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Editor’s note: In August 2016, widespread flooding in south Louisiana was particularly devastating to Livingston Parish. Many residents simply abandoned flooded homes and never returned after losing all their possessions and receiving little in the way of recovery efforts from FEMA.

Melissa Thies of St. Tammany, who describes herself as a “taxpayer in the know,” has made a series of public records requests from the St. Tammany Parish School Board which, coincidentally, rather than devote its efforts to reopening schools on schedule following the coronavirus outbreak, did take the time to revise its public records policy by doubling the cost of records from the statewide standard of 25 cents per page to 50 cents.

A number of interesting discoveries was made through her efforts, all of which are supported by official school board records. Today’s story, written by her and posted previously on Facebook, is reprinted here:

By Melissa Thies

Let’s revisit that devastating fall day in 2016……

Livingston Parish was one of the hardest hit areas of a flood.  Thirteen people lost their lives, and property damage was never really able to be solidly calculated, but estimates of $10 – 15 billion have been thrown around.  Hard times for our neighbors down Highway 12, right?  Or an opportunity to grow a school board general fund by several thousand bucks and win an award in the process?

St Tammany Parish School Administration went into full-on fundraising mode, raising over $330,000 in money, gift cards and school supplies for victims.  The media claimed this to be the “most successful fundraiser ever held by the St Tammany Parish Public School System.”  The then-superintendent even “earns” Superintendent of the Year touting this as a major accomplishment.  But wait, isn’t this type of activity by a political subdivision against the Louisiana State Constitution?  There seems to be some confusion within the Louisiana Legislative Auditor agency regarding the constitutionality of this, but it is a valid question.  Does it even make sense for this to be legal to use taxpayer resources (such as the accounting staff of the local school board) to manage such an activity?  Our state laws must protect us somehow against the risk of misappropriation of funds from this type of activity, right?

Review of the school board general ledger indicates that by September 13, 2016, a total of almost $113,000 was deposited into a liability account and deposits were marked “DONATIONS FLOODING STPCARES”.  For those non-accountants, this means the money was put into the bank account and general fund, but was marked as being owed to someone else.  Shortly after, the money starts to be disbursed, with funds going to the “St Helena Parish SB”, “Tangipahoa Parish SB”, “Livingston Parish SB” and many checks directly to individuals.  There were no other disbursements of the cash after October 14, 2016 – that is until January 19, 2017.

Several things happened on January 19, 2017.  Since October 14, 2016, the general ledger had indicated a credit balance in the liability account of $7,753.76.  This means that not all of the donations that had been collected were disbursed, leaving $7,753.76 in the general fund and in cash available in the bank.  (Remember that number; it will be significant a little later.)  Review of the visitor log on January 19, 2017, just might confirm that on this day investigators with Louisiana Legislative Auditor arrived at 321 N. Theard early that morning.

Also, on this date, there is a journal entry numbered 1267 that indicates the amount of $7,753,76 was transferred out of the liability account and the transaction was described as “Correction Move to Donations”.  This left a $0 balance in the liability account – as if to show all of the money collected had been given out.  Then, later in the day as indicated by journal entry number 3981, a transfer back into the liability account for the same amount was made.  Within a short period of time after January 19, 2017, the remaining $7,753.76 was then disbursed to “Livingston Parish SB” and “St Helena Parish SB”.  I will let you draw your own conclusions about what possibly transpired throughout the day on January 19, 2017, to encourage the administration to disburse the remainder of the funds that had been collected.

What would have happened to the funds if Legislative Auditor had not shown up?  If the overage would have remained in the general fund, what would the overage have been used to cover?  I have been told to stay in my lane and not ask any questions, but you should be asking these questions and more at this point, especially if you occupied a seat on the St Tammany Parish School Board during this time period.  Taxpayers, especially those who gave so generously to this activity certainly deserve answers.

