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Archive for the ‘State Fire Marshal’ Category

The film An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary about former Vice President Al Gore’s lectures on the perils of global warming, won an Academy Award.

State Fire Marshal Butch Browning’s “convenient untruths” about the safety record of carnival rides in Louisiana and the so-called “intricate inspections” his office conducts of rides should win a few rotten tomatoes.

A recent STORY on a New Orleans television station about a so-called “near miss” when a ride called the Gravitron at a church fair in October malfunctioned and would not stop spinning.

No one was injured in the incident, though it did leave a few riders dizzy and more than a little concerned about the safety of the ride.

Browning said since he has been the fire marshal, “we’ve never had a ride fail—where you have a car come off a ride and that kind of thing.”

That remark has to be filed away behind the “C” tab, as in CYA.

Because state law mandates only that ride owners report when there is an injury, the so-called “near misses” get reported only when someone calls Browning’s office to file a complaint. In all, eight such incidents have been investigated by the fire marshal’s office in the past three years.

Browning said rides undergo “intricate” inspections. “They go through every piece,” he said. “They take things apart.” He said the rides are required to pass inspections by National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials each year in order to operate in Louisiana.

We will return to that requirement but first, let’s look at the record to see if Browning is being entirely truthful.

On May 14, 2011, two teenagers were injured when a ride MALFUNCTIONED at a school fair in Greensburg in St. Helena Parish.

Oh, sorry. That was more than three years ago and Browning did say only eight incidents had been reported in the past three years.

Still, it did happen on a ride called the Zipper. LouisianaVoice was informed earlier this year that a ride called the Zipper was shut down at another fair in Louisiana this year but the same ride was allowed to operate only a couple of weeks later at the recent Baton Rouge State Fair after apparently passing inspection.

In the St. Helena accident, a brother and sister were thrown from the ride when it re-started as they were exiting. They were ejected from the car and fell to the ground. Both were airlifted to a Baton Rouge hospital.

The mother of the teens filed a lawsuit against the fire marshal’s office, claiming the ride was improperly INSPECTED. The state SETTLED that lawsuit for $180,000.

On Oct. 21, 2015, a Shreveport television station did a puff piece about the thoroughness of fire marshal INSPECTIONS of rides at the Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport with one deputy fire marshal proclaiming the rides to be “absolutely safe.”

Yet, just four years earlier, four-year-old Sheldon Lewis was critically injured when a ride he was exiting suddenly re-activated and trapped him beneath it. The accident left him confined to a wheelchair. The accident occurred when a child pressed an “on” button on an easily accessible active ride control panel, a hazard risk that had been overlooked by fire marshal inspectors.

An online service on negligence called DENENA POINTS was critical of “an easily-activated piece of heavy ride equipment accessible” that showed “a lack of proper safety precautions.”

Like with the St. Helena accident, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the injured child.

In September 2016, a woman sued the Baton Rouge State Fair and an amusement ride company over her fall on Oct. 29, 2015, from a ride called GEE WHIZ. She claimed in her lawsuit that the ride had been experiencing problems the week of the accident and should have been taken out of service.

Browning, typically, defended his office, saying preliminary and final investigations discovered “no defects or failures” in the ride’s mechanics.

“We were unable to determine how the rider (Andraea Gilmore) was able to free herself from the lap-bar restraint,” Browning said in a statement that left Gilmore’s attorney, Ralph Fletcher, less than impressed—or convinced.

On June 9, 2006, a two-year boy broke his arms and legs after falling from a ride called OVER THE RAINBOW at Baton Rouge’s Dixie Landin’ Amusement Park and four years later, in 2010, a 21-year-old woman who fell from a roller coaster ride known as the XTREME at the same park was killed.

And while Browning parses words in saying things like, “We’ve never had a ride fail—where you have a car come off a ride and that kind of thing,” it’s more than evident that there are failures and that people get hurt—and even die from amusement rides.

But who, exactly, conducts inspections of these rides? And how do inspectors become certified by the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials (NAARSO)?

