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Archive for the ‘State Fire Marshal’ Category

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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The top brass at the Office of State Fire Marshal (OSFM) are doing what bureaucrats always do when they come under criticism from the media—especially when they think subordinates might be feeding information to reporters:

They initiate a witch hunt to ferret out those who might be leaking information.

But unconfirmed reports filtering out of OSFM headquarters reveal an even stranger tactic undertaken in the office’s investigation of a suspected arson in St. Tammany in which the body of Fire District 12 Chief Stephen Krentel’s wife was found with a gunshot wound to her head.

Sources tell LouisianaVoice that OSFM, with all its available arson investigators at its disposal, hired a psychic to solve the suspected arson case. We have to wonder if the psychic was certified by the National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) or if he/she was simply certified by OSFM and then allowed carry a weapon.

And all this time, we have been told by State Fire Marshal Butch Browning and Deputy Fire Marshal, Fire Chief, or whatever his title is, Brant Thompson that OSFM had the best-trained, most efficient investigators in the nation. So, why a psychic then?

But back to our original story.

Word relayed to LouisianaVoice is that a meeting room on the second floor of OSFM has had its windows papered over and a sign taped to the door warning unauthorized personnel to stay out while IT workers comb through employees’ state email accounts and cell phone records in an effort to find the mole.

Well, happy hunting, Thompson and Browning. Yes, you have subordinates talking to LouisianaVoice—and a hint: it’s more than one—but they’re not stupid enough to use their state cell phones or state email accounts.

Perhaps the psychic can tell you who’s talking to LouisianaVoice.

As our late friend C.B. Forgotston would say: you can’t make this stuff up.

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Are State Fire Marshal deputies in violation of the law by wearing firearms while on duty?

That’s a fair question.

Many, if not most deputy fire marshals would prefer not to wear a weapon. Some whom we talked with are downright resentful that they are required to go through Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) certification to be qualified to be armed agents. It’s not the training they object to so much as the requirement that they carry a weapon.

But the fact remains that they are required to do just that.

But there may be legitimate questions as to the actual legality of such a requirement.

In 2009, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning wanted a bill introduced that would redefine and expand the authority of deputy fire marshals, a move opposed by command level brass at Louisiana State Police (LSP) who found the proposal to be inappropriate, based on the mission of the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal (LOSFM).

In a March 16, 2009, email to State Police command and on which LSP’s Office of Legal Affairs was copied, Browning wrote, “I wanted to follow up on the legislation on full police powers for our investigators. Currently, they have powers to carry firearms and (to) make arrests for the arson crimes and I have the authority to commission them. Arson is now, more than ever, a bi-product of so many other crimes and our folks regularly uncover other crimes and times where their ability to charge with other crimes might help the arson investigation.

“Our people need full powers while conducting a (sic) arson investigation. This can be accomplished with adding to the fire marshal’s act or by your commissioning authority,” he wrote. “I have no preference. I just know they need this ability. You (sic) consideration in this matter is appreciated.”

Browning even prevailed upon then-State Rep. Karen St. Germain of Plaquemine (now Commissioner of the Office of Motor Vehicles) to draft a bill to redefine the role of deputy fire marshals. From what we can determine it appears that despite Browning’s pleas to expand the agency’s law enforcement authority the bill received no support from Gov. Bobby Jindal (likely at the urging of then-State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson) and was never filed.

Why would a person who trained to be a boiler inspector be required to pack heat?

The same goes for nursing home, child care facilities, and hospital inspectors.

Ditto those who inspect carnival rides.

Likewise, for jail, public school and other public building inspectors.

The fact is, the only conceivable area in which a deputy fire marshal might need to be armed is in the area of explosives and arson investigations, according to highly-placed LSP officials who insist there is little or no need for the creation of yet another police agency to augment LSP, Department of Public Service (DPS) officers, sheriffs’ departments, campus and local police departments.

Yet, just a couple of years ago, there they were: Armed deputy fire marshals patrolling the New Orleans French Quarter during Mardi Gras.

In order for Browning to get around the objections of LSP, he instituted cross-training whereby all deputy fire marshals, no matter their specialized training, must be qualified to inspect any type building, any carnival ride, any boiler, any jail, or any night club—and to be arson investigators to boot. That proposal, coinciding as it did with Jindal’s obsession with downsizing and consolidation of state government, tempered the governor’s initial reluctance to go along with Browning.

But in reality, the issue was never about improving response or streamlining the agency at all. It was about improving retirement benefits.

By allowing deputies—all deputies (and virtually all employees would ultimately be designated as deputies)—to become POST-certified and to carry weapons, it qualified employees (even clerical, if they wore a gun, as some now do), to have their jobs upgraded to hazardous duty as are state police and DPS police.

What that means is employees can now qualify to retire at 100 percent of their average salary for their top three years more than a decade earlier than State Civil Service employees. Here’s how it works:

State classified employees under Civil Service accrue retirement at 2.5 percent per year at a rate based on the average of their three highest earning years (excluding overtime) multiplied by years of service. So, a classified employee whose highest three-year average earnings are $50,000 must work 40 years to retire at 100 percent of his salary ($50,000 X 2.5 percent = $1,250 X 40 years = $50,000. Based on that same formula, if he worked 30 years, he would retire at $37,500). (This equation, of course, works for any pay level, not just $50,000.)

