The city of New Orleans is now reviewing the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise certification for a law firm after The Lens reported that it uses the phone number, address and email address of another firm — all signs that the black-owned firm may not be an independent business, as the city requires.

The city now refuses to release records related to the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise application for the Law Office of Errol B. Conley until it completes that review.

In an effort to increase dealings with minority- and women-owned firms, the city certifies them as Disadvantaged Business Enterprises. Conley’s firm has been certified as a DBE since 2009.

Earlier this year, a competing company complained to the city that the Conley firm was a “classic front DBE situation.” The Lens found numerous connections to Scheuermann & Jones LLC and its managing partner L. Blake Jones.

On Sept. 25, The Lens filed a public records request with the Office of Supplier Diversity, which oversees the DBE program, seeking the Conley firm’s application for DBE certification. The City Attorney’s Office responded on Oct. 1 that the records are not available because they’re in use for the review.

The office “is validating the business’s DBE certification in connection with ongoing contract negotiations,” Assistant City Attorney Anita Curran wrote.

The Law Office of Errol B. Conley is a subcontractor for Archon Information Systems, which is negotiating the terms of a multimillion-dollar contract to collect the city’s delinquent property taxes and conduct tax sales.

Archon’s bid says the Conley firm will be paid 35 percent of Archon’s anticipated revenues should it win the contract. That would meet the city’s DBE participation goal, and that was a key factor in a contract selection committee’s high score for Archon’s bid.

However, the connections to Scheuermann & Jones and Blake Jones raise questions about the Conley firm’s status as a disadvantaged business.

Errol Conley, the firm’s namesake and founder, has been an employee at Scheuermann & Jones since 2008, a year before he founded the firm and received DBE certification. The Archon bid lists Conley’s business address as 701 Poydras St., Suite 4100, which is Scheuermann & Jones’ address. The phone number and email address also go to Scheuermann & Jones. And the bid says Conley’s firm will work “in association with the Blake Jones Law firm, LLC.”

To be certified as a disadvantaged business, the city requires that it is an “independent business in which the ownership and control by a socially and economically disadvantaged person is real, substantial and continuing.” Among other requirements, a city guide to the program says that in order to be certified, the minority-owned firm must be “independently owned and operated.”

When presented with this information in September, city Communications Director Garnesha Crawford noted, among other things, that Conley’s firm has been certified as a DBE. So The Lens asked for its DBE application.

In denying the request, Curran said the records would not be available until Nov. 1.

Public records law says that if a public record is in use, the custodian “shall fix a day and hour within three days, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays,” for them to be reviewed. The Louisiana Attorney General’s website describes the provision in plainer language: “If it is not immediately available, it must be made available within three days.”

That would have set the deadline at Oct. 4. When pressed by Scott Sternberg, The Lens’ attorney, Curran cited the part of public records law that says the records do not have to be provided while “the public records are in active use by an the auditor.” She wrote that “the records are not available for inspection as they are currently being audited.”

The city later clarified to Sternberg that the audit is being performed by the Office of Supplier Diversity, which is charged with conducting audits of DBE companies, and an independent certification panel.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...