Political and racial tensions are mounting in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana over the firing of the Lafayette Housing Authority Board of Commissioners over the past two weeks. The mass layoff comes in the wake of a series of state and federal audits revealing major financial irregularities due to alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars.
Although the audit findings are incomplete, Parish President Joey Durel wasted no time in dismissing LHA board members. Some Black residents, including a group holding a public press conference earlier in the week, are charging Durel with “insensitivity” towards African American residents in the parish. They feel the firings were racially and politically motivated, especially due to the racial composition of the board. “There’s a lot of unfair practices in what’s going on with different organizations,” said William Senegal in calling for Durel’s resignation. Durel is denying that any foul play or racism motivated his decision.
The mass firing and ensuing controversy has the potential of stirring long-standing racial animosities in a parish with a population that is nearly 25% African American.
Controversy has swirled about the parish of over 200,000 residents since the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office conducted a compliance audit “to determine if there’s been any misappropriation or misspending of public funds,” said Louisiana compliance auditor Dan Daigle in an interview with Lafayette’s Daily Advertiser.
The audit was prompted by a previous report from the LHA released in July 2009 that revealed a number of financial irregularities, ranging from no-bid contracts to lack of receipts for travel expenses. Federal investigators were brought in after the audit noticed a number of problems surrounding the Disaster Housing Assistance Program created for hurricane victims. There were problems regarding a total of $243,000 in pay to DHAP contractors.
Commenting on the firings and calling them “unfair” and motivated by information gathered by Durel “cronies,” now ex-LHA Commissioner Leon Simmons argued that the board took immediate steps to look further into the allegations and rectify the matter. “We did take action,” said Simmons. “As far as our dismissal, it wasn’t based on jury decision. [Durel] went on the assumption [that we did something wrong] and we didn’t. We could have had a chance to take action [on the audit].”
“The race card is definitely being played. The Housing Authority is being used as a scapegoat to satisfy certain political agendas,” said Lafayette activist Takun El Shabazz “It is a way to exacerbate those racial tensions that do exist.”