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Archive for the ‘State Fire Marshal’ Category

By Steve Winham, guest columnist

I have a regular monthly breakfast with venerable politician and retired state fire marshal, V. J. Bella.  As a legislator, V. J.  never shied away from taking bold actions (think cabbages inside motorcycle helmets hit with baseball bats) and his background and devotion to the cause made him uniquely qualified as fire marshal.  He is also a good friend.

Among other topics, we always have lengthy discussions about Gov. Edwards.  At our most recent breakfast last week, V. J. said he believes Gov. Edwards is running for re-election too early.  He may have a strong point and, based on recent press reports, the game is already afoot to discredit him every way possible by at least one Republican PAC (America Rising). It has already launched a website to gather negatives about Edwards.  The plan, of course, is to stress his failures, including those dealing with our budget, economy, infrastructure, education, etc.

If the governor attempts to please as many people as possible over the remainder of this term in hope of being re-elected, how can he possibly recommend the very difficult and unpopular solutions necessary to begin to move us up from dead last among the states by most measures.  In an ideal world, making those hard choices would endear him to the public and ensure his re-election.  Unfortunately, the real world is not the political world.

If, in my dreams, I was Gov. Edwards, I would announce today that I am not running for re-election as governor, nor running for anything else.  I would then make dramatic changes unilaterally and push a legislative agenda that would move our state forward without a care for my personal political future.

As a bonus, taking bold, but politically unpopular actions would allow legislators to blame everything their constituents didn’t like on me.  That worked well for legislators even in the good times, so it could work even better now  –  “I put that rodeo arena in the capital outlay bill, but the governor vetoed it.  Vote for me and I’ll get it in there when we get rid of him next election.”

There is no question our budget is seriously broken.  Nor is there any question that is our major problem.  Our infrastructure is crumbling.  Our educational system continues to decline – Both strongly contribute to our stagnant economy and enhance a basic distrust of our government.  Businesses cannot reasonably plan because they have no idea how they will be taxed over time.  People dependent on state services have no assurances for the future.

All state services not completely protected continue a steady march toward total breakdown.  At the same time, we see almost daily news reports of waste, fraud, and corruption within government.  The public has lost faith in the ability of government to do anything right.

The first thing I would do is call my cabinet together and tell them I am tired of seeing news reports about things they should have been paying enough attention to catch and fix.  It’s not that hard to get a handle on these things.  It is a simple matter of working down the chain of command and holding people accountable at every level.   More on this later.

I would use the excellent January 2017 report of the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy and other information to put together a firm proposal of both expenditure cuts and revenue measures to permanently fix the gap of $1.2 billion that will result from expiration of sales taxes in July 2018.  Further cuts are unlikely to be popular, but they will be much more popular than additional taxes.

Since people are fed up with government, and because I believe it is needed now more than ever, I would do something I recommended in 1990.  I would take existing staff from the budget and accounting sections of the Division of Administration to create a small entity called the Office of Effectiveness and Efficiency.  I would send this team to every department, beginning with the most troublesome one and working down. They would take a common-sense look at how things are being done and recommend changes to make them better.  I would expect full cooperation from my cabinet secretaries.

Restoring the public’s faith in government is a daunting task, but it should be of highest priority.  Until people begin to have this faith, they will never believe anybody in government cares about waste or providing the best services possible and they will certainly not enthusiastically support sacrifices to support such a system.  It is simply not possible to begin to restore faith in government if political commitments override all other concerns.

We desperately need stability to achieve anything in this state.  Pandering to popular beliefs not supported by facts to win elections clearly does not work for the greater good.  An objective look at what has happened since our most recent presidential election should tell you that.

So, I would challenge Gov. Edwards to take the bold step of not seeking re-election and to announce it immediately so he can be free to fight the battles necessary to set us straight.  If he did, he might just find people begging him to change his mind and run again after all – And, if that happened, it would put a whole new, and ironic, spin on V. J.’s view.

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When State Fire Marshal Butch Browning isn’t busy defending his wearing of unauthorized military decorations and ribbons or trying to shift blame for a carnival ride that malfunctioned only seven hours after his office inspected it, injuring two children in the process, he apparently can play the political game as well as any state appointed official.