You might be asking what is significant about the figure, $7,753.76, that remained in the general fund until the day Legislative Auditor showed up.  Well, let me not keep you in suspense…..

Just FACTS – Let’s visit the proposed general fund budgets from fiscal years 2016 and 2017.  There is a line item in these budgets with an account number “2321-511100 Salary – Superintendent”.  The budget for FY 2016 indicates an amount of $202,732 for this line item, while the budget for FY 2017 indicates a proposed amount of $210,385.  These amounts were the base salary the Superintendent received for FY 2016 and what was being proposed at the time for FY 2017.  The difference between these two would seemingly indicate the “raise” that the superintendent would be getting, $7,653.

In addition, in a recent response to a public record request, I received this copy of the check that the then-Superintendent donated to the flood fundraiser personally.

I am not sure that you need to be an accountant, auditor, investigator, investigative reporter, Inspector General, Legislative Auditor, or Attorney General to know what is coming next.  The increase in the base salary ($7,653) plus the personal DONATION to the fundraiser ($100) is…..

Did you guess it correctly?  $7,753!

Voila!  And that is how we roll at the St Tammany Parish School Board, but taxpayers can’t have an Inspector General in the parish, much less one internal auditor that doesn’t report to or is directed by the people they are auditing.  It really is a shame, or a sham, not sure which.  Lots more to come on this same topic and many, many other issues.  Ms. Rester’s history lessons are much more interesting than mine.  I invite you to contact her (email above) or any school board member for her lessons.

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You have to wonder what the Louisiana Ethics Board is trying to conceal.

Back in March, the neutered ethics board sued the Louisiana Legislative Auditor in an effort to prevent state auditors from peeking at information in its case files that the auditors say is necessary to conduct a proper performance review of the board.

Well, there may be a plausible explanation but on the surface of it all, the ethics board’s action screams of some kind of cover-up. Perhaps I’m just being paranoid, but then when you examine some of the board’s actions, that too, is understandable.

You may remember one of the first actions taken by Bobby Jindal soon after taking office back in 2008 was to gut the board in what he deemed at the time reform that produced the “gold standard” of ethics.

What it did, instead, was make then-pending ethics investigations of a couple of legislators go away. One of those legislators is now a college president. Go figure.

When Jindal announced his “reforms,” there were 11 members of the ethics board. Soon after that, there were two. Nine of the 11 members, including the board chairman, vice-chairman and board administrator promptly RESIGNED in protest—or disgust, take your pick.

In its lawsuit, filed in state court in Baton Rouge, the board contends that information contained in the files is confidential and privileged. State Auditor Daryl Purpera countered that his office has not only the right but the obligation to see the information—and to keep it confidential.

It’s most likely that auditors are not interested in any particular case, but it is nevertheless interesting to consider some of the board’s fancy footwork in dodging any responsibility in holding public officials’ feet to the proverbial fire.

Take State Police, for example. Back in April 2018, the board CLEARED —in secret, at that—four State Troopers accused of taking a taxpayer-funded vacation in a state vehicle that took them to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas en route to a convention in San Diego.

The troopers, the board determined, did not take the detour to the tourist spots on their own volition, but upon the instructions of higher-ups in the department. There was only one “higher-up” who could give those instructions and that was then-State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, who ultimately resigned under pressure in the wake of that trip.

But then, 16 months later, in August 2019, the board then managed to twist logic beyond recognition when it also CLEARED Edmonson of wrongdoing, according to his attorney, Gray Sexton. Sexton formerly served as (ahem) head of the State Ethics Commission but apparently had no problem representing clients before the board.

Sexton said he had received a letter from the board that cleared Edmonson but he refused to make a copy of the letter available, claiming that it was “confidential.”

That seems to be the way the Ethics Board operates these days: confidentially, in secret, behind closed doors, out of sight from, and with no accountability to the public.

Auditors are seeking full access to board records from 2013-2018, specifically inclusive of investigative case files, files for cases with waivers/suspensions, and ethics board executive meeting minutes.

