An elected official should not be allowed to politicize the office by appointing a political friend." Not long after making that comment, Charbonnet put her friend Irons on the payroll.
Asked to reconcile her working for political friends in public office with her pledge to "eliminate patronage," Irons told Gambit Weekly that her definition of "patronage" does not include hiring qualified friends to do work that needs to be done, when the work is done competently and at a fair price.
"I'm an attorney, a long-time friend, and I'm competent," Irons said. "I did the work."
In that vein, Irons stands by a statement she made about patronage to the Chamber of Commerce in the campaign's first forum: "To sit here and say that we are not going to give contracts to our friends would be disingenuous. What we have to say is that we're going to have an open, we're going to have a fair, we're going to have a competitive process where people can see why individuals got a contract."
The Bunny Trail
Throughout Irons' political career, one of her closest friends and top supporters has been attorney Bernard "Bunny" Charbonnet. A veteran behind-the-scenes political player and contributor, Charbonnet has a law firm and a consulting firm. Politically, he is one of the major forces behind a band of black political organizations that often work together as The Coalition. The Coalition helped elect Irons, Desirée Charbonnet, Boissiere and Boissiere's father, state Sen. Lambert Boissiere Jr.
Bunny Charbonnet says his consulting firm does extensive work on airport-related projects in St. Louis and in Jackson, Miss., but relatively little in Louisiana. "I'm not part of the good ol' boy network," he says, although he is widely known in local political circles as a major player. He ran unsuccessfully for the Louisiana Public Service Commission in 1998.
Since Irons became an influential member of the Louisiana Senate, Charbonnet has landed some lucrative state legal and consulting contracts.
For example, state senators in 1997 carved out a portion of the proceeds from the local hotel-motel tax -- which critics refer to as lawmakers' "slush fund" -- and moved it to the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. The money was earmarked for discretionary tourism and economic development projects -- with significant input from local senators.
On Irons' recommendations, Charbonnet was awarded two consulting contracts that same fiscal year by the department -- one to develop a "feasibility study of a Louisiana Golf Trail" and another to develop a feasibility study of a "Visitor's Terminal and Transportation Center" to address traffic problems in the French Quarter.
Charbonnet was paid $49,000 for the golf trail study, and $48,500 for the transportation center study.
Several sources in the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (CRT) confirmed that Irons recommended Charbonnet for each contract. Irons herself admits it.
"I did recommend him. He's very competent. His study was excellent. I don't think that's illegal," Irons said.
Neither of Charbonnet's CRT contracts was put out to bid. The amount paid for each was just below the $50,000 threshold set by state law for public bids.
Several sources at CRT also told Gambit Weekly that Charbonnet's initial versions of the golf trail study were rejected by the department because they were not up to par. Charbonnet said that "was a glitch for us," but adds it was the result of an employee's mistake. A CRT spokesman added that Charbonnet's final product was accepted and that it laid the groundwork for the state's Audubon Golf Trail, which debuted Oct. 15, 2001. The spokesman also defended the need for the visitor terminal and transportation center study, and praised Charbonnet's work on that contract. He added that all CRT contracts include expenses as well as fees, so there were no added costs.
Charbonnet said his golf trail research was "the seminal study for the entire infrastructure development of golf trails throughout Louisiana." He said the traffic and transportation study was initially proposed by CRT, but he acknowledged that Irons recommended him for the work.
Charbonnet said his consulting firm does "very little work in this state" and that he would never ask Irons to generate work for him because that would compromise her career.
"CRT wanted studies," Irons said. "This money was put in their budget at the discretion of the senator, which was me. They had needs. They didn't have enough money in their budget. ... They were very interested in golf trails, and they came to me because this money was sitting there."
Irons also helped her campaign spokesperson and media relations adviser, Cheron Brylski, land lucrative state public relations contracts -- to the tune of more than $115,000 over a three-year period.
Brylski owns The Brylski Company, a politically active public relations firm in New Orleans. Brylski also handles campaign PR for Desirée Charbonnet.
In fiscal year 1997-98 -- the same year in which Irons steered the golf trail study to Bunny Charbonnet -- Irons recommended Brylski's company for a $40,000 CRT contract for "marketing and promotion of the Port of New Orleans as a cruise ship destination." The money to pay Brylski came from the same hotel-motel tax "slush fund" used to pay Charbonnet for the golf trail and transportation studies.
But in Brylski's case, the CRT contracts ran for two more years -- into fiscal years 1998-99 and 1999-2000. Her company was paid $30,000 in 1998-99 and $45,003 in 1999-2000.
A CRT spokesman complimented Brylski's work and said it helped the state increase tourism and cruise ship traffic significantly. And again, the amounts paid were below the $50,000 threshold set by state law for public bids.
"They (CRT) came to me," said Brylski. "They had a good recommendation on me [from Irons], and asked if I was interested. ... When they met with me, I said, 'I'm going to be honest with you. Tourism is not my area.' However, I am very interested in the city and was intrigued by what they wanted to do. ... They said they didn't need me to do tourism advertising. They strictly wanted a study. So that's what I did."
Brylski says she got three separate contracts to conduct studies and do extensive public relations work relating to increasing cruise ship business out of New Orleans. She says she had to absorb all costs in the contract fees and was not separately reimbursed for costs.
Brylski adds that her work helped to triple the cruise ship business at the Port of New Orleans.
Irons admits that she recommended Brylski -- but only after CRT officials asked her for a suggestion. "I knew nothing about cruise ships, nothing about what they needed," Irons said of CRT. "They came to me."
Regarding her recommendations of Brylski and Bunny Charbonnet, Irons said such actions don't constitute "patronage." That word, she said, signifies a measure of "abuse."
She offers the same justification for her own work for political friends Boissiere and Desirée Charbonnet.
"I'm a lawyer. I was doing legal work. I wasn't a lawyer trying to be a journalist," Irons said.
"Maybe it doesn't pass the smell test, [but] my definition of patronage is when you have someone do work that's not necessary."
If voters agree with Irons' definition, last week's controversy should blow over quickly. If not, the issue could haunt her for a long time to come.