Remember the New Living Word School in Ruston? That’s the facility that had only 122 students in 2012, yet was approved for more than 300 vouchers by the Louisiana Department of Education (DOE) even though the school lacked teachers, classrooms, desks or other supporting facilities to handle the increased numbers.

In fact, construction was started on New Living Word’s school without anyone bothering to obtain the requisite building permits or to hire a licensed contractor. In fact, no zoning variance was even obtained to operate the school on property that was zoned for a church.

Moreover, the building itself had so many deficiencies that Ruston building inspector Bill Sanderson refused to approve the structure. Those shortcomings included partitions made of flammable materials and multiple electrical cords lying on the floor between wall outlets and computer equipment.

New Living Word, looking to lose tuition of $6,300 per student (an amount later determined by auditors to be excessive and all the vouchers for the school were pulled), could not afford to wait until all the requirements had been met.

Enter State Sen. Rick Gallot.

It certainly didn’t hurt that Gallot is a member of New Living Word Church and sits on the school’s governing board.

Suddenly, all those deficiencies and procedural violations went away after State Fire Marshal Butch Browning became involved.

Browning subsequently issued an amended approval letter, giving the school the green light to proceed with constructing classrooms in the upper floor of the church gymnasium. He said the school had not requested approval to build the classrooms but that “after further review and as a point of clarification, the upper floor…is included in the scope of the review and is acceptable.”

http://archive.thenewsstar.com/article/20120810/NEWS01/130110033/Fire-marshal-gives-school-go-ahead

The late John Hays, then-publisher of the Ruston weekly newspaper the Morning Paper, wrote on Aug. 27, 2012:

“Lobbying never fails, especially when Louisiana’s controversial school voucher program is the issue. After the state fire marshal fell I line, so, to, did the City of Ruston, approving a jury-rigged private school after a quickie inspection.

“Inspections were scheduled for Monday morning. But with 167 state vouchers (the number by then had been reduced from more than 300—before those, too, were yanked) at $6,300 each, New Living Word wasn’t willing to wait—just as it was not willing to apply for a zoning permit or a building permit or to hire a licensed contractor.”

Hays, holding both Browning and Sanderson responsible for bending the rules, went on to say that Neither Sanderson nor Browning had bothered to explain “why they didn’t pull the plug after New Living Word started construction without the required building permit and without a licensed contractor. Under Ruston 21 master plan, New Living Word was also required to obtain a zoning variance to operate a school on property presently zoned for a church,” Hays wrote.

“What Sanderson cannot change to anyone’s satisfaction is the fact that (church minister Jerry) Baldwin renovated two buildings without the benefit of a land use variance or a building permit, with a complete set of plans by a licensed architect or engineer, and without the use of a licensed general contractor and a licensed trade contractors,” the acerbic Hays said.

“Contrast this treatment of a politically-connected entity to that of a business that dared to ask that it be allowed to put up a sign slightly larger than the rules allowed,” said Ruston’s Walter Abbott on his Lincoln Parish Online blog.

Abbott, also writing about the New Living Word building permit controversy, then attached a link to an earlier story about a local realtor named Brandon Crume who wished to install a 32-square-foot sign in a location where such signs are limited to 16 square feet.

Bound by the rules, since there were no state politicians or appointees to intervene, the Ruston Planning and Zoning Commission denied Crume’s request outright, prompting Abbott to observe that a new business recently announced for Ruston “is showered with incentives, grants and glowing press coverage” and the press conference announcing its coming was attended “by numerous political dignitaries” while an “established Ruston business is encumbered with endless red tape just to remodel a building and put up a sign.”

“Maybe Brandon Crume needed a state senator on his payroll instead of facts and logic in his argument,” Abbott concluded.

The immediate question is why did Browning become involved when the local building inspector had already moved to halt work on the building? The obvious answer is that his intervention was on behalf of Baldwin and the school and not to support the local building inspector. It is equally evident that political pressure was brought to bear upon Sanderson to get him to ease up on the school which at the time, was held in high favor by DOE and by extension, Gov. Bobby Jindal.

