SMILE CEO Chris Williams is out on indefinite leave and someone will be hired to replace him temporarily.
The St. Martin, Iberia, Lafayette Community Action Agency board voted Thursday to hire Craig Mathews in his place.
But there’s more to the story that no one will discuss on the record, including a possible internal investigation and potential lawsuit.
Board member Richard Potier, during Thursday’s meeting, said the agency won’t know how long Williams will be out until an investigation is complete. Nobody would discuss what the investigation is about.
Williams, contacted Thursday afternoon, said he has been out sick on Family and Medical Leave Act leave since May 24. He declined to answer other questions on the record.
At a regular board meeting Tuesday, Vice President Mary Batiste announced that an executive session item on the agenda was being removed. The item, she said, was about a possible lawsuit against SMILE by employee Jamie Gabriel. She did not say what the possible lawsuit is about.
Board President Marlon Lewis, asked about the matter by email Thursday morning, declined to comment, saying he was on vacation. He was not at Thursday’s board meeting.
Board secretary Geri Brown, asked after the board meeting about the possible lawsuit, denied that anything was said at Tuesday’s meeting about Gabriel suing SMILE.
“That was a rumor,” Brown told The Daily Advertiser.
But board member Africa Arceneaux said she was at Tuesday’s board meeting and Batiste brought up a potential lawsuit against SMILE by Gabriel.
A recording of the meeting supports what Arceneaux said. The board discussed a possible lawsuit against the agency by Gabriel. No one said what the lawsuit was about.
The Daily Advertiser check with the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Office Thursday. No lawsuit filed by Gabriel was found.
Arceneaux said she asked for an investigation two weeks ago regarding personnel. But because it involves personnel, she would not disclose any further information.
Arceneaux, Potier and board member Tom Guidry said they know nothing about what’s going on at the agency. Potier said he’s waiting until Lewis returns from vacation to get answers.
A SMILE employee resigned in April citing ‘harassment and hostility’
Another SMILE employee, RoxAnne Chaisson-Pitre, who served as personnel director, equal opportunity officer and interim human resources director over 13 years, resigned abruptly April 24, alleging “an environment of harassment and hostility” at the agency.
In a letter addressed to Williams, Chaisson-Pitre wrote that in the last several months, SMILE “has become an environment of harassment and hostility and I wish to no longer endure such a place of work.
“I am resigning under a state of duress because I fear for my safety and well-being,” she added.
Williams’ rocky history
Williams has been SMILE CEO since January 2017. Actually, his appointment was finalized legally in April 2017, after two false starts, including a tie vote that was recorded in the minutes as a win for Williams and votes being cast over the telephone, which is not allowed under Louisiana’s open meetings law.
During Williams’ first full year as CEO, SMILE lost its contract to operate Head Start and Early Head Start early learning classes in the Iberia, Lafayette and St. Martin parishes. The contract came with about $14 million in federal funds.
Williams previously was a contract worker with the Lafayette Housing Authority, which administered a post-hurricane FEMA program. He sued the housing authority, alleging he wasn’t property notified before his contract was terminated and was awarded $30,000.
In 2006, Williams was an elected member of the Lafayette City-Parish Council. During a lengthy push to rename Willlow Street after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Williams wrote in permanent marker on the council credenza and carved into the desk where he sat during council meetings.
He was charged in a bill of information with three counts of simple criminal damage to property. According to court records, he pleaded guilty.
Why an outside replacement?
Brown said Matthews has been contacted about possibly filling in as SMILE CEO temporarily. He will be paid the same salary that Williams is earning as CEO, she said.
Board members asked about the next person in line at SMILE who could replace the CEO. In the past, the chief financial officer took over as temporary CEO. But the current CFO is a temporary hire and board members said elevating another employee would leave important positions vacant.
Matthews, according to board members, is from St. Mary Parish, has Community Action Agency experience and previously applied for the CEO position with SMILE.