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By Christine Harvey
The Times-Picayune

LAKE PONTCHARTRAIN, La. - As the newly appointed chief of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway police, Nick Congemi Sr. said one of his first priorities will be to raise morale among the employees, who saw three officers and the former chief lose their jobs this month after an incident on the bridge involving Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price.
The former Kenner police chief said he will urge the rank and file who patrol the 24-mile bridge "to not worry about politics" and just do their job, noting that he plans to review the department's policies and procedures to make sure they are clear and that everyone understands them.
Causeway General Manager Robert Lambert announced Congemi's selection Thursday at a news conference at the Causeway Commission's offices in Metairie.
"I'm looking forward to getting back to public service," said Congemi, who will earn $90,000 a year. "My heart is truly in this job, and I look forward to working with everyone here."
Kyle France, the commission's chairman, said the 18 applicants were "very capable and very qualified." The candidates included several well-known names in law enforcement, with Congemi and State Police veterans Mel Ryan and Joe Lentini emerging this week as finalists in the process, he said.
France sat on the committee with Lambert, Commission Vice Chairman Frank Levy, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain. All attended Thursday's announcement but Strain.
Lambert said the decision was unanimous.
Congemi, who ran the Kenner Police Department from 1990 until 2006, said he plans to start work in the next week or so, once he completes some paperwork. In addition, Lambert said that Congemi cannot take charge at the Police Department until his son, Nick Congemi Jr., resigns his job at the bridge's toll tag store in Metairie.
The commission has a rule that precludes immediate family members from working at the Causeway. Lambert said he told Congemi when he applied for the job that he would not be hired as long as his son worked for the Causeway.
"He said, 'That will not be a problem. We will not be working there at the same time,'¤" Lambert said, recalling his conversation last week with Congemi.
Lambert confronted the same situation when he was selected in 2000 for a second stint as general manager, because his wife, Cheryl Lambert, was and still is the commission's finance director. The commission loosened its nepotism rule at that time to match state law, which allows a family member to be hired as an agency director as long as the family member who was employed first had been on the job at least a year, as was the case with Cheryl Lambert.
Since he left office in Kenner, Congemi said, he spent more than a year renovating his home, a Hurricane Katrina casualty, and enjoyed time with his wife and grandchildren.
He said he is excited to be returning to law enforcement. He said his biggest challenge will be getting up to speed on the Causeway's policies, particularly those relating to hurricane preparedness.
Congemi does not believe the agency needs an overhaul, saying he thinks it's in good shape and that the public holds the employees in high esteem. He said the men and women who work on the bridge have done a tremendous job through the years, and he looks forward both to learning from them and teaching them what he knows.
Felix Loicano, who spent eight years as the Causeway's top cop, resigned July 1 after an independent investigation criticized the way he handled the Price incident.
The two officers who stopped Price on the bridge just after midnight on April 23 failed to test him for alcohol or immediately cite him, even though he drove through a tollbooth barrier and admitted he had been drinking.
One of the officers involved in the stop resigned, while the other and his immediate supervisor were fired. Another officer who handled an internal investigation into the matter for Loicano several weeks later was demoted.

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