And just what did Gallot promise Jindal in return for support from Baton Rouge via Browning’s involvement?

Shortcuts with safety regulations and procedures often can come back to bite you.

We can only hope there will not be a New Living Word incident reminiscent of the horrific school tragedy from the Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, the thinly-disguised Pulitzer-Prize winning novel about Huey Long which became the basis of two movies of the same name.

Or of the very real 2011 accident with the carnival ride in Greensburg that injured two siblings only hours after a State Fire Marshal’s inspection failed to shut the ride down because of the removal of an emergency brake on the ride.

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What kind of person, serving as a municipal fire chief, would purchase ribbons and decorations of previous conflicts from a military surplus store and pen them on his own uniform?

Apparently the kind of person that Deputy Secretary of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Gov. Bobby Jindal would want to protect even to the point of prevailing upon an ally in the legislature to file an amendment to abolish the very agency conducting an investigation of that and other offenses.

At the same time State Fire Marshal Butch Browning was being reinstated in May of 2012 by his boss, Mike Edmonson who serves as both State Police Superintendent and Deputy Secretary of DPS, State Rep. Joe Harrison (R-Napoleonville) was introducing an amendment to House Bill 1, the state’s operating budget, to pull the $1.7 million funding for the Office of Inspector General (OIG) in the middle of OIG’s investigation of allegations of payroll fraud and a sloppy inspection of a carnival ride in Greensburg only seven hours before teenage siblings were injured by the ride.

The timing of the amendment was enough to make you toss your lunch of stone cold ethics and hot back room politics.

Browning “retired” on April 18 in the middle of that investigation but returned just 12 days later, on April 30, with an $8,000-per-year increase in pay after being “cleared” by Edmonson of any wrongdoing—six months before an investigative report by OIG was even issued.

But if Jindal and his co-conspirators intended to thwart the investigation by abolishing the agency led by Stephen Street, those efforts wilted in a backlash of public support for the office immediately ensued which caused the legislature—and Jindal—to back down from the effort despite a favorable 11-5 vote on Harrison’s amendment by the House Appropriations Committee.

Remember, this is the same governor who two years later would attempt to sneak through another amendment granting Edmonson a lucrative $55,000-a-year increase in retirement benefits only to have that plan crash and burn when LouisianaVoice learned of the implications of the amendment by State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia).

OIG serves as white-collar watchdog and as an internal affairs division within state government but Harrison, in offering his amendment, argued that OIG’s functions overlapped those of State Police and the Attorney General’s Office.

As we have already seen, State Police, under the direction of Edmonson, gave Browning high marks in exonerating him from any wrongdoing and as we have also seen in other matters, the Attorney General’s Office is more than a little reluctant to involve itself in the investigation of any state agency—except of course in a situation such as that of former Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein where the feds are already actively investigating a questionable contract with Greenstein’s former employer.

In that case, Attorney General intervention made good press.

In fact, since the 1974 State Constitution was adopted over the objections of then-Attorney General Billy Guste, the Attorney General’s duties are primarily restricted to defending state agencies, not investigating them and can generally enter a local matter at the express invitation of the local district attorney. In fact, the Attorney General has even begged off certain investigative matters, citing a potential conflict of interest should his office be called to defend or represent the agency.

Hammond attorney and state government watchdog C.B. Forgotston, former chief counsel for the House Appropriations Committee disagreed with Harrison’s contention that the OIG is “pretty much redundant.”

Forgotston said the office might be redundant “if any other agency in the state was stopping waste and fraud within the executive branch. Nobody at the state level is pursuing corruption in Louisiana,” he said.

Street said he linked his office’s funding to the amount of money it uncovers through wrongdoing by state officials and contractors. OIG’s annual report in 2012 showed the office had uncovered $3.2 million in fraud and waste the previous fiscal year, nearly double the office’s $1.7 million budget appropriation.

The reaction to Harrison’s bill and to Jindal’s transparent ploy was immediate.

