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Scorn on the Bayou: Struggles of Bayou Boogaloo 

After two years of relatively smooth operation, the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo was marked by behind-the-scenes struggles in 2008. This year may be worse.

click to enlarge The 2008 Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo - PHOTO BY BART EVERSON
By all accounts, the 2008 Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo was a rocking good time. The music festival, held on the banks of Bayou St. John every May since 2006 by the nonprofit MotherShip Foundation, featured its regular art market on the Jefferson Davis Parkway neutral ground, an expanded two-day lineup for the first time in its history and rousing performances by a cross-section of New Orleans favorites: Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Rick Trolsen, Johnny Vidacovich, Ingrid Lucia, Anders Osborne and Rebirth Brass Band, among others.

  But some behind the annual production are now singing a different tune, opening a rift between Jared Zeller, executive director of the foundation and co-creator of the Boogaloo, and three longtime organizers — former foundation president Trixie Levins, former treasurer Pattye Brignac and volunteer Julie Posner — who collectively attempted to remove Zeller from command in the days after the '08 festival. That attempt failed.

  At issue, the organizers say, are alleged conflicts of interest with two entities operated by Zeller. The MotherShip Foundation is described on the festival Web site as "a non-profit (501c3) organization dedicated to encouraging social change." Zeller also directs a similarly named for-profit business, MotherShip Entertainment, which represents musicians like Glen David Andrews and the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio as well as handling "event management" for happenings like Celebration in the Oaks.

  The acrimony between the foundation board and its director culminated in Zeller dismissing Levins and Brignac as board members in late May 2008, resulting in a festival faceoff in 2009. Levins, Brignac and Posner applied for and received a city permit in February to stage their own event, dubbed Bayou Stomp, on the same dates (May 22-23) and near the same location as the Boogaloo. Zeller, meanwhile, maintains a contract with the city along the bayou on those same dates and is proceeding with his event as planned.

  Is Bayou St. John big enough for both events?

Less than four months before Bayou Boogaloo's scheduled 2009 kickoff, instead of convening in a boardroom, Zeller and his former officers found themselves on opposite sides in a courtroom. Zeller sued the former board members to gain custody of a Whitney Bank cashier's check made out to MotherShip Foundation for $35,653.03 — operating funds from the foundation's account, which had been frozen because of a question over control. The check, held by Posner for months, was surrendered to Zeller as part of a settlement of the lawsuit. In return, Zeller dropped his claims against the former board members.

  The story of how they became legal opponents is now as murky as the bayou for which the festival was named. It began in the days before the '08 Boogaloo, when Levins, Brignac and Posner went to Whitney Bank armed with an executive board resolution. Their intention was to remove Zeller, co-creator of both the foundation and the festival, as sole signatory on the foundation's account. (Zeller initially agreed to an interview for this story, but later referred all queries to his lawyer, Vincent Booth. After a brief conversation, Booth refused several interview requests, via phone and email, over a three-week period.)

  According to the former board members, Zeller had been questioned a month earlier about some of his expenditures on behalf of the nonprofit and was informed that all purchases going forward would require invoicing and board approval. The drafting of the executive resolution followed Brignac's receipt of the foundation's April 2008 bank statement, which she says showed undocumented debit-card activity. "We had a list of questions we wanted answers to," Brignac says.

  Among them: What had Zeller been purchasing in the nonprofit's name? Why was he paying a bookkeeper when he had staff volunteers like Brignac available for free? And how was it the new treasurer, after months of requests, hadn't received a budget?

  "I was told there was a budget for the '08 Boogaloo, but I had not seen it. I thought as treasurer I should've had a copy," Brignac says dryly.

  Tensions continued. On the Thursday after the 2008 festival, in response to Levins' request for Zeller's resignation over what Levins described as an admitted misuse of funds, Zeller reversed the board's decision and fired the president and treasurer, citing a section in the foundation bylaws stating that only "Class A" members held voting privileges. Levins and Brignac, he informed them, were Class B members.

click to enlarge The logos for the nonprofit MotherShip Foundation and Jared Zeller's for-profit MotherShip Entertainment are almost identical and share the same address and phone number. The MotherShip Entertainment logo here is on an invoice being sent to the foundation.
  • The logos for the nonprofit MotherShip Foundation and Jared Zeller's for-profit MotherShip Entertainment are almost identical and share the same address and phone number. The MotherShip Entertainment logo here is on an invoice being sent to the foundation.

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  Corporate records suggest that MotherShip Foundation has only one Class A member: Jared Zeller.

Jolie Bonck, a Mid-City resident and volunteer at all three Boogaloos, says Zeller's autonomy was born out of necessity. "At first he was basically the whole show," Bonck says, stressing that the loose collective of a dozen or so organizers originally supported Zeller's efforts: "[In 2006] everyone was very gung-ho."

