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3 On Your Side Investigates: Cashing in on COVID

Published: Sep. 30, 2021 at 7:47 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A 3 On Your Side analysis of Jackson City Council meetings reveals more than a million dollars going to a Florence company over nine months for COVID-19 cleaning, a company the city confirms is being investigated.

That company -- L&N Enterprises, LLC -- is part of an open and active criminal investigation, according to Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.

Lumumba sent a letter with that information to WLBT last month after we filed a public records request for invoices from L&N Enterprises to track how much taxpayer money was actually spent.

The same day Lumumba sent the letter, he announced his own investigation.

“Recently, the administration discovered potential misappropriation of funds by an employee who is no longer with the city of Jackson,” Lumumba said August 24, flanked by members of the Jackson Police Department and Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens.

Multiple sources within the city would later confirm the employee being investigated was former Constituent Services Manager Keyshia Sanders.

Lumumba declined to provide the public records WLBT asked for, saying in the letter that his investigators told him “the release of these invoices could interfere with their investigation.”

3 On Your Side dug through eighteen months of Jackson City Council minutes and meetings -- published online for the public to see -- and discovered the Jackson City Council voted unanimously six times to approve payments for certain services and commodities purchased to help control the spread of COVID-19, payments that went to several companies, including L&N Enterprises.

3 On Your Side: Cashing in on COVID
3 On Your Side: Cashing in on COVID(WLBT)

“In hindsight, we should have drilled much deeper into the specifics, but it’s, you know, hard for us to, to know, and be able to know what is a fair price for a lot of these cleaning services,” said Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote.

3 On Your Side showed Foote how much L&N Enterprises got from the city on Dec. 22, 2020, when he and other council members voted to approve paying $514,000 to the company for COVID-19 “deep cleaning.”

“That’s really unbelievable. You know, I’m sorry I didn’t catch that back in December of 2020. Yeah, that’s a huge dollar amount for you know, one month of invoices,” Foote said.

In all, those six approvals brought more than a million dollars to L&N Enterprises in just nine months.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the city of Jackson has spent $3.2 million on prevention efforts -- like cleaning -- and personal protective equipment, according to figures revealed during a September finance committee meeting.

These mitigation efforts took place during a declared civil and local state of emergency, which the city attorney’s office said through council minutes will allow the mayor’s office to bypass the bid process and give contracts to companies for pandemic-related services.

When asked why she voted to approve the payments to other companies, including L&N Enterprises, Ward 7 Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay said it was for the health and safety of city employees.

“I think these were truly extraordinary times. I mean, we didn’t know what to expect from COVID. I think it was a little bit like an uncharted because we didn’t know, no one really knew,” Lindsay said. “And so that’s not an excuse, I’m just telling you that it was a really extraordinary time, we had to keep our building safe. And these bills were coming at us, as you said, from a lot of different places in a lot of different ways.”

Our investigation found two links between L&N Enterprises and Sanders; first, both were placed under an announced investigation at the same time by the city. Second, each time the council voted for that company to receive money, records show Sanders wanted it on the agenda, and the mayor’s office pushed it through.

The mayor explained last month that agenda items from Constituent Services would typically go to his chief of staff, Safiya Omari, but in some cases went straight to accounts payable.

“You’d expect that the administration would put up the proper checks and balances to ensure that in fact, all the invoices are vetted by more than just one person. And really, there’s no way that they should have put the COVID money, COVID relief money under the oversight of constituent services,” Foote said. “That was a glaring error that we should have caught.”

Why didn’t they?

Perhaps it’s because they didn’t ask enough questions.

3 On Your Side reviewed hours and hours of video from those six council meetings and noted that only twice did council members even ask anything about what they were voting to approve.

During the council’s July 21, 2020 meeting, then-Councilman De’Keither Stamps asked why the agenda item itself was being amended.

“The first version did not give you an explanation of what exactly was purchased,” said then-City Attorney Tim Howard.

Even after that amendment, the minutes of that meeting didn’t show how the money was spent, only which companies got it.

Less than a month later, Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes asked -- again -- for information on what this money covered.

“Lysol wipes, catering for our non-congregate sheltering... and Cintas, which also provides our weekly spray service,” Sanders said.

Sanders did not describe what L&N Enterprises did at the Aug. 4, 2020 meeting, only saying it’s all on the agenda.

It’s still unclear whether the company even performed those services; Lumumba’s office could not verify whether the company completed its million-dollar work, saying only that it was under investigation.

State records show L&N Enterprises is registered to Lawrence Morris, with a Florence address: 123 Bickham Lane.

A few mobile homes dot the property, though it’s unclear which one was the actual address.

A fogger left exposed to the elements could be seen beside two large metal storage containers.

No phone number was listed for Morris.

Emails sent to Morris’ email, listed on file with the Secretary of State’s Office, remain unanswered.

“I hope we get to the bottom of this. And the sooner the better. It’s really a sad chapter for the city to go through this and to have a sketchy outfit like L&N be involved in getting significant dollars paid out to them,” Foote said.

There are also many unanswered questions as to how Sanders knew the company or Morris.

Lindsay said she believed the work itself was outside the scope of Constituent Services, which typically helps Jacksonians who have problems with city services.

Foote agrees.

“I find fault with that. I find fault with the fact that, that she’s under the supervision of Dr. Omari. And obviously, there’s there (was) some lack of supervision that this went on for so long.”

On Thursday afternoon, Sanders’ attorney Lisa Ross sent a letter to Lumumba and the rest of the council members, accusing them of creating a “false and defamatory impression” of her.

“I am hereby requesting that you and/or the city council schedule a public name clearing hearing for Keyshia Sanders. At that hearing...Sanders can confront evidence, if any, to substantiate your claim that she misappropriated funds and/or engaged in criminal conduct,” Ross said in the letter.

The mayor’s office said neither Lumumba nor anyone else in his office played any role in getting contracts with L&N Enterprises.

The money paid out to these companies -- including L&N -- came out of the city’s general fund, not federal COVID-19 relief dollars.

Twice -- on January 5 and April 27 of this year -- Sanders through the mayor’s office asked for one million dollars to be transferred from the city’s fund balance to cover what’s been spent.

The city has not yet been reimbursed for any of these COVID-19-related expenses.

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