“Is it a bargain to spend $1 to root out nearly $2 in fraud in Louisiana?” the Lake Charles American Press asked in a May 15, 2012, editorial. http://www.americanpress.com/AP-Editorial-5-16-12

“Apparently, some members of the state Legislature don’t think so,” the editorial said, adding that Harrison had admitted that he did not agree with the OIG’s investigation of Browning. He said there should have been no investigation in the first place but Street said his office had received a complaint (from the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission) about how Browning was doing his job and so he launched an investigation. “I was told if you do this (job) right, you’ll eventually have people trying to shut you down,” Street was quoted by the paper as saying.

The editorial disagreed with Harrison’s claim that State Police and the Attorney General’s Office could take up the slack. “The attorney general in Louisiana is too much of a political species to launch investigations into wrongdoing by other politicians or political agencies,” it said in something of an understatement. “An office that ferrets out nearly $2 in fraud for every $1 it costs is too valuable to Louisiana to eliminate.”

The non-partisan Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) agreed. “The state needs a self-motivated watchdog agency to stop waste, mismanagement, abuse and fraud in executive-branch government,” it said in a May 7, 2012, news release. http://www.parlouisiana.com/explore.cfm/parpublications/commentariesandletters/100092

“Stephen Street… is a former criminal staff lawyer with the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, a former public defender and a former Section Chief with the state Attorney General’s Insurance Fraud Support Unit who handled white-collar prosecutions. He has extensive experience teaching courses on white-collar crime investigation,” the PAR release said.

“A sudden halt in funding of the Inspector General would terminate ongoing investigations and send a message nationwide that Louisiana government is open for corrupt or wasteful business. Lawmakers who oppose continued funding of the office while also criticizing particular ongoing investigations are running the risk of deeply politicizing the state’s law enforcement systems. If these efforts at shutting down the Inspector General’s office are successful, their effect will be to strongly encourage further political interference in the law enforcement profession throughout the state,” the release said.

James Gill, then a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, wasn’t nearly as charitable. As only he can, Gill noted that Edmonson had exonerated and reinstated Browning even before Street’s investigation was complete. Then came Gill’s zinger: “Perhaps Edmonson forgot that he had claimed Browning’s resignation had nothing to do with the allegations against him.” http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2012/05/battle_over_funding_for_louisi.html

Gill quoted Harrison as claiming that he had thought for two years that Louisiana did not need an inspector general. “Anyone but a politician would be carted off to the funny farm for saying that,” he wrote, adding that despite Harrison’s claim that his amendment had nothing to do with Browning, he launched into “a passionate denunciation of the inspector general’s office over its treatment of browning.” Gill quoted Harrison as saying no good investigator “would bring it (the investigation) to this point without verifying information.”

“Even a politician deserves a trip to the funny farm for spouting such nonsense,” said Gill at his derisive best.

But even more to the point, Gill observed that “Since Browning has already been returned to duty, it may not matter much what conclusions the inspector general reaches.”

May not indeed. This administration is, after all, the gold standard of ethics.

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While some observers might correctly point out that the re-hashing of stories about State Fire Marshal Butch Browning is old news, we feel there is relevance in demonstrating the Jindal administration’s general acceptance of and a high tolerance for questionable and inappropriate behavior on the part of his appointees and their subordinates.

The flagrant abuse of power has become so rampant in the offices of the State Fire Marshal, State Police Superintendent and the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control that even if the governor’s office feels it can afford to ignore the brewing problems, we cannot.

Besides the FEMA billings in connection to work his subordinates performed in the 2011 tornado cleanup in Alabama—more than $11,000 in overpayments to 13 employees was eventually refunded—and his wearing of unauthorized military medals from two wars and a third military engagement, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning also came under investigation by State Police and the Louisiana Office of Inspector General (OIG) for another matter involving injuries to two teenagers in St. Helena Parish.

Browning managed to emerge from the three-pronged probe virtually unscathed, “retiring” in April of 2012 in the middle of the investigations only to be reinstated 12 days later in his same positon but with a raise in pay of $8,000 per year, state Civil Service records show.