As to the answer of the second question, we’re not at all certain other than to say CERTIFICATION rules were changed in 2015. But the NAARSO CRITERIA for certification senior level might seem to eliminate Louisiana State Fire Marshal inspectors. Senior certification requires 10 years’ experience in the “design, repair, operation or inspection of amusement rides and devices” and that senior applicants “have worked in the amusement ride and device inspection field a minimum of three out of the past 10 years.”

Under the system of cross-training currently required by Browning’s office, the possibility of an inspector’s meeting those criteria would seem remote at best. Boiler inspectors, nursing home inspectors, jail inspectors, and arson investigators are simply not qualified as amusement ride inspectors—and vice-versa.

Yet, that is precisely what deputy Louisiana fire marshals are required to do, which is why one boiler inspector from Texas turned down a job with the Louisiana Fire Marshal’s office upon moving here. He found that he would expected to inspect carnival rides “and I knew I wasn’t qualified to do that.”

What that means, of course, is that by leaving itself exposed to legal risks by having unqualified amusement ride inspectors, the state runs the risk of being hit with a major lawsuit if someone’s child is permanently injured by a defective ride that somehow passed inspection by the fire marshal’s office.

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If Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter feels as if he is being squeezed these days, it is for good reason.

He is.

On the one hand, state district judges of the 32nd Judicial District are requiring that Larpenter perform the duties of his job.

On the other hand, federal investigators reportedly are looking into the manner in which Larpenter performs the duties of his job. Reports are the FBI recently completed two days interviewing one of Larpenter’s deputies. The nature of those interviews was not immediately known.

Meanwhile, two private security guards and a Houma police officer have taken over security at the Terrebonne Parish Courthouse following the high sheriff’s refusal to do so even though state statutes clearly say:

  • “Court criers are to be provided by the sheriff of each parish to each district judge.”
  • “The crier of a court (notice this is not restricted to Orleans) shall attend all sessions thereof, under the direction of the judge shall open and close court at each session, and maintain order and decorum in the court room, and shall perform such other duties as are assigned to him by law, the court, or the sheriff.” (emphasis added)
  • “Each sheriff or deputy shall attend every court that is held in his parish…”
  • “Security in the courthouse is the responsibility of governing authority (Gordon Dove), but an agreement may be made between the parish officers and the building to share the expenses.”
  • “The principal functions of the criminal sheriff are that of being keeper of parish jail and executive officer of the Criminal District Court.”

Larpenter tried to pull rank on the judges by refusing a request by Judge Randal BETHANCOURT to provide more security details assigned to the courthouse. Larpenter demanded more pay for doing so and the judges said no dice. That standoff more or less backed the judges into a corner by forcing them to retain private security and municipal police officers.

Following the dispute over additional security vs. additional pay, Larpenter took photographs of inmates being transported to court and being held in holding cells until being called for their hearings and arraignments.

Armed with the photographs, Larpenter called the State Fire Marshal down on the court, apparently for the overcrowded conditions in the cells.

A little background is in order here. The State Fire Marshal, like the State Superintendent of Police is a position filled by appointment of the governor but no governor in his right mind would do so independently, i.e. without the blessings of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. Make no mistake, the sheriffs’ association dictates to every governor who shall fill the positions of Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, State Fire Marshal and State Superintendent of Police. Ergo, Larpenter felt sufficiently confident to call in the big boys on the judges—big boys that his association props up.

Down and dirty politics at the local level? Damned right and normally that would be a lethal weapon given the formidable alliance of the sheriffs’ association, Secretary of Public Safety, State Superintendent of Police and State Fire Marshal. In case no one has been paying attention, those are the preeminent law enforcement agencies of the state. You generally don’t cross swords with that kind of power.

Larpenter then goes to the local press with his brainstorm for a great cost-cutting measure: video arraignments.

But that was only a temporary setback as the judges came back with their own “gotcha.”

First, they issue an order banning all video arraignments, thereby forcing Larpenter to bear the costs of transporting more than 150 prisoners for hearings two weeks ago.

Then, Judge David Arceneaux signed an order in which he struck through language requiring the warden of Dixon Correctional Institute in East Feliciana Parish, 120 north of Houma, to transport a prisoner from the facility to Houma and back. Judge Arceneaux then wrote in longhand, “Terrebonne Parish Sheriff to transport from Dixon Correctional Institute,” adding that Larpenter was to deposit $1500 for the cost of transporting the prisoner.