The board provided some of the records but has withheld the investigative case files and executive board meeting minutes, justifying the refusal by claiming state law “provides that documents obtained or prepared in connection with an investigation are not only confidential but also privileged.”

The board’s refusal and lawsuit appear to be part of a trend of state boards, commissions and agencies trying to prevent auditors from delving into their operations.

In recent years, the State Board of Medical Examiners, the Louisiana Pharmacy Board, and the Department of Economic Development have taken legal action to protect their records from the prying eyes of auditors. Purpera’s office won against the Medical Examiners and Pharmacy boards but lost a court decision against LED.

Purpera said the effort to obtain records for auditing purpoises is an ongoing battle. “We’ve been fighting for records for the last 25 years,” he said.

 

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For an agency with an annual budget of about $1 million, the Louisiana Physical Therapy Board has taken little initiative in protecting patients from therapists with histories of substance abuse, sexual abuse, billing issues and even practicing without a license.

That is the conclusion of an audit of the agency released this week by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office. (Read the full audit report HERE.)

The audit report also found that of 4,857 physical therapists licensed in Louisiana since 2010, fully 78.1 percent (3,791) had never undergone background checks as required by state law.

That’s because even though state law granted LPTB the authority to conduct background checks on new applicants in January 2010, the checks were not undertaken until January 2016—six years after the law went into effect.

During the fiscal years 2015 through 2019, the LPTB received 169 complaints containing 200 allegations that took an average of 120 days to resolve. LPTB, the audit noted, has never established timeframes for how long it should take to investigate complaints and to issue disciplinary actions. Investigation times ranged from one day to more than a year, the report said.

State law granted LPTB authority to conduct background checks on applicants upon initial licensures in January 2010 but did not begin actually conducting the checks until January 2016. “As a result, as of October 2019, 3,791 (78.1 percent) of 4,857 current licensees who were licensed prior to January 2016 did not receive background checks,” the audit report said.

Moreover, LPTB “is not required to inquire of the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) prior to issuing or renewing licenses, so it may be making decisions without important disciplinary information on potential applicants from other states,” it said.

LPTB failed to report all adverse actions to the NPDB in fiscal years 2015 through 2019 as required by federal regulations, the audit said. “We found that LPTB did not report 29.7 percent (27 of 91 actions issued involving 46 licensees to the NPDB within 30 days,” auditors said.

“LPTB took an average of 222 days to report these 27 actions…ranging from 42 days to more than two years. The nature of these cases included sexual misconduct, substance abuse, criminal convictions, and fraud.

Auditors suggested possible a legislative remedy to at least one shortcoming. Because current procedures allow for background checks on only new applicants, the report said, “The legislature may wish to consider amending (state law) to require LPTB to conduct background checks on all applicants, including renewing applicants and reinstatements.”

 

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Eight Louisiana towns, each in a separate parish, may be on the brink of having to shut down basic operations because of significant debt, insufficient utility rates and/or loss of a major industrial taxpayer, according to the Legislative Auditor’s Office.

Additionally, four municipalities, are facing serious concerns of operation of their rural water infrastructure systems. One of those is facing the double whammy of concerns about both ongoing operations and about its rural water system.

The 11 are among 18 considered by the state auditor’s office as being “fiscally distressed municipalities, including three whose latest financial statements indicate a negative fund balance.

Those over which the auditor’s office issued a concern for ongoing operations and their parishes include:

  • Grambling (Lincoln);
  • Tallulah (Madison);
  • Baldwin (St. Mary);
  • Basile (Evangeline);
  • Lake Providence (East Carroll);
  • Newellton (Tensas);
  • Washington (St. Landry), and
  • Epps (West Carroll).

Baldwin was also among four municipalities about which concerns were raised over rural water infrastructure committees. Others with rural water infrastructure concerns were:

  • Melville (St. Landry);
  • Tullos (LaSalle), and
  • Powhatan (Natchitoches).

