INDEPENDENCE, La. - Every evening, a convenience store on Highway 51 gets a guard, which is a town police officer, in a town vehicle, working the extra detail off-duty.
That detail, and others like it, usually costs the businesses being protected $15 an hour. But where that money goes, and how it's distributed, is now the focus of a state Legislative Auditor’s investigation.
"As a citizen, you're always concerned about a legislative auditor finding some problems,” said resident Dale Brouillette, “And it could be something very simple as paperwork or it could be something serious."
In this case, Independence's annual audit says the town isn't getting a cut for the use of the police units during the details, resulting in public assets illegally benefiting a non-public entity. That comment caught the attention of investigators, which led them to the police department this week.
Police Chief Frank Edwards doesn't see the problem because, he says, any money left over from paying the officers for their time goes into a fundraising reserve account for the police department's needs.
Edwards also references an Attorney General opinion, number 96-486, that reads, “Please be advised that it is the opinion of this office that law enforcement agencies can engage in the practice of scheduling ‘off-duty’ officers to provide the additional security as requested by both public and private entities as well as to allow the use of agency equipment while such work is being performed.”
In addition, Edwards says the extra work still protects the town.
"There is certainly a public benefit to having the officer in uniform at a store,” said Edwards, “The first level of force that you learn about at the academy is presence."
In the annual audit, the town’s accountants recommended the town attorney look into the matter further.
The resulting report from the town attorney says, “it is my understanding that the town’s police officers have set up a non-profit corporation that accepts payment from private entities in exchange for the town’s officers providing security services to said entities. I have not been provided with any incorporating documentation for the non-profit entity, nor is it clear to me who has authority to manage said entity.” The report further states, “The officers are purportedly paid via a contract with the non-profit entity, but I have not seen any written contracts between the entity and the officers. The entity is treating the officers as contract labor under the current system; therefore, no taxes are withheld from the income generated by these private details.” Lastly, the report says, “it is clear, however, that the town is not currently being compensated for the use of its equipment during these details, the insurance coverage they provide for the officers on these details, or any other administrative costs commonly associated with setting up and maintaining these type of private security details.”
Because the Town of Independence has had so many issues with its budget over the past couple of years, the mayor says if there is any extra money out there coming in to help, he thinks that it should be shared with the town too.
Mike Ragusa said, "We just get ex many of dollars into the town and I have to split it among all of the departments and right now the police department is getting a majority of the funds."
It's a situation many hope gets resolved quickly and fairly.
Despite the outcome of the investigation, the chief does agree a written policy needs to be in place outlining off-duty details, along with better record keeping of the details and he plans to create those.