Recent events at the Port of Lake Charles are eerily similar in some respects to what occurred at the port in 1985. Edwin W. Edwards was governor at the time, and he made appointments to the port board that were recommended by some of his political supporters and campaign contributors.
In a 1988 television interview, Edwards said he had trusted and allowed friends and supporters to use him, but that was part of his nature.
“I’m an easy-going person,” he said. “I like to accommodate people. I like to do things for people and sometimes I have not been as careful as I should have been…”
Three new members of the current port board were appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, and the entire Southwest Louisiana legislative delegation had made other recommendations for two of those appointments.
The Edwin Edwards port board appointments were recommended at the time by former state Sen. Cliff Newman of Lake Charles and Reps. Burt Andrepont of Sulphur and Wilford Carter of Lake Charles. Andrepont recommended Doylin Kile and Carter nominated Charles J. Kerlegon. Gordon Reeves, another favorite, was already a member of the port board.
The three legislators and Reeves and Kile met in Newman’s office on Saturday, Aug. 9, 1986, and made a decision to make Andrepont the next port director. He got the job two days later over more than 300 who had applied for the position.
Andrepont was selected with a 5-2 port board vote on Aug. 11, but didn’t apply for the job until the day he was selected. He said he “offered” to be a compromise candidate.
Charles Johnson, who voted against naming Andrepont, along with the late Willis Noland, asked why there was such a rush since Port Director Jim Sudduth’s contract didn’t run out until Aug. 31. Johnson said the port had spent thousands of dollars advertising for a port director.
That question produced one of the most notable comments of its time. Reeves, who was board president, said, “I ain’t trying to sham nobody.”
The port engineers and attorneys, all friends and supporters of Edwards, also got new contracts, which would protect them if a new governor took office. Buddy Roemer did become governor in 1987.
Just months later, the port was overrun by rats — the four-legged kind — and millions of dollars in business went down the drain. Then, a federal grand jury in April of 1988 indicted Kerlegon, Kile and Reeves on conspiracy and extortion charges.
In a surprise move, the port board on May 2, 1988, with some new members, fired Andrepont after he had served as port director for only 18 months.
Kerlegon, Kile and Reeves were convicted and sentenced in February of 1989 in a Lafayette courtroom to two years in federal prison. The U.S 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the convictions and sentences in January of 1990.
Events at the port made it Southwest Louisiana’s top news story for 1988. Roemer selected five new board members and reappointed Johnson and Roy Collins, and the port got off to a fresh start.
Things rocked along fairly well at the port until late-2002 and early-2003. By February of 2003, six of the seven commissioners had resigned from the board. They quit to protest what they called fiscal mismanagement, politics at the port and millions of dollars lost in overtime billing.
The area legislative delegation sponsored a 2003 bill wiping out the existing port board and creating a new governing body. As bad as things were at the port, that scandal wasn’t nearly as serious as the one in the late 1980s.
OK, what about those recent events at the port?
A newly revamped Lake Charles Port Board at last month’s meeting surprisingly unseated former state Rep. Elcie Guillory, the port board’s acting president, after being warned by its two attorneys it was violating the state’s open meetings law. After being sued by three former port board presidents, 14th Judicial District Judge David Ritchie at a court hearing stipulated that the election of officers by new port board members Carl Krielow, Thomas Lorenzi and Michael Prudhomme and David Darbone, who was already a board member, violated the open meetings law.
The port board is planning a special meeting next week and those four are expected to hold another election of officers. Darbone, who was elected president at the August meeting, said then he wanted to form a special executive director search committee to search for a new port director even though current director Bill Rase has only said his contract is up Dec 31, 2019.
Darbone’s motion to set up a committee was tabled, but it, too, may resurface at the special meeting. He wants Krielow to chair the search committee. Some former port board members and port observers believe the four members now in the majority may have already decided, like the 1985 port board did, whom they want to be the next director.
Citizens can’t help but wonder what’s next at the Port of Lake Charles.