MANDEVILLE, La. -- Johnathon Leger, 40, led police on a chase through Mandeville Wednesday night after they say he robbed a Taco Bell and stabbed someone in the neck with a box cutter.
Leger is a Louisiana Department of Corrections inmate and his alleged crime spree began after walking off his work release job with Uncle Sam's Moving Company.
“His employer failed to supervise him, violated his contract with us. His contract stipulates that he must be supervised at all times,” said Marlin Peachy, one of the owners of North Shore Workforce, LLC, the private company that runs the Covington work release program.
North Shore Workforce, LLC, houses an average of 215 inmates at their facility every month, and daily, they are sent out to other companies to work.
“I would tell you we have created more businessmen in the program in St. Tammany Parish than have screwed up in the program,” said St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain.
In 2007, Strain contracted with North Shore Workforce to build and run the program in Covington. Strain said after successfully running a program himself in Slidell for a number of years, he was approached about starting one in St. Tammany West.
A man named Jimmy Laurent, who has owned a number of construction-related companies, officially created North Shore Workforce with Peachy and a man named Thomas Parks two months after signing the contract with Strain, according to records from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s website.
“A group of businessmen came to me. I have, many times, been asked by West St. Tammany business people, when would I put a work release center on the west side of the parish because they needed labor,” Strain said.
“We have several investors in this particular entity,” Peachey said.
Strain said he didn’t want to spend taxpayer money to build a second work release program and felt a privately-owned program would be more efficient.
Peachey, one of the owners of the company he selected to run it, was the warden of the St. Tammany Parish Jail for several years under Strain. Peachey is also listed as Strain's campaign treasurer on campaign finance reports.
Peachey said he didn't think he got a sweetheart deal by getting the contract.
Strain didn't solicit public bids for either the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement he signed with North Shore Workforce, or, ultimately, the other work release center in Slidell. Strain said he didn’t have to because he said it’s a professional service.
The sheriff's office directly operated that facility until June of this year.
“We did everything we could but we understood that at some point in time, we had to make a decision. Either shut it down or privatize it. I believe we made the best choice,” Strain said.
Changes in DOC regulations cut down on the amount they were making on the program. Privately-run North Shore Workforce in Covington now generates a quarter of a million dollars a year for the Sheriff's Office, according to Strain.
Because he said he believes in the re-entry preparation work the release provides the offenders and in the ability to add a revenue stream to his budget, Strain said he asked in the Slidell Independent that anyone interested in running the work release program in Slidell to contact him in April of this year.
“I had four individuals contact me. I personally spoke with all four of them. I, at the end of the day, selected the one that I believe will be the best for our mission,” Strain said.
He chose another construction company owner, Allen Tingle.
Strain's campaign paid Tingle $2,200 in 2013 to fix his campaign Mardi Gras float. Tingle, a man listed as Jarret Colekeen in Secretary of State's Office records, and Brandy Hanson are listed as the officers of St. Tammany Workforce Solutions, LLC, the company Strain selected to take over the Slidell work release program.
Brandy Hanson's Facebook page shows her as “Retired from the St. Tammany Sheriff's Office” and says she attended high school in 1999.
A man named Robert Hanson told us the owners weren't available when we went to the site Thursday.
“I've known them all in some capacity. I'm not related to any of them if that's your question. Nor is any of my family members,” Strain said.
He also pointed out that “You can't be sheriff 17 years by knowing no one.”
“The fact is, if it is a better program for the taxpayer? Is it a better program for the offender? If it is a better program all the way around, it really doesn't matter,” Strain said.
Companies that use the inmates get cheap labor and tax breaks for hiring the inmates. We asked Peachey whether any of the investors use the inmates for their other companies, including Laurent's construction company.
“He owns one that I know of but he doesn't hire these guys,” Peachey said.
It's a question that remains unanswered about Tingle because he didn't get back to us in time for this report.
Critics, including the group called Louisiana United International, that circulated this report among the media this week have questioned Strain's decision to turn over the work release program.
In response, the sheriff was clear: “I have no personal interest, and I'm not gonna do a Bill Clinton. I'm telling you that I have no interest, no family member of mine, no relative of any capacity has an interest. No in-laws or outlaws or anything else. This is a very straight-forth business."
Peachey said the state-set per diem for housing work release inmates is $15.39 per inmate, per day. North Shore Workforce pays the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office $3 of that per inmate, per day. North Shore Workforce also takes up to 62% of the inmates’ gross pay for room, board, transportation, clothing and incidentals. They also make all of the profits off a commissary that they run at their facility, and a percentage of what inmates pay to make phone calls.
According to Peachey, the inmates must be paid 50 cents more than minimum wage; however, some companies do get “variances” from the state to allow them to pay as low as $7.25 an hour.
This story was produced as part of a joint investigation between Eyewitness News and The New Orleans Advocate. Read more here.