Louisiana Inspector General Stephen Street signed off on a report last month that detailed how the Grand Isle Port Commission created its own police department without clear legislative authority and hired on reserve officers before conducting proper background checks. Badges, remarkably close in design to those worn by the Louisiana State Police, were handed out and, surprisingly, liability insurance was nowhere to be found.
Even more interesting than its substance, however, was the reality that the report was the first of its kind released by the IG to the public since June 26, 2009.
Let’s put that into perspective: The IG was created in 1988 to serve as a hub of sorts for good government, and its sole mission — its only reason for existing and sponging off taxpayers — in the ensuing years was to publish public reports of wrongdoing from inside the belly of state government. So to see the office, under Street’s leadership, pass through seven months without so much as a one-page release begs a few questions.
Or does it?
When Gov. Bobby Jindal took office in 2008, he ushered a set of bills through the Legislature revamping the IG position and the office. It was part of his sweeping ethics reform package and resulted in the hybrid that’s just getting up to speed today: It’s now equal parts white-collar watchdog and internal affairs division.
Accountants and pencil-pushers have been replaced by forensic auditors and former law enforcement officials, many of them toting guns and badges of their own. In the past, an investigative journalist was actually viewed as a good match for the office (Times-Picayune legend Bill Lynch was the first IG), but now it’s run by folks like Street, who has worked on practically every side of the criminal justice system as an attorney, and one-time Baton Rouge Police Chief Greg Phares, who oversees the investigations division.
The reports of yesteryear, while they will continue to be published, are small potatoes to Street today. His office now has the statutory authority to investigate every corner of state government, including Jindal’s branch; his investigators can subpoena almost anyone they want; and they have access to confidential law enforcement databases.
Basically, the whole ball game has changed. “We’re kind of finding ourselves in new territory,” says Street. “We want the big cases, and we want to root out the bad actors in Louisiana government. We want white-collar corruption and fraud. We’re a law enforcement agency now.”
For example, last fall the IG’s office took down Nellie Rogers, an ex-employee of the Division of Administration who stole more than $4,000 in health insurance premiums from recent state retirees. There’s been more of the same during the long transition since mid-2008, with investigators working on racketeering cases and new partnerships being formed with the FBI and other law enforcement groups.
But the IG’s office is also changing in ways lawmakers never expected.
Even though Act 831 of the 2008 regular session clearly states that the office’s new duties “shall not include arrest powers,” seven IG employees, including Street, were recently granted special officer commissions from the Louisiana State Police, which gives them full arrest powers.
When asked about the discrepancy — that one part of state law prohibits his office from arresting people while another, through the special office commissions, allows it — Street responded by saying that his office has not yet arrested anyone, and there are no plans to change that in the future.
He adds that Col. Michael D. Edmonson, superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, “didn’t just hand over the commissions.” Street says his employees underwent intense training and passed several tests. “Having those commissions is entirely consistent with the mission of this office,” he says.
As for how lawmakers might feel about this, especially after being told the new and improved IG would not have arrest powers, Street says they may want another crack at clarifying the situation. “It may be something that needs to be added to future legislation,” he says.
Arrest powers aside, the changes have already given Street more independence than his predecessors enjoyed. He doesn’t have to wait for a governor to approve a public report anymore, although the governor is offered a box on the cover page to “endorse” the findings, and it’ll take a vote of both chambers and concurrence by the governor to fire him, instead of the governor being the one and only vote.
Yet during a time when streamlining is all the rage and state revenues are flat, Street may wish he had the protection of the governor. Some lawmakers have already questioned him about duplications — his office often partners with the attorney general and Louisiana State Police and carries out some of the same functions of the legislative auditor. “I think there are some similarities, but our focus is public corruption, fraud and abuse,” says Street.
As a way to address critics further, Street has an ace in the hole. “I’ve already said that we will pay for ourselves by recovering money in these criminal cases and by fulfilling our mission,” he says. “We were initially uncomfortable to climb out on that limb, but I think we can do it.”
A group supporting taxpayer-funded private school tuition vouchers is appealing a federal judge's order that Louisiana must provide regular reports to federal officials on the state's voucher program.
The Discovery Channel has canceled reality TV star Will Hayden's popular "Sons of Guns" show after his arrest on an aggravated rape charge.
The LPSB will finally hear from the attorney it hired to investigate the superintendent at a special meeting Thursday at 4 p.m.
Authorities are investigating a report that a student there warned the principal of impending violence similar to that depicted in the movie "The Purge."
Saints cornerback Champ Bailey has played for more than a handful of playoff teams during a career that has seen him selected to 12 Pro Bowls.
Police say a 56-year-old Lafayette man walking behind a dump truck died when the truck hit him as it was backing up.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Fifa under fire for fake turf plans; freed journalist back home; corporate conversions rising and more national and international news for Wednesday, August 27, 2014.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is a proud papa of new baby girl.
The books on Louisiana's last budget year have been closed, but it took a bit of borrowing from this year to make the numbers work.
The Iberia Parish Coroner responded Monday to the attention surrounding the questionable shooting of Victor White III, a black man from New Iberia who died April 2 while in the custody of local law enforcement.
Two months after lawmakers agreed to create a $40 million higher education incentive fund, no decisions have been made about how to divide the money.
With Drew Brees back healthy, the New Orleans Saints are free to work on the little things that can make the difference between a Super Bowl run and something less.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and her lead GOP challenger Congressman Bill Cassidy are running close when it comes to money. Landrieu has $5.5 million to Cassidy’s $5.6 million in the bank.
With expectations mounting that Gov. Bobby Jindal will soon announce his campaign for president, attention is turning to not only who he will bring along with him but also what will transpire politically back home during the transition.
Seven of the 11 U.S. cities in a new ranking of “most dangerous diets” are in the Bayou and Lone Star states, but the ranking is more about poverty than fried oysters.
Lafayette police are investigating a fatal shooting involving an alleged burglar and homeowner.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham got the message from the NFL. He's not dunking footballs over goal posts any more.
With qualifying over, the start of campaign season is official, and for the Lafayette Parish School Board, the race toward Nov. 4 will pit 20 candidates in battles for all 9 of the district’s available seats.
An abortion rights organization has filed the first court challenge to a Louisiana law that would require doctors who perform abortions to be able to admit patients to a nearby hospital.
U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister started his sign-up for re-election Friday the same as any other candidate, filling out paperwork and handing over cash to pay his qualifying fee. But he finished it quite differently, doused with ice.
The recent release of Victor White III’s autopsy report could spell trouble, as it tells a much different story of his death than the one told five months ago by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“Candidates for Congress and members of Congress spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time raising money to get back to Congress or to get their party back into power.”
Over the last four days of the trial against attorney Daniel Stanford, there’s been one notable absence from Judge Elizabeth Foote’s courtroom: attorney Bill Goode.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees and wide receiver Nick Toon are not on the same page yet, and time is running short for Toon to get it right.