Vidalia in Concordia, Winnsboro in Franklin, and Waterproof in Tensas were also flagged over concerns that their latest financial statements indicate a negative fund balance, or deficit.

Additionally, auditors could not issue an opinion for the most recent year for LeCompte in Rapides Parish and a fiscal review committee is monitoring the town of Clinton in East Feliciana Parish.

The auditor’s office was unable to issue an opinion for the most recent year for the towns of Ball in Rapides Parish and Jonesboro in Jackson Parish.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said the purpose of the list was to provide the public and elected officials at the state and local levels notice of the municipalities’ financial plights so that remedial measures could be undertaken.

“Our goal is to work with each municipality’s elected officials and to provide recommendations to place the municipality on a path to fiscal stability,” the Baton Rouge Business Report quoted Purpera as saying.

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I hadn’t visited John Wayne Culpepper’s Lip-Smackin’ Bar-B-Que Hut, House of Prayer, Used Light bulb Emporium and Snake Farm up in Watson for quite a while, but I found myself in need of a little counseling from Harley Purvis, so I dropped by earlier this morning.

Harley, in case you don’t remember, is my longtime friend who also just happens to be president of the Greater Livingston Parish All-American Redneck Male Chauvinist Spittin’, Belchin’, and Cussin’ Society and Literary Club (LPAARMCSBCSLC).

I was in a foul mood as I approached him where he was seated in his customary spot in the booth in the back in the corner in the dark (apologies to the late Flip Wilson) and my mood was not lightened at the sight of a stranger already seated across from my friend and mentor. Harley spotted me and waved me over. “Have a seat. I want you to meet someone.” So, I slid into the booth next to Harley.

“This here’s Jimbo ‘Snake Eyes’ Hampton,” Harley said by way of introduction. We shook hands as the waitress pored me a cup of coffee. I shook hands with him while simultaneously ordering scrambled eggs, country ham and toast.

“What brings you in today?” Harley asked. He knew I rarely came to see him unless I was upset about something.

“Did you see the news last night?” I asked.

“Yep,” he answered. “And I figure you’re pissed that the state ethics board cleared Mike Edmonson of any wrongdoing. That about it?”

“Mostly confused and yes, a little angry,” I replied.

Edmonson’s attorney Gray Sexton, who once headed the Louisiana Ethics Board but who now represents clients before that same board, had told a Baton Rouge television station that his client, the former State Police Superintendent, had been cleared of all wrongdoing and that other agencies investigating Edmonson were dropping their investigations, as well.

“I don’t understand how that could be,” I said. The investigation centered around that trip to San Diego back in 2016 when four troopers drove a state police SUV there, taking side trips to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon along the way, while charging for overtime they didn’t work. “Back in April 2018, the same ethics board cleared—in secret, I might add—the troopers of any wrongdoing, saying that they were just following orders and had done so with the approval of Edmonson (see that story HERE). But now the board has cleared Edmonson, as well (see that story HERE).

Harley smiled, took a swig of his black coffee and said, “Son, don’t you know that the state police has a whole fleet of them self-drivin’ SUVs? That vehicle obviously drove itself out to San Diego and decided all on its own to take a side trip to Vegas and the Grand Canyon.”

He and Snake Eyes giggled in unison, apparently finding Harley’s explanation amusing. I just looked at both of them. Harley continued, “And them four troopers? Hell, they was hostages an’ couldn’t get outta that vehicle until it stopped at the expensive hotel where they stayed on the trip.” More giggles.

“Well, first of all, I don’t like the ides of Sexton being able to represent clients before the board he once headed,” I said. “He even referred to ‘unsubstantiated’ reports by the media and I can substantiate every single thing I wrote about him. Sexton’s full of crap. And even the state auditor found Edmonson had committed all kinds of violations of state policy.”