But hazardous duty employees accrue retirement at 3.5 percent of the average of their three highest years. That means the same three-year average pay of $50,000 would accrue retirement at a rate of 3.5 percent, or $1,750 per year, allowing him to retire at 100 percent of salary in just over 28 years.

Accordingly, Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Brant Thompson surmised that if deputies achieved POST certification, then they were fully imbued with general law enforcement authority and not the limited law enforcement authority laid out in state statutes. “That assumption is absolutely not true,” according to one long time law enforcement official familiar with how officers are commissioned. “Just because an individual has POST certification doesn’t empower that person to enforce all laws. That authority flows from the law or via the person issuing the commission. I’m not sure who commissions deputy marshals; I suspect it is Browning rather than the Superintendent of State Police.

“I know that when the LSP Colonel (Superintendent) issues a commission to campus police, for example, the commission makes it clear that law enforcement authority is limited to crimes occurring on the campus,” the former law enforcement officer said.

Browning is nothing if not determined in his quest to acquire full law enforcement authority for his marshals. The debate that began in 2009 has continued into 2016, at least. Gene Cicardo, who was appointed chief legal counsel for DPS upon the death of Frank Blackburn last September, was drawn into the dispute and wrote a memorandum to Edmonson and Deputy Superintendent Charles Dupuy that left Browning upset and unhappy, according to sources.

The contents of that memorandum are not known, but LouisianaVoice has made a public records request to LSP for that document.

Cicardo has since returned to private practice in Alexandria.

Meanwhile, we have armed boiler inspectors, carnival ride inspectors, nursing home inspectors and, conceivably, even State Fire Marshal Office clerical employees (aka Executive Management Officers) patrolling for criminal elements in the New Orleans French Quarter during Mardi Gras.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

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With the revelation by LouisianaVoice that 10 employees of the State Fire Marshal’s (SFM) office applied for waivers from Police Officers Standards and Training (POST) investigator training, backed up by dubious claims of investigative experience, new and serious questions have arisen into the investigation of a 2012 fire in Crowley that killed a mother and her 11-month-old daughter.

Twenty-two-year-old Marie McDonald and her 11-month-old daughter Bayleigh Holland, died in a fire that swept through their rent house at 2:30 a.m. on June 12, 2012 only four hours after McDonald’s ex-boyfriend had exited the house, according to Theresa Richard, McDonald’s mother, who owned the house.

“The boyfriend had threatened her at her work earlier,” Richard said. “All her co-workers heard him.”

The fire marshal’s investigation was a cruel joke, she said. “The entire investigation lasted about an hour. Keith Reed and Brant Thompson came to the scene and stayed about an hour before coming to our house to tell us the cause of the fire was undetermined.”

She said Reed had an arson-detection dog in his truck but never removed him from his truck. “I told them about the threats and they were just more or less indifferent about it,” Richard said.

Both Thompson and Reed were among 10 fire marshal employees to file for the POST Homicide Investigator Training Waiver last December 13, just two weeks before the January 1, 2017, deadline after which time “only peace officers who successfully complete the homicide investigator training program or receive a waiver of compliance based on prior training or experience as a homicide investigator shall be assigned to lead investigations in homicide cases.”

On his application, Thompson, who had been with the fire SFM for only seven months at the time of the fatal Crowley fire, indicated he had been a lead homicide investigator for 20 years and had investigated more than 100 homicides as either a lead investigator or a supervisor.

His previous experience the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the attorney general’s office before that would seem to cast serious doubts on his investigatory claims.

Reed, on his waiver application, indicated he had served as a lead homicide investigator for eight years and that he had been lead investigator on four homicides. Presumably, the investigation of the Crowley fire, conducted at a time when he had been with SFM for only three years, accounted for two of those investigations.

REED HOMICIDE WAIVER REQUEST

But an audio recording of radio exchanges between the Crowley police dispatcher and Reed would seem to indicate that Reed was reluctant to respond to the fire in the first place, complaining instead that his supervisor would not answer his phone.

“When the fire marshal’s office did respond, I saw only Reed,” Richard said. “I was told that Thompson was there but I never saw him. Reed came and looked around for about an hour. He collected no evidence whatsoever. He never turned over a single board.

The police radio recordings indicate that a vehicle similar to the one driven at the time by the sister of McDonald’s former boyfriend was observed driving back and forth in the area of 1008 East 8th street, McDonald’s address. The actual report of the fire begins at the 6:20 point of the police recording.

You can listen to the police radio conversation HERE.

So, what it appears here is that two employees of the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal who had only four years’ experience between them and one of whom was never actually seen, conducted a one-hour investigation of a double-fatality fire following a reported threat to one of the victims.

And given the request for a waiver of investigator training by both employees who, judging from the apparent urgency in obtaining the waivers, were lacking in both experience and training to conduct homicide investigations, their “investigation” is of dubious merit at best.

Yet, there they were.

One of them, at least.

For an hour, anyway.

As the arson-detection dog remained in the truck, never setting foot on the ground.

Making a determination that the fire was of an undetermined origin.

 

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