Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013
Matthew Thomassee is the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center deputy recently paid a six-figure settlement by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office to resign and put to rest his allegations of widespread corruption within the ranks of his former employer.
Thomassee’s story made headlines in mid-July when the sheriff’s office released the particulars of the lawsuit settlement — a deal reached back in May.
In exchange for dropping the lawsuit, withdrawing a complaint filed with the Louisiana Board of Ethics and resigning, court documents show Thomassee was paid a hefty $175,000 by the LPSO. Also included in the agreement, a non-disclosure clause — i.e. Thomassee’s silence — and a stipulation stating the LPSO payment is by no means an admission of guilt. IND Monthly reached out to Thomassee in July, but bound by the settlement’s confidentiality clause he was unable to talk and pointed only to the court record as a source for information.
That record includes the April 2011 lawsuit filed by Thomassee in the 15th Judicial District Court and the settlement agreement released by the sheriff’s office. While researching this story however, IND Monthly was contacted by Lonnie Murphy, another former correctional center deputy who was willing to fill in the parts of the story missing from the court record. Though Murphy’s employment at the correctional center coincided with the emergence of Thomassee’s troubles, Murphy says he was later terminated from the LPSO for unrelated reasons — for attempting to subdue a volatile inmate by striking him in the head with his baton.
Hoping to get both sides of the story — the one not included in the court record of Thomassee’s lawsuit — IND Monthly also reached out to Sheriff Mike Neustrom and LPSO spokesman Capt. Kip Judice, who is authorized to speak on behalf of the department and its employees. Though our emailed questions included Murphy’s take on the real reason for Thomassee’s departure from LPCC, our inquiry also asked for the sheriff’s comments on a number of claims unrelated to Thomassee, his lawsuit and the terms of the settlement.
LPSO’s response: “While we certainly appreciate the opportunity to comment, we are bound by the confidentiality clause of the settlement agreement. We do dispute the allegations but cannot comment further.”
Thomassee’s problems started during his 15th year with the agency. It was sometime between 2004 and 2005, when Thomassee, who at the time was a lieutenant and the accreditation manager for the correctional center, allegedly witnessed the first instance of a document being falsified by a jail employee. That employee, claims Thomassee in court documents, just so happened to be the jail’s top ranking official, Warden Rob Reardon.
It took about three years before Thomassee reported the incident to the Internal Affairs division of the sheriff’s office, filing an employee misconduct report on Jan. 25, 2008. Despite the allegation that Reardon was seen falsifying an official document, Thomassee’s report warranted no investigation from Internal Affairs. The issue, however, was not dead and would resurface again two years later when two deputies at the jail were accused and reprimanded for the same violation allegedly committed by the warden.
Unlike the complaint filed against Reardon, when word of the two deputies getting caught falsifying documents reached IA, this time around a full-on investigation was launched.
According to Murphy, falsifying documents was widespread at the correctional center. Murphy says no documents were exempt from falsification, but the majority of the practice was used on inmate behavior sheets (a detailed history of what happens to an inmate while under incarceration) and housing unit logs, both of which are required for the jail to maintain its accreditations from such organizations as the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and the American Corrections Association.
In February, LPSO announced it had met 100 percent of the standards required by ACA’s accreditation process, as well as an additional 97.5 percent of the 400 “non-mandatory” requirements, making LPCC the only ACA-accredited jail in Louisiana at the time. ACA (previously the American Prison Association) is one of the oldest and most-prolific correctional center accreditation companies in the nation and world. CALEA, another corporation specializing in what it calls the “Gold Standard” of correctional center accrediting, involves a three-year process of data collection and on-site assessments. LPCC is also accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. Among NCCHC’s requirements, says Murphy, is signed documentation verifying the weekly on-site visits by LPCC’s Health Authority Dr. Kim LeBlanc, who, according to Murphy, is contracted by LPSO at a cost of $6,000 a month.
“One of [NCCHC’s] standards for accreditation requires the health authority being on-site on a weekly basis, and that requires signed documentation,” explains Murphy. “The health authority was really only there once a month, but all the documentation submitted to NCCHC showed otherwise. You see, along with being contracted by [LPSO], Dr. LeBlanc was also the head of the residency program at UMC, so even though the documents submitted to NCCHC show he was on-site once a week, he really was on-site just once a month, but was sending over his medical residents for the weekly visits.”
When the case against the two deputies caught falsifying was brought to the attention of IA, Murphy says the tip surprisingly came from the same lieutenant who just a week before had requested a separate set of documents be falsified by those same deputies.
“They weren’t the only deputies involved either,” adds Murphy. “The way it worked is the lieutenants would get deputies to sign off on documents without even really looking at what they were signing. To the deputies, they were just following orders, but by signing their names they too were falsifying documents. For the lieutenants, it was just easier to keep on falsifying instead of actually fixing the problem.”
Shortly after IA launched its investigation in March 2010, it sparked two additional investigations into the same issue. It didn’t take long for things to get ugly and for fingers to start pointing, says Murphy. By the end of 2010, once IA had concluded its examination at the jail, Thomassee found himself on probation, demoted from lieutenant to deputy and pulled from his supervisory position. Thomassee, however, wasn’t the only employee to be disciplined as a result of IA’s investigation.
“There was Jason Lueck, a deputy who was a 22-year veteran at the time,” says Murphy. “He was the only deputy to be disciplined, and the only termination to come of IA’s investigation. I know Internal Affairs probably investigated between 14 or 15 people all together, but only two people were demoted: Matthew Thomassee and Myra Mouton. Everyone else has since been either promoted or transferred to another position.”