Despite the allegations of fraud and mismanagement leveled against Browning, his boss, State Police Superintendent and Deputy Secretary of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) Mike Edmonson, gave him a clean bill of health and the Louisiana Legislature, acting as surrogate for the Jindal administration, acted quickly. The House Appropriations Committee aimed its retaliatory guns on the second investigative agency, the Office of Inspector General and its Director Stephen Street, placing them squarely in the administration’s crosshairs.

Even as his boss, State Police Superintendent and Deputy Secretary of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) Mike Edmonson, was praising Browning on the occasion of what turned out to be a 12-day “retirement,” saying citizens of Louisiana were “fortunate” to have him as State Fire Marshal and that his commitment to fire safety and prevention was “unparalleled,” a state trooper had been assigned in April of 2012 to work alongside OIG to investigate “several complaints.”

We touched on the allegations of payroll fraud and of his wearing unauthorized military combat medals from wars that ended before he was born. Among the decorations worn by Browning were the Army Occupation Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Force Good Conduct Medal, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Kosovo Campaign Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Korean Service Medal, the Army Reserves Overseas Training Ribbon, the Marine Security Guard Ribbon, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Navy Expeditionary Medal. Apparently, the only military branch in which he did not distinguish himself was the U.S. Coast Guard.

But there were other, more serious incidents almost a year before which the OIG was also investigating—obstruction of information about a carnival ride accident and Browning’s improperly selling used weapons to employees—which would ultimately lead to attempts to strip OIG of its legislative appropriation, in effect abolishing the office.

We prefer to simply call it teaguing after Gov. Bobby Jindal’s infamous practice of fire and demoting dissidents as he did Tommy and Melody Teague, the husband and wife team he fired six months apart, beginning first with Melody Teague.

On May 14, 2011, a ride called the “Zipper” malfunctioned at a Greensburg carnival in St. Helena Parish northwest of Hammond and injured two teenage siblings as they were getting off the ride only seven hours after deficiencies were ignored by a State Fire Marshal’s Office inspector only seven hours earlier. The ride’s emergency brake should also have been checked during the inspection, but it was not, the OIG investigation revealed. http://oig.louisiana.gov/assets/docs/reports/CID-12-035.pdf

Carter and a second Fire Marshal investigator, Joseph LeSage, both told investigators that the accident would not have occurred had a properly installed parking brake and control switches been installed according to manufacturer’s specifications, the report said.

Failure to check emergency brakes is in violation of National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officers guidelines.

Browning, however, suppressed the report by insisting that the accident was caused by operator error, the report said.

Even more serious, Fire Marshal Investigator Donald Carter told Browning “several times at the accident scene” that the inspector’s allowing the ride to operate with improper equipment may expose the Fire Marshal’s office to legal liability, the OIG report said. That statement is important because of the blanket defense of Browning subsequently thrown over the entire investigation by Edmonson in a letter to Street.

The OIG report also said Browning authorized the sale of guns in violation of regulations. While law enforcement officers may purchase weapons being retired from service, non-law enforcement personnel are ineligible to purchase the weapons. Browning nevertheless authorized their sale to employees who were not commissioned law enforcement officers.

It was in the middle of the two concurrent investigations that Browning announced his “retirement” to accept a superintendent at an unnamed petrochemical plant in Ascension Parish only to return 12 days later with an $8,000 per year pay raise and complete exoneration from Edmonson even though the OIG’s report accusing Browning of suppressing the carnival ride investigative report would not be released for another six months.

But even though the OIG report would not be released until Nov. 13, 2012, someone must have had an inkling of what it would say for the wheels were put in motion by the administration mere days after Browning’s pay raise and return to work.

Joe Harrison (R-Napoleonville), State President of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), offered an amendment to House Bill 1, the state’s operating budget, to pull the $1.7 million appropriation for Street’s office, a move that would have effectively shut down its operations for the first time since it was created in 1988.

Wow, talk about reprisals! Harrison said the OIG was “pretty much redundant” and that its functions overlapped those of the State Police and the Attorney General’s office. The House Appropriations Committee apparently agreed, approving the amendment by an 11-4 vote.