Needless to say, all this has set off a minor war in the 32nd JDC. Larpenter sputtered and fumed but Bethancourt replied it was all Larpenter’s fault, supposedly for balking at providing more security for the courthouse.

Regardless whose fault it is for the situation to have deteriorated so badly, it has morphed into a very interesting little turf war that isn’t like to end soon—or well. And it promises to be a fight worthy of the sordid reputation of Louisiana politics.

The number two spectator sport behind football.

In other words, fun.

 

 

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Editor’s note: The following first-person account was submitted to LouisianaVoice for publication. The writer’s name is being withheld because she is still employed at the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal and she fears for her job, her safety and that of her family. Several employees of the fire marshal’s office have already been fired or forced to resign because management suspected them of talking to LouisianaVoice. This post is certain to prompt a new round of interrogations and intimidation tactics to ferret out the new mole. But Fire Marshal Butch Browning may want to be very careful: if he finds and punishes or fires this individual, she will have no compunction about going public and naming names. She’s very angry and this is a bit more serious than decorating your uniform with military medals you never earned.

To her story, we would only add this question of Gov. John Bel Edwards: What are you going to do about this situation that this woman says is even now occurring on your watch?

I want to get right into my discussion, as recent news from around the country and world has allowed me the opportunity to tell my story.

I am a female employee at the Office of State Fire Marshal, Baton Rouge/Headquarters Office.

Over the past several years, upper management and the high-ranking deputies of this agency have sexually harassed me on numerous occasions—making inappropriate comments and sexual advances towards me. I have witnessed first-hand these advances being made towards others, as well.

I started my career with DPS a number of years ago and have been the victim of several comments and suggestions and subject to jokes about homosexuality and bestiality.

Several years ago, I was approached by a top supervisor about a special project to handle. While in his presence, he made it quite known that to “advance” in the agency, I would have to subject myself to him. I did not file a complaint, as I heard this was common amongst his bosses at Louisiana State Police.

I rejected those advances and went about my business. A few weeks later, another individual in my capacity told me about a similar situation she was involved in with another supervisor. The advances were brushed off and I continued to work at SFM. Several months later, a new employee with ties to the DPS compound (relative to higher-ups) was brought in the agency to handle similar clerical type jobs. I witnessed her being subjected to advances from several upper management heads until her abrupt departure shortly after. I was told she was just a temporary assignment anyway, and I moved on.

About two years ago, I was approached by the newest member of the executive staff. I heard from several sources in his previous agency that he was a man who knew what he wanted and just how to get it. It didn’t matter what kind of car he drove or uniform he wore, but he did things his own way. I was told that to move up in this agency, I was to kiss the feet of the new “Prince” himself. He was, in fact, related to a powerful politician. I soon recognized that this wasn’t just a made for TV movie about a corrupt southern town where the boss gets what he wants because he was related to the power brokers; I was actually living in a nightmare in real time.

Sure enough, the “Prince” approached me. It was just the two of us in the room, and he made his move. It began innocently enough about work. Then came the jokes about our personal lives. Then sexually suggestive comments that made me quite uncomfortable. I excused myself and we didn’t speak of it for the rest of the day. Sure enough, it returned. When I was again alone with him in the office, the story repeated itself. As a married mother, I brushed it off and changed the topic. But predictably, he brought the conversation around to just how well my career could/would be advanced had I given him what he wanted—ME. I was a young, dumb clerk who decided my family was important, and more important than me.

I decided to play his games.

When he made comments about my breasts, I joked and flirted back. When he said my rear end looked good, I joked and made suggestive comments again. Surely enough, he was falling for it. That’s when I decided to use this to my advantage and work myself to a better/higher position in this agency.

I asked him for favors and filed training requests to attend certain courses where I would be out of the office more. I asked to be assigned to another division where my work load would be decreased. I asked for a certain vehicle, and sure enough, it was mine—just like everyone said it would be.

It ended there. I made sure that it he knew that after I got what I wanted (and he got what he wanted), that was it. He was told that this would end it, and it did.

I am ashamed of what I did, but it was for my family and my career.

