Lee Zurik and Mykal Vincent/ Fox 8/ May 1

ST. BERNARD PARISH, La. (WVUE) – Questions surround the misuse of taxpayer money in St. Bernard Parish after Coastal Director John Lane hosted a wedding reception for his son at the historic courthouse without paying to rent the facility.

The event took place on Dec. 30, 2023, while Lane served as the parish’s acting Chief Administrative Officer. In his role, he oversaw much of the parish government, including the courthouse.

“I think he’s setting a bad example for the rest of the parish employees,” said Henry Curtis, a St. Bernard resident and government watchdog.

An investigation found that taxpayers footed the bill for the wedding reception, which included facility rental, tables, chairs, clean-up costs, security, and even the bar serving Bud Light, vodka, amaretto, gin, bourbon and wine for 100 guests.

“We (taxpayers) paid for the bartender, the wine. We paid for the alcohol and everything,” Curtis said. “I would love for the parish government to pay for my wedding. I’m pretty sure everyone in the parish would have loved the government to pay for their wedding.”

Curtis became a watchdog in St. Bernard, requesting public records on parish government.

“It’s the buddy-buddy thing in St. Bernard Parish and everyone gets a handout. It’s all about who you know,” he explained. “That’s taxpayers’ dollars.”

Curtis says Lane used his position to access the facility without intending to repay taxpayers and should be held accountable.

“I believe if any other parish employee would have done the same thing, they would have been terminated,” Curtis said.]

Emails obtained during the investigation further suggested that parish employees were pressured to clean and prepare the courthouse specifically for Lane’s son’s wedding. Additional cleaning was requested for the courthouse, including pressure washing and detailed attention to the back area, where guests would enter.

“This is just an obvious and clear conflict of interest,” said Tulane Law professor emeritus Joel Friedman. “It’s really so blatant. My guess is, this is probably not the first time this kind of thing has happened. It’s somebody who’s in charge of a facility and then is renting it out to themselves for free. I mean, it’s obvious it’s both a conflict of interest and it’s stealing. He’s stealing money from the government. These are public facilities that receive funds that support public functions.”

Fox 8 emailed parish officials on April 10 asking for records associated with the wedding. They said none existed. On April 11, we emailed again with pictures of the event and a copy of the invitation.

Lane declined an on-camera interview but issued a statement expressing regret for his “tardiness in settling a financial obligation” and reiterated that he did not intend to gain special treatment.

He wrote, “I am both disappointed and contrite because my remissness prompted a story that does not accurately reflect my ethics, values, or passion for the parish.”

While Lane says he was tardy in his payment and didn’t intend to get something for nothing, he never even put a deposit down for the event. According to records, a 25 percent deposit is due at booking for all events at the historic courthouse. Lane never paid that deposit.

The event happened under the former parish president, Guy McInnis. Newly elected parish president Louis Pomes agreed to an interview with Fox 8 but canceled the day before, declining to comment on potential litigation arising from the incident or related audits.

Friedman suggests that a more thorough investigation is needed to ensure accountability and transparency within St. Bernard Parish government.

“If there’s the slightest suggestion that this is not a one-time event, even if I were the president, I would start asking all of the leaders of my departments to come clean about these sorts of things if they know anything. There shouldn’t be an investigation. Obviously, this is the misuse of public funds,” Friedman said.

Although the investigation’s findings led to Lane’s reimbursement, questions remain about the broader practices within the parish government, disciplinary actions, and whether similar misuse of public funds previously has occurred.

“Would you still be employed if you took $3,000?” Curtis asked rhetorically. “It’s who you know in St. Bernard Parish. It’s who you’re connected to.”

Pomes told Fox 8 in an email, “It has recently come to the attention of St. Bernard Parish Government that incidents of misappropriation of parish funds or property may have occurred prior to my administration. All alleged incidents brought to our attention have been immediately reported by this administration to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office and the St. Bernard Parish District Attorney’s Office.”