NEW ORLEANS -- State Fire March Butch Browning and others in his office violated several laws relating to allegations that were exposed by a series of Eyewitness Investigation reports in April, according to a report by the state inspector general.
Browning stepped down when Eyewitness News broke news of the state investigation, but within two weeks he quietly returned to the job and has kept a low profile ever since.
Now he is being held accountable by Inspector General Stephen Street's office for an array of violations, ranging from paying FEMA money to rescue crews for attending LSU-Alabama baseball games to submitting false documents to facilitate guns sales to people in his office.
Among the findings in the Inspector General’s report:
- Fire Marshall employees were improperly paid for hours they didn’t work when they responded to the tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in May 2010. The employees were directed to submit the hours by former Chief of Emergency Services Joel Domangue, who the inspector general states “may have violated state law which prohibits filing false public records.” The IG’s report stated when the improper payments were flagged, the employees were forced to pay back more than $11,000. The IG recommended that no action needs to be taken since Domangue no longer works for the state.
- In June 2010, the Fire Marshall’s Arson Division traded in handguns to a gun dealer for credit toward new weapons. Three non-law enforcement employees were given forms signed by Butch Browning “falsely stating that they were law enforcement officers and would use the weapons in the performance of their official SFM duties,” according to the report. The forms also attested that background checks were done in-house by the fire Marshall, but there is no evidence that took place. The forms allowed the gun dealer, Barneys Police Supplies, to forgo the federally required background check. Browning said he doesn’t remember signing the forms, but vouched for their authenticity, according to the report. The inspector general’s report recommends disciplinary action against Browning and three then-employees who submitted the false forms.
- Browning wore military ribbons from 2005 to 2010, in possible violation of a federal law known as the Stolen Valor Act, but he stopped wearing the decorations in 2010 when the Department of Public Safety told him to stop.
- In the investigation of a carnival ride accident in May 2011 in Greensburg, Browning publicly attributed the accident to “operator error,” when in fact there was a mechanical problem that a fire marshal’s investigator failed to detect hours earlier, the report states. Browning issued a public statement the next day stating that his office completed a preliminary investigation and found the cause of the accident to be operator error. The Inspector General’s office recommends that the Legislature pass a law prohibiting the fire marshal’s office to both inspect carnival rides and investigate accidents.
Despite the findings, Browning received a vote of confidence from his boss Wednesday, Louisiana State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson.
"I fully support Butch Browning,” Edmonson said. “I've talked to public officials around the state, fire departments, who say he does an incredible job, he's done so much for their communities."
Edmonson said the failures pointed out in the report have largely been corrected.
“I sat down with Butch Browning and all the people involved,” he said. “We've gone over the report that came out on all the allegations. We've talked about them. How can we do a better job? Because at the end of the day, that's what the public expects."
Browning, interviewed by WWL-TV’s sister station in Baton Rouge WAFB, said he welcomes the criticism and has used some of the inspector general’s findings to make improvements in his office.
"I've taken this as a very proactive thing,” Browning said. “We've made some changes in the office. We've instituted some better policies. And all of these things, I think, are important. We're here to move forward."
But some people are taking a very different view of the report. Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the findings raise serious questions about Browning’s fitness for the job.
"Here are repeated examples of lack of integrity, mismanagement, lack of professionalism and neglect of duty that are affecting public safety," Goyeneche said.
Goyeneche, who forwarded most of the complaints that led to the inspector general’s report, said the individual violations in the report may not provide grounds for dismissal, the overall pattern of mismanagement should disqualify Browning for such an important statewide position.
"I think the governor owes an explanation as to why he's still serving as fire marshall," Goyeneche said.