This man sexually harassed me, forcing me in uncomfortable situations to further my career.

Butch Browning knew about this but never did a thing about it.

Several, if not all upper management at SFM know about this, but are afraid to speak of it because of the fear they have for upper management and the highly-placed politicians who protect them.

I remain anonymous because I am still an employee with this agency, but I am very well aware of LouisianaVoice‘s articles about this office.

I am a proud mother and wife and I am truly ashamed for allowing myself to be harassed, but I know this story must be shared—now more than ever. This hasn’t ended. This happens every day, yet claims aren’t filed because of the fear of this man. Complaints can’t be made for fear of having them fall on deaf ears at the top—and for fear of the reprisals that would certainly follow.

To this day, I hear jokes about homosexuality and bestiality being made by upper management—comments about homosexual employees and our SFM K-9 dogs. To this day, I hear a joke about a woman’s vagina or a man’s penis size. To this day, I hear about management’s sexual conquests with deputies’ wives. To this day, I am told stories about affairs being carried on by upper management with clerks and deputies. To this day, I am truly embarrassed for what I put myself through. But I need to tell my story.

This is my story.

And I want it told.

It took incredible courage for this woman to come forward. Any other employee(s) with similar stories of sexual or racial discrimination at the State Fire Marshal’s Office is/are encouraged to come forward. Your identity will be protected above all else.

—Tom Aswell, publisher

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LouisianaVoice has received confirmation that the Legislative Auditor’s office has served subpoenas on the New Orleans Roosevelt Hotel in connection with its ongoing investigation of Louisiana State Police (LSP) management practices under former Superintendent Mike Edmonson.

Confirmation was received first from one of the principals of the historic, 116-year-old hotel and subsequently from Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, who declined to provide any specifics as to what investigators were looking for.

But it’s not difficult to figure out.

Considering an Oct. 11 LouisianaVoice STORY about complimentary hotel rooms given Edmonson and other LSP command personnel and State Fire Marshal personnel by two other New Orleans hotels, a good bet would be that auditors are looking at one of two possibilities:

  • Were state police given complimentary rooms at the Roosevelt Hotel in violation of state ethics laws that prohibit state employees from accepting anything of value as a gift, or
  • In cases where the state may have paid for the rooms during events like Mardi Gras, did anyone other than LSP personnel stay in the rooms?

Questions are pretty much limited to those two options.

Of course, “anyone” could simply refer to wives or other family members, which would be a violation in itself, or it could be other “guests.”

Rumors have circulated for months that officials of both LSP and the State Fire Marshal’s office loved to party hearty in New Orleans and female companionship and booze often were parts of the equation.

One source, when LouisianaVoice only asked if the wives and girlfriends of fire marshal personnel were also allowed to stay at the hotels free of charge, volunteered, “Oh, yes. Wives, girlfriends and other female guests.” (Emphasis his.)

Because Purpera could not go into detail as to what his investigators were looking for, he naturally also declined to speculate as to who, if anyone, else may have stayed in rooms assigned to LSP personnel.

Nor would he offer any insight as to whether he was trying to make a determination as to identities of hotel guests or attempting to learn if LSP personnel simply accepted free rooms from the hotel.

On one hand, state employees may have been accepting free rooms, a clear ethics violation. On the other, the state may have paid for rooms for state employees who were on temporary duty in New Orleans but who then allowed others to share the rooms—on the state dime.

From our vantage point, there doesn’t appear to be much distinction between the two insofar as flouting the ethics rules for public employees is concerned.

Such was the attitude that was allowed to permeate LSP during Edmonson’s nine years as Louisiana’s top cop.

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Do State Fire Marshal Butch Browning and his top deputies, including Chief Deputy Brant Thompson and others, prevail upon French Quarter hotel management to comp them and their entourage rooms when they frequent New Orleans’ night life—as often as “several times a year?”

Browning and Thompson, through a State Fire Marshal spokesperson, say no.

But three independent sources say otherwise and moreover, there are times the free hotel rooms aren’t restricted to the French Quarter. Sometimes, they are in such places as New Orleans suburb Metairie in Jefferson Parish.

