Over objections of heir, Wisner committee awards $2 million to nonprofits, city programs

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The Edward Wisner Donation Advisory Committee today approved 65 grants totalling nearly $2 million, discounting complaints from a Wisner heir that the city is misspending the money.

The grants include about $630,000 for city programs, most of which will go to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s NOLA for Life anti-violence initiative.

The committee voted in favor of every grant that Landrieu’s office submitted for approval.

They did so over the objections of committee member Michael Peneguy, who represents Edward Wisner’s heirs. He sought to deny nine grants, including most of the city programs, totalling about $1 million.

Among the grants he tried to block were two NOLA for Life programs:

  • Ceasefire New Orleans, the anti-violence program, which was awarded $348,600

  • Midnight Basketball, which will receive $46,400

The city also will get $233,837 for the Mayoral Fellows program, which is supposed to enable recent college graduates to work at City Hall for a year.

That’s the same amount allocated by the city in the 2014 budget. However, there was only one fellow this year: Ryan Dalton, who was hired as Midnight Basketball coordinator in February 2013. His fellowship ended in June of this year, according to Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble.

Dalton, whom Landrieu had identified in 2012 as a college student, was paid $41,000, according to city payroll records. Asked how the remainder was used — about $192,000 — Gamble told The Lens by email that Mayoral Fellows money is spent only when the city hires fellows.

At the meeting, Mark Peneguy, another Wisner heir who doesn’t sit on the committee, said the city has not shared that information with committee members.

“How do we know that the city isn’t going to take that money,” Mark Peneguy said, referring to the Mayoral Fellows grant, “and put it into NOLA for Life?”

He also criticized what he said was a lack of information about the NOLA for Life-related grants.

“I haven’t heard one thing yet about how this money has been spent,” he said, later adding that he believed NOLA for Life was a “waste from the get-go.”

“People I know in Orleans Parish, they’re afraid to go out of their houses,” he said. “I don’t see that Ceasefire, NOLA for Life, has done anything to change that.”

The Peneguys also objected to using Wisney money to pay for city programs during the last round of grants in November 2013.

Suchitra Satpathi, the city’s representative on the committee, said that the city would set up cooperative endeavor agreements for each grant and provide them to the committee.

However, the city has failed to make prior Wisner grant documents available on its contracting site. The site says the agreements have been signed, but many none of the contracts themselves have not been posted online.

The Lens was unable even to find any record of a 2013 Wisner allocation of $250,000, which went to the Greater New Orleans Foundation for the NOLA for Life Fund.

The Wisner heirs have been in a longstanding legal dispute with the city over control of the Wisner donation, which consists of about 50,000 acres of some of the state’s most valuable land, including Port Fourchon.

As The New Orleans Advocate and investigative news site American Zombie have reported, if the city is found to be the rightful owner of the heirs’ portion of the donation, it will control nearly 75 percent of the land, which it could move to sell once the Wisner Trust dissolves. The trust was supposed to expire this month.

The land now generates millions of dollars every year in lease and royalty payments from the oil and gas industry. That revenue is divided among Wisner’s heirs, the city, LSU Health Sciences Center, Tulane University and the Salvation Army.

The city has traditionally allocated its portion to charitable groups, although it also has used it for noncharitable purposes such as statues in Armstrong Park. In the past two years, the Landrieu administration has spent Wisner money on anti-violence programs under the NOLA for Life umbrella.

The ongoing lawsuit also will decide whether the city even has to seek the Wisner committee’s approval on how to spend its portion of the money. The city has argued that the committee can merely advise it.

The city also has argued that the committee is a public body, and its meetings are subject to the Open Meetings Law.

Last year, an Orleans Parish judge ruled in the city’s favor in the suit. While that decision is on appeal, the city has decided to continue to seek the committee’s approval, Satpathi said at the meeting.

When The Lens showed up at Monday’s meeting, Satpathi said the city believes Wisner committee meetings are open to the public and asked if anyone objected to me remaining. Although Wisner heirs have argued that these meetings are private, no one did.

However, the city didn’t publish a public notice or an agenda for the meeting, which is required under state law for public meetings.

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