By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

The embattled director of a Gert Town community fund has been as reluctant to share information with her board as with the community she is meant to serve, according to a former board chairman.

An investigative report published last week by The Lens noted neighborhood concern that spending of a community betterment fund by a nonprofit called the Gert Town Revival Initiative has been shrouded in secrecy and that, from what little is known of it, more than half the money expended between 2005 and 2010 went towards the salary collected by its director, the Rev. Lois Dejean, a gospel singer and retired pastor. Much of the rest went to overhead, including rent on an office space in a building Dejean owns.

Dejean defended herself by saying she was merely carrying out her board’s policy decisions.

Not so, says Percy Marchand, a business owner and Gert Town resident, who served as board chairman of the community agency in 2006 and 2007.

Since The Lens’ report was published, Marchand has come forward with a string of emails he exchanged in 2007 with GRI board consultant Zarin “Zee” Miller. In the email exchanges, Marchand notes that Dejean failed to fulfill several of her contractual obligations, including meeting with him weekly for updates, providing a revised budget, hiring staff, and providing financial records to the board.

“My experiences thus far with the Executive Director is that the only issues that have been pressed have been in relation to her being paid her salary and rent,” Marchand wrote.

In a follow-up interview, Dejean acknowledged that for the past five years GRI also failed to file annual spending reports – “990’s” — required by the IRS, a violation of federal law that is grounds for stripping a non-profit of its tax-exempt status and ordering payment of back taxes. Dejean blamed the lapse on Xavier University, which served as GRI’s fiduciary until last year. Xavier could not be reached for comment.

Dejean’s failure or refusal to provide public access to GRI’s spending practices led to the  community grumbling that prompted The Lens’ investigation into what had been done with the money GRI controlled, an initial fund of $404,000. The money, which GRI began collecting in 2005, flowed from settlement of a pollution case against Thompson-Hayward, a defunct Gert Town pesticide manufacturer.

In an interview following publication of The Lens’ report, Marchand said that when he and other board members began to question Dejean’s methods, they were pushed out of leadership.

“Any time you begin to question something, you start getting that cold shoulder and then you are out the door,” he said.

Marchand said Dejean and Miller called the shots at GRI during his time with the organization. Dejean’s annual salary was in the neighborhood of $40,000-$45,000. Miller, who heads the Covington-based consulting firm Aegis Systems, was paid $3,750 in 2006-7, according to the only line-by-line accounting of GRI expenditures that has been made available. Miller, who no longer works for GRI, said she was hired by Xavier as a consultant to board members.

Marchand said that during training sessions, Miller’s message to board members was that their role was to be a support to Dejean.

“She basically said that you guys hired Reverend Dejean, and you are not there to question her or make demands of her, you are basically there to support her and that’s your role,” Marchand said.

Miller said Dejean’s unilateral decision making was not something she endorsed. She also said that she believes Dejean mostly took charge because many board members were displaced after Katrina and unable to regularly attend meetings.

“I found that she would just arbitrarily make decisions for the organization,” Miller said. “While these decisions were not necessarily bad ones, she would still do it. But I found that to be wrong. It’s supposed to be the board that makes decisions for the executive director, not her making decisions for the board.”

Marchand said displacement after Katrina wasn’t the only thing that led to lack of board member participation; they were also frustrated with Dejean for not meeting agreed-upon objectives.

The Lens investigative report, which was aired in tandem with a report on the website’s partner, FOX 8, has stirred comment within the Gert Town community.  Phone calls and online comments praised the report. Among them was one by a pastor who said she had  “been praying for a story” that would expose GRI and Dejean.

Other commenters, including lawyer Tracie Washington, a current GRI board member, attacked The Lens report, saying, in a publicly accessible rant on her Facebook page, that it was “about race and stupid and hurtful innuendo.”

Marchand said he believes those who have come forward with criticisms of Dejean are not out to make personal attacks.

“We’re not attacking Lois Dejean. We’re saying, we’re not going to allow anyone to come into our community and rape us. That day is over with,” Marchand said.

As The Lens’ original story was being prepared, the city promised to schedule a monitoring visit to review GRI’s initiatives and spending. Calls to the city to determine the date of that visit were not immediately answered.

Dejean declined to comment for this follow-up report.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...