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US: Parish Official Charged in Louisiana Storm Case

by Leslie eatonThe New York Times
November 18th, 2005

In the first corruption arrest stemming from the federal money flooding into Louisiana for hurricane cleanup, federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged a parish official with taking kickbacks to arrange a debris-removal contract.

The official, Joseph Impastato of Lacombe, La., serves on the council of St. Tammany Parish, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. He was accused of taking $85,000 from a local businessman who had a site available for dumping hurricane debris, according to a criminal complaint filed by Jim Letten, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Mr. Impastato, who did not have to enter a plea, was released on a $5,000 personal recognizance bond, said Jan Maselli Mann, the first assistant United States attorney.

His lawyer, Karl J. Koch, of Baton Rouge, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Every year, St. Tammany Parish awards contracts for removal of debris from storms so it will be prepared for emergencies and will avoid unnecessary expenses, said Suzanne Parsons, a spokeswoman for the parish. In March, it awarded the contract to a local company, Omni Pinnacle, which, Ms. Parsons said, was the lowest bidder.

After the hurricanes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to reimburse the parish for most of the costs of removing the debris.

According to an affidavit filed with the complaint, Mr. Impastato told the unnamed local businessman that he could arrange a $200,000 subcontract with Omni Pinnacle if the businessman would split the proceeds with him.

Federal agents videotaped Mr. Impastato receiving two cashier's checks, the affidavit said.

A spokeswoman for Omni Pinnacle, Betsie Gambel, said the company had been advised not to discuss the matter because of the investigation but she added that the company itself was not a target.

Congress has repeatedly expressed concern that the billions of dollars of federal aid to the Gulf Coast could be subject to waste, fraud and abuse.

Federal, state and local officials have all pledged to monitor the use of the money.

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