And the free rooms often have little or nothing to do with official state business—like, for example, free rooms for the softball recruiters of one deputy fire marshal’s daughter and softball tournament promoters, at the deputy fire marshal’s request.

Employees of two French Quarter hotels have come forward to say that Browning, Thompson, and others come to New Orleans during Mardi Gras “and several other times” each year and their rooms are comped at either of two separate hotels that LouisianaVoice was able to identify through sources who work at the two facilities.

LouisianaVoice is not identifying either the employees or the hotels that employ them because they fear for their jobs but both say it is common practice for the hotels to provide free rooms to fire marshal employees, “their wives and/or their girlfriends.”

Louisiana State Ethics RULES have specific guidelines, rigidly enforced against rank and file civil servants but rarely, if ever, against elected or appointed personnel, which prohibit the acceptance of anything of value as a gift. Some examples, taken verbatim from Ethics Commission rules, of prohibitions:

  • No PUBLIC SERVANT shall receive any thing of economic value, other than the compensation and benefits to which he is entitled from his governmental employer, for the performance of the duties and responsibilities of his office or position.
  • No PUBLIC EMPLOYEE shall solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, anything of economic value as a gift or gratuity from any person who conducts operations or activities which are regulated by the public employee’s agency.
  • No PUBLIC EMPLOYEE shall solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, anything of economic value as a gift or gratuity from a person who has substantial economic interests which may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the public employee’s official job duty(ies).
  • No PUBLIC SERVANT or OTHER PERSON shall give, pay, loan, transfer, or deliver or offer to give, pay, loan, transfer, or deliver, directly or indirectly, to any public servant or other person anything of economic value which such public servant or other person would be prohibited from receiving by any provision of the Ethics Code.
  • Persons who give prohibited gifts to public servants violate §1117 of the Code and are subject to the enforcement proceedings and penalties for their violation.

Hotels fall under the regulatory umbrella of the State Fire Marshal’s Office by virtue of their having to undergo fire safety and fire code inspections by the office. Free rooms given the fire marshal and his deputies could conceivably be interpreted as some sort of quid pro quo whereby deputy fire marshals might be inclined to look the other way when encountering fire code violations.

quid pro quo

kwid ˌprō ˈkwō/

noun

  • a favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something.
  • something given or received for something else; a deal arranging a quid pro quo.

One hotel employee said he was not personally aware of any such arrangement but added that would be out of his area of work at the hotel. “I wouldn’t know about that,” he said. In addition to the claims of comped rooms for Browning and his deputies, a hotel bartender in the French Quarter has also come forward to claim that he witnessed two fire marshal supervisors drinking alcoholic beverages while on call during the recent Hurricane Nate response. Fire Marshal personnel are paid while on call.

“(Fire Marshal Captain Bobby) Pellegrin and (Senior Deputy Fire Marshal Trevor) Santos have also used their fire marshal status to coerce hotel owners into free hotel stays in the French Quarter and Metairie,” one source said, adding, “Pellegrin used connections to strongarm hotel owners to give him free rooms for his daughter’s softball recruiters and promoters.”

A hotel employee at a second French Quarter hotel said he had worked at the hotel for “a number of years,” and fire marshal personnel have stayed there “many times.” He said it generally is Lt. Santos, who works in New Orleans, who books the rooms and that he always said at the time of booking the reservations that it was “important” that the rooms be “taken care of.”

Asked if wives and girlfriends also stay at the hotel free of charge, the employee said, “Oh, yes. Wives, girlfriends and other female guests.”

He said former Superintendent of State Police Mike Edmonson and some of his top aides were also the frequent recipients of comped rooms at the hotel.

LouisianaVoice emailed Santos, Pellegrin, Thompson and Browning to give them an opportunity to address the claims and while receipts were received from all but Browning that indicated that that had opened the email, none of the four responded.

The only response was through a spokesperson who issued a blanket denial. While pointing out that fire marshal personnel do patrol the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, she did not say why they were armed, since deputy fire marshals are not police officers and have no duties other than fire prevention and the investigation of fires. “That’s another issue,” she said.

While the representative stated emphatically that the complimentary rooms “did not happen,” she gave nothing to substantiate the denial other than to say, “People can say anything but that doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Exactly.

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