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Accountants and pencil-pushers have been replaced by forensic auditors and former law enforcement officials, many of them toting guns and badges of their own.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.”
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