The Edward Wisner Donation Advisory Committee today approved $1.5 million in city administered grants for 2013, including $250,000 for the NOLA for Life Fund, the grantmaking arm of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s violence-reduction plan. Another $170,000 is going to programs related to NOLA for Life

The move puts public money into the NOLA for Life Fund budget and may mean the city will have to allow more public scrutiny into the grant process. A city spokesman, however, said the previous closed-door grant making is likely to continue.

At the meeting, a committee member also attempted to question the city about whether the Landrieu believes his administration is subject to any outside oversight in how it grants Wisner money, in response to conflicting statements from city officials in court testimony and during recent City Council budget hearings.

The grants come after nearly a year during which the city was unable to allocate Wisner money because of pending lawsuits. The Edward Wisner Donation, about 50,000 acres of some of the state’s most valuable land, including Port Fourchon, generates millions per year in lease and royalty revenue from the oil and gas industry. That revenue is divided among Wisner’s heirs, the city, LSU Health Services, Tulane University and the Salvation Army. The city uses its portion for about $1.5 million in grants to local charities per year. For most of 2013, the grants were put on hold due to a lawsuit between the Landrieu administration, Wisner’s heirs and other beneficiaries over how the donation should be administered and controlled, including whether the city’s portion should be overseen by the advisory committee.

In October, a judge ruled in Landrieu’s favor, declaring that the city’s Wisner proceeds are public and under the city’s control. The city, however, agreed to seek the committee’s approval for the grants pending an appeal from the other parties. The grants passed in a 3-2 vote, with the heirs’ and the Salvation Army’s representatives dissenting.

The city’s list of grantees included $250,000 for the NOLA For Life Fund, which it first promised last year to supplement a $1 million donation from Chevron. The fund, which is administered by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, made $500,000 in grants this year.  In a series of reports on the fund, The Lens found that the fund made questionable grant decisions. Moreover, in spite of the city’s involvement setting up the fund, those grant decisions were made behind closed doors. Members and meeting dates of the selection committee were not announced publicly.

At the time, city officials argued that the grant process was proper because the money was being housed by the Greater New Orleans Foundation and came from a private source. Today’s approval of $250,000 in Wisner funds, which the city believes is public, might appear to change that.

Not so, Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble said in an email in response to questions from The Lens:

We fundamentally disagree that the fund is public because of the City’s involvement. This money will be distributed to GNOF, a non-profit organization, through a CEA [cooperative endeavor aggrement], which is how the City routinely distributes grant money.  Non-profit recipients of grant funds are not required to hold public selection processes.

The grant budget also included $100,000 to Ceasefire New Orleans, another city-controlled NOLA For Life program, and $70,000 to the Mayoral Fellows program, awarded to recent graduates to work in City Hall.

Erica Beck, Landrieu’s executive counsel and representative on the advisory committee, said fellows have been and would likely continue work on NOLA For Life, one of Landrieu’s priorities.

Both programs appear under the “Mayoral Fellows” revenue line in the city’s budget.

Mark Peneguy, a non-voting Wisner heir, objected to the money being used for NOLA For Life programs, saying that the terms of the donation demand that it be used only to fund a “person who is going to learn the inner workings of city government.” Peneguy characterized the move as part of Landrieu’s agenda to “take over” the committee, calling it a “breach of trust.”

“I’m not suggesting that any of these grants aren’t worthy causes or worthy grants. It’s just, does it fall into what Edward Wisner intended when he made his donation?” Peneguy said. “Maybe the city should use other money it gets” for the program.

Peneguy also attempted to ask Beck about whether Landrieu’s decisions on Wisner grants would be subject to any oversight should the fund ultimately be ruled public.

In court recently, the city argued that the City Council would provide that oversight rather than the advisory committee. In fact, the council’s “check and balance” on the fund was central to the city’s successful argument that it should be declared public, as blogger Jason Berry reported. New Orleans Municipal Code also appears to give the council ultimate control of the fund.

But Beck told council members precisely the opposite during 2014 budget hearings.

“The council has traditionally not appropriated any of that grant money,” Beck told the council on Nov 6. “We’ve received no indication from the judge that we need to change.”

Peneguy submitted a series of written questions to Beck during Tuesday’s meeting, asking her to reconcile the court and council statements, but Beck would not discuss the matter at the meeting.

Gamble addressed the issue in his email.

“The City Council did in fact appropriate the Wisner grant funds that the City will administer, such as Mayoral Fellows and CeaseFire, thereby exercising oversight over those funds. The City Council has never appropriated Wisner trust funds for awards that are administered by non-profit organizations.”

This story has been updated since initial publication to include responses from Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble.

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...