A recent report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor has pulled back the curtain on a pattern of insider dealing, mismanagement and possibly corruption in the design and construction of the Jefferson Performing Arts Center (JPAC). That such problems plague a public construction project in Jefferson Parish comes as no surprise. It's sad, however, that a building that was supposed to be Jefferson's cultural icon has instead become the parish's latest symbol of political cronyism and incompetence. The auditor's report cries out for in-depth investigations by state and federal authorities.
The audit report (www.lla.state.la.us) begins by noting the original proposed cost of the center was slightly more than $26.5 million — the result of a public bid process — but a series of subsequent "change orders" mushroomed the cost to more than $52 million. That's an increase of nearly 100 percent, and another increase is in the works. Clearly, something went seriously wrong with the bids and specifications on that building.
Most everyone involved in the project now blames the cost overruns on the original architect, Marcel Wiznia, who was hand-picked by former Councilman John Lavarine Jr. Wiznia was selected for the project even though he was rated fourth highest among the five "qualified" design professionals seeking the job. As it turns out, Wiznia's plans were so deficient that he was subsequently fired and sued by the parish. That lawsuit is still pending, so parish officials won't discuss it publicly. The audit report, however, points out several problems with the architect selection process.
First and foremost, why was Wiznia selected over other, higher-rated architects? Before the JPAC, how many theatrical venues had Wiznia designed? Why did the council not give more weight to the conclusions of the technical advisory committee that rated the architects? Investigators should put those and other questions to Wiznia, Lavarine and other former council members. The audit report notes that the parish could not produce records of the score sheets completed by the advisory committee. As of the audit date, the parish had no central repository for storing such records. Investigators should get to the bottom of the architect selection process on this project.
Another threshold question is why council members get to select architects for such large public projects. The report cites a longstanding political tradition of "choosing professional service providers based solely on the request of the councilmember whose district will benefit from the services." Because the JPAC is in Lavarine's old district, he got to name the architect. That process, if you can call it a process, invites cronyism and opens the door to corruption. The parish should immediately take steps to adopt an architect selection process devoid of politics (and political contributions), and Jefferson's soon-to-be-selected inspector general should scrutinize all current and future construction projects for any signs of insider dealing, mismanagement and cost overruns.
The audit report also notes that Wiznia submitted his final plans before he obtained required approvals from the state fire marshal. Based on the architect's representations that the plans were final, the parish put the project out to bid and obtained a price of $26.5 million. The fire marshal subsequently noted 20 deficiencies, which required several costly change orders to bring Wiznia's designs into compliance. Design revisions included several modifications for fire safety — and three exterior stairwells for emergency egress. These and other design defects seem like rookie mistakes. A thorough investigation no doubt would reveal some interesting facts about how Wiznia's plans were accepted by the parish.
Another problem cited by the audit was the parish's failure to require adequate professional liability insurance from all contractors. For example, the parish's lawsuit against Wiznia aims to recover from his insurer — but Wiznia's policy is for only $1 million — and that figure includes his legal fees, which reportedly already are roughly $300,000. And at one point, the general contractor dropped his builder's risk policy. How could the parish let such a costly project be so underinsured?
We urge local, state and federal investigators to delve deeply into all aspects of the JPAC's design, bidding, contracting and construction phases. The JPAC was intended to be a gleaming venue for cultural and theatrical productions in Jefferson Parish. It's a shame that its opening act is a tragedy.