  Confusion arose in the second year, when Zeller took the financial reins from the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization (MCNO), an early partner. Zeller was then president of the MotherShip Foundation board and, according to Levins and Brignac, drew the group's only salary.

  "My understanding was that we basically paid him to put on the festival, that the nonprofit was paying his company (MotherShip Entertainment) to produce a festival for us," Bonck says.

  "At the time I took over as president [in January 2008, Zeller] was stepping down from the board so that he could draw a salary," Levins says. "He had been drawing a salary for quite some time, but it was pointed out to him that he shouldn't be on the board and drawing salary."

  After Zeller dismissed them from the board, Levins and Brignac, along with Posner, spent much of 2008 reviewing the finances of the '06-'07 Boogaloos. By their estimation, the '07 festival had operated between $10,000 and $20,000 in the red. The dispute over the cashier's check preempted the exchange of final numbers for '08.

  "The funds [from '07] were to go to Comiskey Park," Levins says. "Well, that project has gone by the wayside, but there was no money after the festival. We've checked around with the usual beneficiaries, MCNO. They got nothing after the '07 festival."

  MCNO President Jennifer Weishaupt knows of no financial contributions from Zeller or MotherShip Foundation. "The money that we made (was) as a result of having a booth, not from festival proceeds," Weishaupt says.

  "Ostensibly, [the '08] Boogaloo was to raise funds for a playground on Jeff Davis, for KaBOOM!," Levins adds. Asked whether that happened, she answers, "Not as yet."

  The former board members say their review also revealed a series of withdrawals and purchases via the foundation's account that Zeller hasn't explained to their satisfaction. Those transactions allegedly include $500 for an iPhone, $1,400 for COBRA health insurance and $6,500 for a commercial CD burner — none of which the board approved, say Levins and Brignac.

  Equally troubling to the former board members is what they claim is lack of separation and accountability between the nonprofit MotherShip Foundation and for-profit MotherShip Entertainment. In one example, Levins points to foundation-owned tents that had gone missing: "People had tents loaned out by Jared and he didn't want to round them up. So [Zeller then bought] 20 brand new tents. He had purchased [the new tents] as MotherShip Entertainment and rented them back to the foundation. He did the same thing with tables and chairs, but actually charged us, I believe, a dollar more per unit than another rental place [would have]."

  Foundation records contain other examples. Levins produced a copy of a check for $456, dated April 18, 2008, from MotherShip Foundation to "D. Cooley" covering bookkeeping services for both the foundation and MotherShip Entertainment. Zeller's memo on the foundation check indicates it was intended to cover services rendered to the foundation and to Zeller's private company: "Bookkeeping ENT $351-FOU $105." Levins cites another example: The foundation paid for a French Quarter Festival sponsorship for Billy Iuso and the Restless Natives — but MotherShip Entertainment's logo, not that of the foundation, appeared on materials.

  She holds up the two logos, which appear substantially similar: "If you're ever confused, remember: This is MotherShip Foundation, and this is MotherShip Entertainment."

Zeller remains mum on the controversy. Brignac says consultations with the Entertainment Law Legal Assistance Project, from whom the former board members sought counsel, answered some questions in their minds: "They felt as though it wasn't accidental," she says of potential spending discrepancies.

  "The last professional we showed the check register to was [CPA] Al Tervalon of Bruno & Tervalon," Levins says. "He handed it back quickly [and said], 'You're going to need forensic accounting done. From what I see, the foundation is likely not to retain [tax] exempt status. You need to make sure you're covered. Back away from this.'

  "We couldn't step back from that white-hot mess quick enough. We certainly didn't fight getting fired," Levins adds.

  Posner was stunned when Levins first told her the festival lost money in 2008. "Between the grants from Domain [Companies] and the Jazz and Heritage Festival," she says, "the sponsorships, the program, selling the beer, the art market — this was the first year we got almost a $10,000 infusion. We added more food booths. There's no excuse." (Disclosure: Posner, who publishes an annual guide to Louisiana fairs and festivals, has worked occasionally as a freelance contributor for The Gambit.)

  For some vendors at the Boogaloo art market, 2008 may have been their last. A Yahoo! message group started by Posner in late February had generated 40 comments in just over a week — some of them past exhibitors, many of them frustrated. Rachelle Matherne of the New Orleans Craft Mafia bought a table at Boogaloo for $90 in 2008, but says it's likely she won't return this year.

  Brignac, Levins and Posner raised more than $5,000 for a permit to hold Bayou Stomp. As of press time, the issue of the two conflicting festivals remained unresolved. After meeting with Ann Macdonald, the city's director of Parks and Parkways, Levins suggested Zeller's original contract would be honored and the Stomp's permit may be rolled over to 2010. (Parks and Parkways did not return calls from The Gambit.)

  Levins declined to comment further except to predict that 2009 "will be the last Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo."

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