PEARL RIVER, La. -- After pouring through the town’s finances and operations, following months of Eyewitness reports on the dealings in the Town of Pearl River, the Louisiana Legislative auditor is revealing several possible state violations by city leaders.
The 130-page report details personal use of town-purchased equipment by Mayor James Lavigne and Police Chief Benny Raynor, including a boat we found parked at the mayor's house on a previous story.
Personal purchases were also found by the mayor and Town Clerk Diane Bennett, in an admitted effort to avoid paying sales taxes, which were paid back. There's also questionable extra payroll checks to the clerk.
The report questions almost $30,000 in Christmas bonuses masked as clothing allowances on the budget. And the mayor's personal use of the town vehicle, which was the subject of an Eyewitness News report, was allegedly not reported to the IRS. Auditors say the vehicle purchase also violated bid laws.
Reaction to the report from some aldermen is not so much in surprise of the findings, but of the extent of them.
“You have to dot your I's and cross your T's. You can't get lost and fall short on that, we just can’t fall short," Alderwoman Kat Walsh said. "We're going to, but not in this length that we have. It's just not acceptable."
The mayor was not available for comment at his home Monday, meanwhile the town's response, included in the report, is lengthy. It starts by criticizing Alderwoman Walsh and the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, calling the audit purely political.
Regarding the allegations, the mayor is quoted as saying, "We are all human and make mistakes now and then by not dotting every I and crossing every T."
The response said the boat is for the town sewer tank. It provides documentation for the clerk's extra pay and says most, if not all, questionable payments have been reimbursed.
However, the response says no crimes have been committed because there was no intent, saying in an example, “If I sign your name with your permission, or even without it, without any intent to defraud, it is not a violation of criminal law of forgery.”
Some leaders believe good can come out of the bad report.
“I'm just hoping we can weather the storm and get it all straightened out and I hope we can pull together as a council and talk to counsel and decide what we need to do to correct the problems," said Alderman David McQueen.
Concerned Citizens President Rick Franzo said in a statement, “In summary the LLA’s report clearly defines many deficiencies, possible state law and constitutional violations, as well Ethics prohibited transactions. The citizens of Pearl River need to demand more from their elected officials, as this report clearly demonstrates they do what they want, when they want.”
The report has been forwarded to the district attorney, the Board of Ethics and the Louisiana Office of Attorney General for any further action.
To view the full report, click here. (A warning, the document does take a while to download.)