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Accountants and pencil-pushers have been replaced by forensic auditors and former law enforcement officials, many of them toting guns and badges of their own.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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Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Tuesday, March 11, 2014:
Hopefully he’ll be better prepared today than he was in that Feb. 20 deposition.
They came by the hundreds, arriving from all regions of the state to gather on the steps of our Capitol in protest of the Legislature’s long tradition of giving industry the go-ahead to abuse our air, our water and our coastline, all in the name of good economics.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent rhetoric against President Barack Obama has failed to boost his standing among the conservative base.
Louisiana's annual legislative session begins.
The state has hired marksmen to shoot feral hogs from helicopters at two wildlife management areas in south Louisiana.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has stalled action on a $3.5 billion annual school funding formula due to state lawmakers by March 15.
The New Orleans Saints have yet to make it official as of this writing, but popular wide receiver Lance Moore has reportedly been cut by the team to free up salary-cap space on the roster.
While two medical marijuana bills are slated for the upcoming legislative session, what some Louisianans might not know is that the plant was approved for therapeutic use by state lawmakers in 1991.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
Sharper has been held without bail because of an arrest warrant issued by Louisiana authorities accusing him and another man of raping two women.
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.
Conservatives have been losing their minds over this satirical bit on the Colbert Report.
The Lafayette Parish School Board leaves a lot to be desired, but is scrapping the election process in favor of an appointed board the answer?
The House approved legislation Tuesday night to roll back a recently enacted overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, after homeowners in flood-prone areas complained about sharp premium increases.