La. DA uses program to fund his foundation - Part 4

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GUEST COLUMN

This is part 4 in a multi-part series about questionable behavior in Calcasieu Parish, reprinted from The Washington Post. The L.A.C.E. program is statewide and has been criticized and found to have many issues all across the state.

Supervised misdemeanor probation — the other program for which Calcasieu Parish offers the gift-card option — is a sentence imposed by a judge, usually for similarly low-level crimes. But unlike diversion, it isn’t voluntary, and it’s imposed after someone has been convicted. But the requirements are often similar — drug testing, substance abuse treatment and usually community service, either in addition to court costs and fines, or sometimes in lieu of them.

Under either program, a defendant could buy out his or her community service obligation by purchasing gift cards and donating them to the DA’s office. They could get the cards from stores such as Walmart, Sam’s Club and Toys R Us. The policy was later changed to allow defendants to buy out up to half their community service. The price also dropped, from $10 per hour of service to $8.

DeRosier insists he has never allowed anyone to buy out more than half of his or her community service. But Newman, Odom and two other former employees of the office say that isn’t true. And Kenneth’s file, which he shared with me, indicates he was allowed to buy out all 80 of the hours he was assigned.

DeRosier has subsequently used the gift cards in a number of ways. The most visible uses are the toy and gift drives his office runs around Christmas. Handpicked staff members are given a shopping list that includes items such as toys, bicycles and clothing. A supervisor then pays for the items with gift cards or with a check or debit card from the foundation. DeRosier and his staff then ride around the parish in a firetruck and distribute the items at churches, city halls and other community gathering spots. According to three former staff members, DeRosier has also sent gift cards to friendly journalists, community leaders and supporters of his campaign, typically on special occasions or after the death of a relative.

“When he would deliver these toys, he was shaking these people’s hands, handing out toys and cards. It was a feather in his cap,” Odom says. In a phone interview, DeRosier says as far as he knows, the cards were never given to individuals for personal use. They were either donated to another foundation, used for toy drives or used to purchase items for hurricane and flood relief.

According to Odom, Newman and two other former employees of the office, when participants in either program opted to purchase gift cards, they’d bring the cards to the office and give them to a receptionist. The receptionist then entered the amount of the card into a receipt book. They’d give one copy of the receipt to the defendant, and one to staffers overseeing the case. The receptionist would also make a copy of the gift cards themselves for the defendant’s file.

According to these former employees, the receipt books were used only to verify which defendants had paid. “There was no accounting or verification of the amount that we took in each day,” said Odom. “That seemed like a big problem to me.”

One of Newman’s responsibilities was to run reports on the enrollment fees and monthly payments required of people accepted into diversion. “I would run reports on a daily basis showing all that we took in,” she says. “And then I’d have to make sure that I had the money orders that matched those pretrial fees. The deposits and money orders would go directly to our payroll and accounting.”

At the end of the year, these figures are tabulated and recorded in the publicly available annual financial reports for the DA’s office. But gift-card revenue was not included in those numbers. “They specifically instructed me not do anything with the gift cards for the community service,” Newman says. “I was told to leave those out.”

Perhaps because there was no effort to log and track the cards, Newman and Odom say the office was sloppy in handling them. “One time, one of the receptionists quit, and we had to clean out her desk,” Odom says. “We moved her desk, and there were gift cards everywhere. Piles of them behind her desk. When we moved the copier, there were more gift cards. Just dozens of them that no one had noticed.”

Radley Balko blogs and reports on criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He was previously a senior writer and investigative reporter at the Huffington Post, and a reporter and senior editor for Reason magazine.