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4 Investigates: Long list of public officials, contractors late to pay taxes

4 Investigates: Long list of public officials, contractors late to pay taxes

10:28 AM CDT on Friday, April 24, 2009

Lee Zurik / Eyewitness News

lzurik@wwltv.com

NEW ORLEANS – Eyewitness News found that a Gentilly home owned by one of the city’s most powerful political families, the Morrells, is also on the city of New Orleans’ list for delinquent property taxes.

Video: Watch the Story According to city records, District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and her husband Arthur, the clerk of Orleans Parish criminal court, have failed to pay property taxes on their Moore Drive home since before Hurricane Katrina.

For five straight years, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, the Morrells opted to hold on to a total of $950 owed to the city for the home.

“We’ve had so many obligations involved in so many things, unfortunately we’ve neglected some of our things to help others,” said Arthur Morrell in a phone interview.

City records show the Morrells have failed to pay property taxes on another home on Moore Drive for three years. They own that house with their son.

A third property, on N. Tonti Street, owned by the councilwoman, who chairs the city’s budget committee, has three years worth of delinquent property taxes.

“It would be a problem if we did not pay our taxes, but like many people, especially because of the hurricane, it’s brought a lot of us back and meeting some of our obligations up to date,” Arthur Morrell said. “We’re not hiding from whatever is owed. So in the near future, everything will be brought up to where it should be.”

Less than four hours after that interview, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell’s office e-mailed WWL to say the taxes had been paid.

“Unfortunately, like it or not, elected officials are held to a higher standard,” said political analyst Dr. Silas Lee. “As we’ve seen with many nominees from the Obama cabinet, taxes seem to be one issue that cripples them.”

A judge, commissioner, sheriff and more

The Morrells are not the only elected officials who owe the city money.

City records show Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Lambert Boissiere III owes close to $10,000 on three houses. Two of the homes have three years’ worth of late payments. One home is just late for this year. By phone, Boissiere told Eyewitness News he had no comment on this story, and days later called to say he paid his delinquent bills.

Thursday, Boissiere faxed WWL a letter saying that, on two of the three properties, the city sent his tax bill to the wrong mortgage company.

Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Herbert Cade owes $472 on one property for two years’ worth of non-payments. Cade said the building is his former law office, and he also paid the taxes shortly after being contacted by WWL.

“Public servants are not perfect servants, and they do make mistakes,” Silas Lee said.

“I think that those who have not paid for several years are probably feeling pretty embarrassed right now,” said Clancy DuBos, the political editor of Gambit and a Channel 4 political analyst.

A few elected officials owe taxes for this year. Taxes were due Feb. 1, with an almost 20 percent penalty for tax bills not paid by April 1.

Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman and Orleans Parish Constable Lambert Boissiere Jr., a former New Orleans city council member, are late in paying taxes for 2009.

Through a spokesman, Gusman said that his mortgage company should have paid the tax bill. He did on Tuesday.

Boissiere did not return a call for comment.

City records show 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson owes about $9,000 on three different homes. Two of the properties have taxes unpaid in 2009. City records show one is unpaid from 2005.

“I would say those who are late for 2009 are late in name only,” said DuBos. “You can pay a nominal penalty to be brought up to date, but if people haven’t paid in ’07,’06, or even ’08, that’s a more serious matter.”

Political Insiders

More serious is how DuBos describes taxes owed by some politically-connected New Orleanians. That includes Cesar Burgos, Mayor Ray Nagin’s appointment as chair of the Regional Transit Authority, and a member of Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back commission, formed after Hurricane Katrina.

Burgos and his corporations owe the city $111,957.01. Some of the properties, like the former Pan-American building on Canal Street, are just delinquent for 2009. But others, like Burgos’ law office on Canal Boulevard, are unpaid for three years. His corporation owes almost $25,000 on that building alone.

Burgos did not return a call for comment.

WWL found other city board members who owe the city money.

Winston Brown serves on the ethics review board, and as a member of that agency will help pick the city’s next inspector general. Brown has $2,000 of unpaid taxes since the storm. He told Eyewitness News he’d been busy repairing his life and home since Katrina. The day after a phone call from WWL, Brown called back, to say his taxes had been paid.

City records show Benjamin Edwards, a member of the Sewerage and Water Board, has not paid taxes for three years on two homes he owns.

Jimmie Thorns, a former member of the Industrial Development Board, has made plenty of city money over the years. Since 1999, he’s been awarded 26 city contracts, most for real estate work, that have totaled more than $415,000. But according to city records, Thorns’ office building on N. Claiborne Avenue hasn’t paid property taxes since 1989 and owes the city more than $90,000.

WWL contacted Thorns by phone. He said “the company that owns that building, Jim Thorns Inc., filed for bankruptcy many years ago.” Thorns said that is why the taxes have not been paid. When asked about who owned Jim Thorns Inc., Thorns said “me. And I am the only member.”

Certified Public Accountant Luther Speight has two current contracts with the city, worth about $140,000. According to city records, Speight owes almost $12,000 in taxes on two properties. Speight told WWL the taxes are paid and late Thursday afternoon, Speight sent WWL a receipt showing that he paid one of his tax bills.

Contractor owes thousands

The city’s web site shows Boh Brothers has $22 million worth of city contracts right now. City records show the company owes $11,172 for unpaid taxes on one property from last year. Boh Brothers representatives did not return calls for a comment.

Observers said the question of these unpaid commercial property taxes is important because the city actually has an ordinance about delinquent contract holders.

The city law states “it shall be unlawful to execute a contract or cooperative endeavor agreement with any person, corporation, or entity which owes delinquent taxes to the city.”

“Maybe there needs to be some teeth put in that ordinance,” DuBos said.

Some of the largest delinquent taxpayers are connected to a prominent New Orleans East community. City records show developer and former state lawmaker Sherman Copelin, and companies he is associated with, owe on five different properties. Copelin and the companies involved have not paid taxes on the majority of those properties since 2005. They currently owe the city nearly $67,000.

When reached by phone, Copelin said he had no comment.

From city records it is unclear exactly how much money Eastover developer Donnie Pate owes, but it appears to be significant. City records show Pate’s corporations owe about $510,000 on 16 properties. Some of those taxes date back to the 1990s; others have gone unpaid since Hurricane Katrina.

According to the city, Pate has lost many of his properties to tax sales. Many have been adjudicated by the city. According to records, if Pate and his companies wanted to get all of the properties back, the price tag would be nearly $6 million in back taxes.

When WWL tried to ask Pate about his unpaid taxes, he said he had no comment, and said “I don’t think I want to be a part of your stories anymore.”

When Eyewitness News tried to get some explanation from the city about Pate’s taxes, a spokesman would only refer us to the information found on the internet.

“When they see persons in positions of authority and power and privilege may be abusing it in some way, that’s what causes the cynicism,” said Silas Lee.

“If somebody isn’t paying their taxes, somebody else is paying more than they should,” said Janet Howard, president of the non-profit, non-partisan Bureau of Governmental Research.

Property taxes pay for local services, including police, fire, roads, playgrounds and schools. The city’s budget for this year estimates the city collects about 91 percent of all property taxes. While that is an improvement over past administrations, Howard said it is not enough.

“That’s a tremendous amount of tax to go uncollected.”

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