But invoking the name of the State Police and the Attorney General as a justification for abolishing the OIG is hardly a sound argument given the performance of the State Police in its investigation of Browning and Edmonson’s thinly disguised attempt to pad his retirement benefits and the Attorney General’s oft-demonstrated reluctance to get involved in any investigation of wrongdoing on the part of state agencies other than jumping on board the FBI investigation of former Department of Health and Hospital (DHH) Secretary Bruce Greenstein.

While newspaper editorials and columnists and the Public Affairs Research Council came to the defense of OIG, Browning’s boss, Col. Mike Edmonson fired off a scathing, eight-page letter in which he vehemently attacked the OIG report and defended Browning unconditionally.

In our next installment, we will examine the political fallout from the OIG investigation initiated by a Jindal legislative ally as well as Edmonson’s response to that investigation which was hand-delivered to Street’s office and media comments supportive of OIG.

All in all, it’s just another behind-the-scenes look at how the administration attempts to shape and mold the legislative process to the benefit of Jindal and his appointees and to the detriment of anyone who happens to get in his way.

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Given the chance, a reality TV show profiling our state elected officials and political appointees would surely eclipse Duck Dynasty in the ratings—except viewers outside Louisiana would swear the stories were nothing but lowbrow fiction.

When Gov. Bobby Jindal announced the appointment of Butch Browning as State Fire Marshal shortly after taking office in 2008, for example, it turned out to be one of a series of appointments that have come back to embarrass the administration [aside from the fact that the administration appears immune to embarrassment]. Yet, as with almost all the other poor choices, he is resistant to making needed changes in leadership—thereby solidifying his image as a Stand by My Man governor.

The lone exception to that mindset is Bruce Greenstein, former Secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals—but that dismissal came only after word leaked out of a federal investigation of possible improprieties surrounding a contract Greenstein awarded to his former employer.

While Troy Hebert, Director of the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) and State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson have garnered the lion’s share of negative attention, Browning, for the most part, has managed to fly beneath the radar despite several events that occurred during his watch that probably should have demanded closer examinations and, in just about any other administration, dismissal.

Over the next few days, LouisianaVoice will be conducting the scrutiny that Jindal obviously eschews as we look at some of the eye-opening events and practices within the State Fire Marshal’s office.

Browning was appointed on March 8, 2008, barely a month after Jindal began his first term. “Ensuring the safety of Louisiana children and families is an incredibly important mission and the state has benefitted from his leadership, knowledge and service,” Jindal said in a canned press release at the time.

Browning began his public career as a deputy sheriff for East Baton Rouge Parish in 1986 and was named Gonzales Fire Chief in 1998.

“I passionately share the vision of Gov. Bobby Jindal and Col. Mike Edmonson to come together as one,” he said somewhat prophetically at the time of his appointment.

Browning managed to keep his nose relatively clean for a couple of years but in mid-April of 2012 Browning resigned, albeit briefly, in the midst of a pair of simultaneous investigations of his office to accept a job in an area plant, saying the offer was “too good to pass up,” only to return—with a substantial raise in pay—less than two weeks later.

His brief retirement and return just happened to coincide with an investigation launched that, oddly enough, Browning claimed later to be unaware of and which prompted efforts in the Legislature to abolish the investigating agency, a subject to which we will return later in this series. It’s all part of the surreal Louisiana political atmosphere to which we seem to have become inured.

His problems actually originated when the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans forwarded allegations of mismanagement and fraud against Browning in late 2011.

Among those allegations were claims that Browning’s employees traveled to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in May of 2011 as one of many recovery teams dispatched there following a series of deadly tornadoes. Those employees, the accusations said, were instructed to bill the Federal Management Emergency Administration (FEMA) for 18-hour work days. The complaint said the hours were billed even though the employees took two days off to attend LSU-Alabama baseball games. It also said that while FEMA did not pay the firefighters, the state did. FEMA, however, was unable to confirm whether or not it had paid the firefighters.

Two other allegations accused Browning of suppressing a finding that a certificate should not have been issued by one of his inspectors for a carnival ride on which two teenagers were subsequently injured and that he paid two members of his office to serve as drivers and security for attendees to a National State Fire Marshal’s conference in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, it was learned that Browning was making public appearances in his dress uniform, complete with military medals from World War II and the Korean War—except for one inconvenient little oversight: he never even served in the military, much less served in either of the two wars. In fact, he wasn’t even born until well after the conclusion of both wars.

