THE WALKER PLACE FIASCOby Elliott Stonecipher
How Bossier City officials hatched and botched their Walker Place development scheme is the stuff of a novel. Imagine a small city hall gang conspiring to benefit certain unidentified parties – their friends? themselves? – in a real estate development project. To make the deal pay-off as intended, their go-to model for such doubtful enterprise is used, a unique public / private partnership. Given that their past and repeated use of such schemes has for years done harm to their city’s reputation, the bunch recruits a top company from across the river, availing itself the cover of that firm’s expertise and good reputation. The cover is jerked away, however, as the real form and shape of their plan emerges. The developer’s team refuses to do things honest people simply do not do, and the city hall gang officially retaliates. The developer opts out, returns home, and files an epic federal court lawsuit which could publicly expose the city hall boys’ way of doing business. The developer wins big in the end, but we learn that other big winners are some members of the city hall team. The only – and big – losers are the taxpayers.
In the non-fiction version, an investigation by outside authorities will be necessary to get to the whole truth of Bossier City’s monumental failure in the huge financial hit now known simply as “Walker Place.” What we do know is stupefying.
Last month, I filed with Bossier City Mayor “Lo” Walker a formal Public Records Request for all related documents. Though some have yet to be produced, the memos, emails and other documents in hand expose Bossier City government’s highly risky, and thoroughly questionable, conduct of their Walker Place litigation. Bossier City officials either never understood or completely ignored the risk of this fight, one they loudly and proudly picked. As directed by City Attorney Jimmy Hall, the litigation posed real risks to the city’s financial condition, a fact consistently and grossly underestimated by other city officials. Particularly troubling is that Hall and other attorneys he picked knowingly acted contrary to the city’s insurance contracts. How much of the city’s loss insurers were on the hook for is unclear, but best case, payments by the city to its attorneys spun out of control, finally reaching a figure more than one-and-a-half times the $2,000,000 recovered from insurers. We now know that recovery came only after insurers, too, sued Bossier City. No documents in hand reveal any expectation of additional recovery.
The Walker Place project began eight-or-so years ago when Bossier City officials invited the U. L. Coleman Companies of Shreveport to build the city a first-class, mixed-use development just north of the CenturyLink Center in South Bossier. Soon after the project began, however, city officials turned on their developer. In 2006, those officials maliciously revoked the developer’s absolutely required curb-cut on Arthur Teague Parkway, triggering a hugely expensive and needless legal battle. Now, directly caused by specific actions of city officials, the Bossier City’s financial condition has taken a serious hit.
(My company, in 2010, ran a related opinion survey for U. L. Coleman, and I worked pro bono with Bossier City friends to find city officials who would listen to reason and settle the dispute. Each and every official dismissed all such overtures without consideration.)
Something was and remains inexplicably wrong with the city’s denial of the Teague Parkway curb-cut. Other such curb-cuts had been approved, constructed, and have long been in use. A key part of their infamous “Bossier way” of doing things, city officials typically intimidate people, but this action was so brazen and egregious that Coleman didn’t blink. In 2008, rather than fall into the trap of suing the city on its own turf in state district court in Benton, the developer sued in federal court in Shreveport.
An early skirmish in the courtroom of U. S. District Judge Maurice “Maury” Hicks, Jr., netted a direct warning which Bossier officials ignored. The judge agreed that Coleman’s initial petition for injunctive relief was not the appropriate remedy, but wrote unambiguously that “compensable damages” were. The developer was thus veritably invited to proceed with the legal action, which is to say, proceed to sue Bossier City for its municipal hat, shirt, pants, shoes and undergarments.
On December 13, 2012, the city hall legalistas – gorged, if not sated – threw in their very expensive towel. Judge Hicks signed a settlement Consent Decree by which those “compensable damages” he warned of years earlier were specifically quantified: more than $27,000,000. (The city’s entire General Fund budget for 2013 is a few dollars less than $48,000,000.) U. L. Coleman receives $6.7 million in cash for damages and its costs, plus $10.4 million in its Walker Place infrastructure costs, plus 39.46-acres of adjacent city-owned land worth $4 million or more, plus $1 million to build a park in the development. On top, taxpayers lost $250,000 to experts, and more than $5.0 million to its own lawyers, some of whose meters are still running.
Public documents thus far released show, unquestionably, how Hall and his team directly ignored insurance coverage requirements. In a key January 12, 2009 letter, the claims manager for city insurance companies set forth a long list of requirements of coverage, including that firm’s direct involvement in such aspects of the litigation as selection of experts, approval and payment of all “legal bills,” and litigation strategy. The city ignored those mandates, picked the attorneys and experts, paid all of them directly, and never conferred on strategy or in any other way acted to meet insurance contract requirements.
Indicative of how stunningly wrong the city attorneys were in this case, they repeatedly wrote the following phrase as their assessment of risk to city taxpayers: “the likelihood of an unfavorable outcome is remote.” That proved wrong to the tune of $27,000,000, more than $5,000,000 of which went to those same attorneys.
Bossier City residents may prefer the government they have, but the real question is whether or not they can afford it.
Elliott StonecipherElliott Stonecipher’s reports and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest. No compensation of any kind has been solicited or accepted for this work. This work is protected, and no other use of it is permitted without the written consent of Mr. Stonecipher.