The Van

The year was 1977. I had been a licensed professional engineer for two years and a licensed professional land surveyor for one. As was the case for many, if not most, land surveyors, I was introduced to the business and mentored by my father. He had started his little business in 1963 and put me to work in 1971, the day after I was discharged from active military duty.

All of our clients came from the private sector. Our projects ranged from individual, residential, lot surveys to multi-home subdivisions and large, commercial, land developments. We did not gross a million dollars, but our overhead was miniscule and we were doing well.

One day I noticed an article in The Times-Picayune discussing a local public project that had been designed by a firm I knew. The project involved surveys and designs we were well qualified to perform. I carried the paper into my dad’s office.

“Maybe we ought to try for one of these public jobs,” I said as I placed the paper on his desk.
My father only glanced at the article. “Naw,” he said. “We don’t want to mess with any public jobs.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“We work hard for our money; I would like to keep it,” he said. “We are not going to do what it takes to get a public job.”

He grabbed a folder of documents and handed it to me. “Here is that 15-acre tract we promised for next week. Pull the Paradise Plantation master plan and traverse. We surveyed the tract on the south boundary of this one two years ago.” The subject was closed.

Gradually, I was becoming more active in that side of the surveying and engineering business not taught in any class: interacting with regulatory agencies. About two months after I had broached the idea of winning a public contract, I was working on a re-subdivision that required an acquisition of an easement for the extension of a water main to the site.

“I need you to go to the water committee meeting tonight,” Dad said. “Your mother and I have a dance date. Just introduce yourself around, pick up an agenda, and answer any questions the committee may have when the permit request comes up.”  I had been to such hearings before, but this was going to be the first time I was in the driver’s seat.

The committee consisted of several police jurors, Louisiana’s version of county commissioners. I arrived well before the meeting was scheduled to begin and introduced myself to the elected officials as they arrived. Some of them recognized me as Eugene Estopinal’s son and addressed me as “T’Gene.” Soon, the little meeting room was filled with smoking, joking men discussing a variety of things. At one time or another, every member of the committee discussed with me in detail why I was there and what my clients were proposing to do. Each told me he had no problem with the plans or the proposal and it would be approved.

The committee chairman gaveled the meeting to order 15 minutes after the published starting time and invited those in attendance to take an agenda from the dais. I grabbed a copy and was dismayed to see I was next to last on the agenda. The last item was “motion to adjourn.”  The first few items were house-keeping stuff: approval of the agenda, minutes of the last meeting, and the like.

The first item of any note was a motion to approve a $75,000 design contract with an engineering company. The representative of the engineering company approached the dais and introduced himself for the record. He began to discuss the extent of the proposed contract, when the double doors behind me were thrown open and a panting man shouted, “There’s a white van parked across the street!”

Pandemonium ensued! Elected officials rushed out of the meeting room through rear doors. Some members of the audience leapt to their feet and scrambled out the double doors the lookout had left open. In moments, the room was empty except for me and a lady who had come to complain about her water bill. We looked at one another in wonder.

“Do you think they will come back?” she asked me.

“Je ne sais pas,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.

A few committee members began to trickle back in. When enough had returned to form a quorum, several agenda items were deferred, my little project was approved, and the meeting was adjourned. The lady who wanted to complain about her bill left without addressing the committee.

When I related the night’s events to my father, he laughed heartily. “Well, we got our approval. That’s all that matters,” he said.

“What is the deal with a white van?” I asked.

“The guilty flee when no man pursuith,” Dad said. “A white van parked where nothing should be might indicate someone was taking a clandestine interest in the proceedings.”

Someone was taking a clandestine interest in local government.

Six months or so after the white van panic, our office manager Marie escorted two men in suits into my office and scurried away, closing the door behind her.

“Mr. Stephen Estopinal?” one of the men asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said. These two did not look like prospective clients.

The speaker pulled out a leather wallet and flipped it open with practiced ease. The wallet contained an identification card with the large letters “FBI” embossed across the face. “I am agent Robert Tortelli,” he said. “This is special agent Michael Grossburger. We would like to talk to you for a moment, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “How can I help you?”

“We have reviewed our dossier on you, Mr. Estopinal,” Tortelli said.

Dossier! I thought. The Feds have a dossier on me!

Tortelli and Grossburger took turns bombarding me with questions about how I went about the business of obtaining permits from local government for my clients. The last question they asked stumped me. “Tell me,” Grossburger asked, “why doesn’t your company do any public jobs?”

“We won’t do what it takes to get public contracts,” I said.

After Tortelli and Grossburger left, my dad came into my office.

“That was fun,” he said.

“They have a dossier on me!” I said.

“You had a ‘top secret’ clearance in the Army, son,” Dad said. “They started a dossier when you joined in 1966. They weren’t looking at us for anything.”

“How do you know? I mean aside from the fact that we don’t even have a speeding ticket between us, how do you know?” I asked.

“They know you didn’t bail out of a meeting just because there was a white van parked across the street,” he said.

After the investigations were done, many people were indicted and some convicted. Eventually, the citizens changed their form of government to a council/president charter, and a qualification-based selection system for selecting professional consultants was enacted. A white van was never again parked across the street.

About the Author

  • Stephen Estopinal, PE, PLS
    Stephen Estopinal, PE, PLS
    Stephen Estopinal, PE, PLS is assistant division manager and senior project manager at SJB Group, LLC in Louisiana. He has been involved in the practice of land surveying for more than 30 years and is the author of "A Guide to Understanding Land Surveys 3rd ed." John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2009.

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