BUTCH BROWNING

Browning proudly wears military medals in this file photo.

There also is the pesky federal law called the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a federal misdemeanor for anyone to wear military commendations they did not earn.

That brought the wrath of veterans down upon Browning. “We take pride in what we wear,” said one Marine officer. “Marines don’t hand out ribbons like candy. You have to earn it.” A couple of others called his wearing the medals and ribbons “disrespectful” and U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-New Orleans) said, “There’s nothing more disgraceful than trying to present yourself as someone who served in the military when you didn’t.”

“We’ve been informed that Mr. Browning never served in the military, yet he was wearing military ribbons awarded to every branch of the military service that span World War II, the Korean war and the Kosovo campaign,” said Rafael Goyeneche, President of the Metropolitan Crime Commission who called Browning’s wearing the ribbons “problematic.”

Every branch of the military service? Well, at least he was an equal opportunity fraud, though he did explain that he received the ribbons from the Gonzales Fire Department where he served as chief before his appointment to the State Fire Marshal’s post by Jindal.

On April 18, 2012, Browning, while denying that he was the target of any investigation, suddenly announced his “retirement,” saying he was accepting a job offer as a superintendent at a petrochemical plant in Ascension Parish that he described as “too good to pass up.” His resignation was effective immediately, he said.

But passion apparently trumped too good to pass up for on April 30, just 12 short days later, he was reinstated as he gushed, “my passion is public service.”

But his return reportedly presented a problem. Sources told LouisianaVoice that when he resigned, he was paid for 300 hours of unused annual leave, or about $13,000. When he returned, he was required to repay the money but those same sources said he no longer had the money.

But records show that State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, who doubles as Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and apparently as DPS problem solver, simply bumped Browning’s salary by $8,000 per year, from $92,000 to $99,000 even though he returned at the same Assistant Secretary position as before—apparently so he could afford to repay the $13,000. How many of us would quit our jobs for 12 days in exchange for an $8,000 raise in pay?

Problem solved.

Well, not quite.

While Edmonson was laudatory in welcoming Browning back into the fold, Goyeneche was not nearly so forgiving of Browning—or of Edmonson, for that matter—and the political fallout was almost instantaneous.

Edmonson, metaphorically spreading rose petals in Browning’s path, said the DPS Internal Affairs Section had investigated the allegations and found “no factual evidence” to support the claims. “That investigation has shown me that Butch did not abuse his power or violate the public trust,” he added.

This from a man who, only two years later, would attempt to engineer a lucrative $55,000 a year increase to his own retirement through a furtive, last-minute amendment to an otherwise unrelated Senate bill steered past an unsuspecting and distracted legislature in the closing hours of the 2014 session—with the abetting of Gov. Bobby Jindal and the author of the amendment, State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia).

Edmonson said Browning’s worst sin was to sign papers as a matter routine but which he did not thoroughly read but which were done with no criminal intent or fraud. He said he told Browning he wanted him back on the job—apparently sans military decorations—after an “outpouring” of public support.

Goyeneche, meanwhile, was livid and described the expedited exoneration of Browning as “Louisiana politics at its worst” (see the LouisianaVoice masthead) and unconscionable. “I think this is a political decision and not a decision based on its merits as Fire Marshal,” Goyeneche said. “If the standard is going to be whether Butch Browning broke the law then this is a sad day in Louisiana. State police make decisions every day to discipline officers on administrative issues and this is someone who has made several managerial blunders.”

Browning, for his part, said he welcomed input that would result in positive changes. “The integrity of the Office of State Fire Marshal is one of my top priorities,” he pontificated with self-puffery. “It’s what the public expects.”

In the coming days, we will examine how Browning, with a little help from his friends, manages to continue to survive integrity breaches and how a critical report by one state investigative agency result in a legislative effort to abolish the agency—kill the messenger, as it were—rather than consider correcting deficiencies investigators cited in Browning’s office.

 

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