While Mouton is still employed with the sheriff’s office as a sergeant, in 2010 she was right at the top of the jail’s hierarchy, Murphy says, directly under Reardon as one of the jail’s two commanders. Mouton’s counterpart at the time was Capt. Mike Roulas. Though Roulas had been on the job longer than Mouton, for unknown reasons Murphy says the co-commander was not interviewed during IA’s investigation.
“When this all started unravelling, they realized they couldn’t just fire all these people, they had to find a scapegoat, and that person ended up being Myra Mouton,” says Murphy. “All the lieutenants and sergeants, they all just pointed their fingers at Myra, and claimed they falsified documents because apparently she said, ‘Get the job done, do what it takes.’ Apparently Myra walked into the watch commander’s office one day while they were falsifying and didn’t say anything, but that doesn’t mean she knew what was going on. And here’s the thing, Mike Roulas, he was there way before Myra ever came along, and this has been common practice for years and years and years, but somehow he’s not investigated, at all?”
In the midst of the investigation, Murphy says he was cleaning out a desk and discovered a “template” crafted for the quick falsification of inmate behavior sheets. Written on a folder containing the stack of templates, says Murphy, were the names of two sergeants, Sonia Guilbeau and Rhonda Melancon. According to Murphy, Guilbeau and Melancon, along with Lt. Cher Holland, were the greatest abusers of the practice. Though the packet was handed over to Roulas, Murphy says the jail’s commander was anything but interested.
“Obviously I’d found a packet of quick forgery templates, with blank lines left for the date, time and a spot for writing in a brief sentence,” explains Murphy. “I found a whole stack of them, and this was while the IA investigation is going on, so I handed it over to Capt. Roulas, and all he said was, ‘What do you want me to do with this?’”
According to court records, during his interview with IA, Thomassee once again brought up what he’d seen three years earlier, when he witnessed the warden backdate a document by a full year. The only response given to Thomassee was to just let sleeping dogs lie, but when he was brought in for a disciplinary hearing as a result of IA’s investigation, seated on his review board was none other than Reardon.
The review board, comprising Maj. Francis Green, Human Resources Director Michael Patin and the warden, credited its decision to take disciplinary action against Thomassee to his “incompetence” as accreditation manager and concluded the report with an attempt to justify the falsification practice by claiming his tenure on the job had led to a backlog of documents requiring signatures.
According to the review board’s report: “He left over 1,100 proofs needed to complete the audit process. His position was turned over to Lt. [Cher] Holland with less than a year to complete the audit requirement. [Thomassee’s] actions or lack of actions concerning obtaining the required proofs was evidence of incompetence, laziness or dereliction of duty. His inability to communicate in an effective manner with other employees regarding what proofs were required and where to obtain them was probably one of the contributing factors in justification of other employees forging proofs.”
Another peculiar development that preceded the investigation’s conclusion, says Murphy, came within IA, where everyone except the head of the unit, Lt. Todd Credeur, was replaced, including two investigators and a polygraphist. An entirely new team was brought in, all under the guise, maintains Murphy, that the decision was based on a recommendation from the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF. “That’s the excuse they gave, that they got rid of them all because of a recommendation from PERF, but what PERF’s recommendation actually said was that Internal Affairs needed more senior investigators, not that they needed to replace any investigators.”
IND Monthly also attempted to contact Sgt. Myra Mouton (the jail’s former co-commander who Murphy says was stripped of her captain’s rank and made into an alleged scapegoat for the document debacle), as well as the three LPCC employees cited by Murphy as the biggest culprits of the falsifications — Lt. Cher Holland and Sgts. Rhonda Melancon and Sonia Guilbeau. Though unsuccessful in reaching Mouton, Melancon and Holland, we did speak with Guilbeau — who was promoted after IA’s investigation to a supervisory role in the LPCC transportation department.
In a brief phone conversation, IND Monthly informed Guilbeau of Murphy’s allegations and claim of her role in the document falsification scandal. “I have no comment,” Guilbeau responded.
The department’s policy — that media inquiries be filtered through a designated spokesman like Judice — would probably prevent any of them from commenting for this story.
Though it’s unclear how much knowledge Sheriff Neustrom had about the falsifying of documents at the jail, Murphy expects most of the issue played out under his nose, with the sheriff’s understanding of the issue based mostly on what he’d been told by those with the most to lose.
[Critiquing the accreditation biz]The American Corrections Association’s accreditation process for correctional institutions was thoroughly critiqued in a 2006 master’s thesis by David Ralphs, a criminal justice graduate student at the University of Texas. In his examination, Ralphs argues that the accreditation process has become more focused on ACA’s bottom line and creating cost savings for the local institutions and less about improving the quality of life standards of inmates. Ralphs’ study also offers a possible explanation for the motive driving LPCC’s widespread use of document falsification, writing “that some facilities do not adopt standards until right before the ACA audit.” ACA certified, argues Ralphs, oftentimes translates into cost savings for the correctional center. Ralphs also points to a 1982 study by S. Gettinger, noting, “Gettinger wrote about how these facilities will write policies and procedures consistent with ACA standards just prior to the audit to be compliant. Gettinger called this practice a ‘one-day shine.’ ACA audits are announced months in advance. Because of this early warning, facilities have time to prepare, so the audits might not be as accurate as they would if ... unannounced.”
Interestingly, Ralphs notes that for Louisiana, being ACA accredited means cost savings of about $500,000 annually. Ralph’s full 125-page study is available online here.