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Accountants and pencil-pushers have been replaced by forensic auditors and former law enforcement officials, many of them toting guns and badges of their own.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.”
The Louisiana House overwhelmingly rejected a repeal of the state's unconstitutional anti-sodomy law Tuesday.
The Louisiana Senate sided with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the oil industry Tuesday, agreeing to void a lawsuit that a south Louisiana flood board filed against more than 90 oil and gas companies for coastal damage.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Wednesday, April 16, 2014:
Acadian rep notifies would-be supporters that an April 25 fundraiser for the embattled U.S. rep won’t go on as planned.
While it isn’t all too unusual for public bodies to have hired security present during meetings, the LPSB’s push to do so is arguably a response to the antics of one board member.
“I’m running. Why would I be raising all this money? Just to have to return it to people?”
With incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu watching from afar, and with a united Democratic Party in her corner, the fight to get the GOP officially behind Congressman Bill Cassidy is gaining just as much momentum as it is hushed controversy.
15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque has announced that he will not seek re-election after 27 years on the bench.
The controversial standardized tests are set to be used in third-grade through eighth-grade public school classrooms next year.
The Louisiana Senate has agreed to prohibit unmanned aircraft from flying over chemical plants, water treatment systems, telecommunications networks and other items considered "critical infrastructure" in Louisiana.
It didn’t take long for KATC TV 3 to jump all over the news of a dead body found in Girard Park, but in its rush to produce headlines, the local TV station got sloppy.
An unholy trinity of civil-society upheavalers whose first names are not Conner, Tanner or Logan are facing charges in Eunice.
Now that lawmakers have shot down efforts to cap annual interest rates for payday loans, supporters for stricter regulations of the storefront lenders are rallying behind another strategy.
The Appropriations Committee held public testimony day, letting people talk about what they like or don't like about Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget recommendations for the 2014-15 fiscal year that begins July 1.
Lafayette police are investigating the death of a 21-year-old woman whose body was found early Sunday in a drainage ditch in Girard Park.
Former Grant parish District Attorney Ed Tarpley says he's running for the U.S. House seat currently held by Republican Vance McAllister of Swartz.
Louisiana-Lafayette got strong starting pitching and timely hitting to hold off Arkansas-Little Rock 6-3 in Sun Belt Conference baseball in Lafayette, La.
Chris Williams knows how to pilfer from the public coffers, this time with a back-pay lawsuit filed three years ago against the Lafayette Housing Authority, which netted the former city-parish councilman a cool five figures.
McAllister's office vowed that he intended to stay in office — for now. As for questions about whether he would stand for re-election in November, those were dodged.
The Green Army's Lafayette brigade has announced it will pay a visit Friday morning to Sen. Page Cortez to urge him to vote against Sen. Robert Adley's SB 553, which the group is calling the "Big Oil Bailout Bill of 2014."
For the sixth consecutive year, Andy Nyman, LSU associate professor of wetland wildlife management, and his service-learning students plan to spend spring break differently from those students flooding the beaches of Florida.
When a BP oil well began gushing crude into the Gulf of Mexico four years ago, fisherman George Barisich used his boat to help clean up the millions of gallons that spewed in what would become the worst offshore spill in U.S. history.
The legislation — House Bill 503 by state Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport — passed by an 8-5 vote and advances next to the full House.
The Republican Party of Louisiana has had enough with the philandering hypocrite Vance McAllister. David Vitter? Eh...