LSP AUDIT

AUDIT FINDINGS

“You know as well as I that’s the way they game the system,” Harley explained. “Prosecuting attorneys turn up as criminal defense attorneys and Sexton represents clients before his old board. Judges in cases brought against doctors by the medical board accept campaign contributions from the prosecuting attorneys for the board. Public Service Commission members take contributions from industries they regulate. Same thing for the insurance commissioner getting contributions from insurance companies.”

“But how can the ethics board clear the four troopers AND Edmonson 16 months later? It would seem that somebody would have to fall on their sword.”

“You know the system don’t work that way. They protect theyselves. That’s why they waited 16 months; they figured you’d forget they cleared the troopers after that much time. You think justice is even-handed? Look at ol’ Snake Eyes here. He just got out of prison. Know what he was in for? Tell him, Snake.”

Snake Eyes, a 47-year-old black man, grinned and said, “I was caught with less than three grams of weed. They gave me 13 years but it was reduced to eight years.” (Full disclosure: Snake Eyes is a pseudonym but his story is based on a real person from New Orleans.)

Harley leaned forward and added, “Louisiana ain’t the only place this kind of crap goes on. Remember that case in New Jersey where the judge refused to try a teenage rapist as an adult because he was a Eagle Scout, had good college entry scores and came from a GOOD FAMILY? That Eagle Scout not only raped a girl, but he filmed it and sent the video to his friends.

“And look at Jeffrey Epstein. Back in 2008, he was charged with having sex with underage girls and he got a nice plea deal that gave him 13 months in jail, only he was able to go to his office every day during those 13 months and just stayed in his jail cell at night. And the prosecutor who gave him that deal became Trump’s secretary of labor. An’ Ol’ Snake Eyes here gets eight years for a little pot.

“Then there’s that dentist at the LSU School of Dentistry who blew the whistle on the jaw implants bein’ a health hazard. Did they thank him? Hell, no, they revoked his license and ruined him financially, drove him outta the state, ‘cause he cost LSU money. Problem is, LSU lost more money on the lawsuits from the faulty implants. Same thing for Ivor van Heerden who criticized the Corps of Engineers following Katrina. He posed a threat to LSU federal grants from the Corps, so they run him off, just like they did Steven Hatfill who the FBI named as a person of interest in those anthrax letters even though he had nothing to do with them.

“Here’s another fine example of American justice at its best: The chief deputy of th’ Pima County, Arizona Sheriff’s Department pleaded guilty to laundering half-a-million dollars in RICO funds and got one year’s probation, a $3,000 fine and 100 hours of community service. Half-a-million dollars! And he never spent a day in jail while Snake here gets eight years for a coupla joints wortha weed.”

I started to speak, but he held up his hand. “A Oklahoma woman sold $31 wortha pot and got a 12-year prison sentence. Over in Mississippi, a man wanted the land his neighbors owned, so he instigated charges against the entire family after their son was caught cultivating marijuana on the man’s land. Police tore up their home, seized all the money they had, including the children’s piggy banks and a 90-year-old relative’s social security check. A year later, they raided the home again, arresting the entire family. The daddy got 26 years, the mama got 24 years and all four children received sentences of three to 15 years.

“The LSU fraternity members who were implicated in the binge drinking death of Max Gruver, meanwhile, got 30 DAYS in jail. They had the same lawyer who got Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal off after Ackal had several prisoners die in his custody. But Snake here gets eight years an’ he ain’t hurt nobody.

“And did you know that in Louisiana, if you steal a cell phone, you can get up to six months in jail but if you unknowingly buy a stolen cell phone, you could get up to 10 years for possessing stolen property?”

Harley and Snake Eyes exchanged knowing glances before Harley spoke again. “Son, you set the bar way too high for guvmental ethics. But the sad part is Louisiana ain’t unique. We’re actually pretty typical across the board.

“Jes’ remember the real Golden Rule: Them what has the gold makes the rules. An’ that goes double for the Louisiana so-called ‘Ethics’ Board.”

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