Mike Hoss / Eyewitness News
HARVEY, LA In the last four years alone, there have been trips all across the United States, to New York, Atlanta, Denver, Dallas and Chicago. There were several nights at expensive hotels and lavish meals with alcohol, and the trips included wives and family members.
And it's all paid for with Jefferson Parish taxpayer dollars, and all of this from a volunteer fire company.
'It appears to be a clear misuse and abuse of the public trust of taxpayer money and completely unacceptable,' said Jefferson Parish President John Young.
Young and the parish council say the statelegislative auditor, the ethics commission and even the Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Officeare looking at the Harvey Volunteer Fire Company Number 2 and its credit card expenses.
It might not be exactly what you think of when you hear volunteer fire company. It's a non-profit corporation that has a contract with the parish to provide firefighting services to 25,000 people in the Harvey area.
There are31 paid employees and another 30 volunteers, and they get around $2.9 million of parish taxpayer money each year.
Here's the unique part: it's not the paid firefighters, but a select group of volunteers who hold management positions that make all the financial decisions and who have drawn the most questions about out-of-control spending.
At Harvey Number 2, the top four in charge are Chief Scott Berthelot, Deputy Chief and President Mike Reason, District Chief and Vice President Richard Parker and District Chief and Treasurer Tim Theibaud.
If you look at 2009, the department spent $84,000 on new equipment and maintenance, but it also spent $45,000 on conventions and conferences, another $45,000 on meals and entertainment, and another $32,000 on subscriptions, including $24,000 for health club membership fees.
So it spent nearly $40,000 more on items that some say have little to do with fighting fires.
'And they're supposed to be volunteers, but they're making decisions that in many respects are self serving,' said Rafael Goyeneche of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Goyeneche said the volunteer leaders don't worry if the expenditures are legitimate
'Because no one oversees or questions their expenditures of these funds, because it is the management team that is abusing the public funds,' Goyeneche said.
Through a public records request,4Investigateslooked at four years of credit card receipts. Each year there was seven to 12 trips for conventions or meetings in and out of state, almost exclusively taken by the top volunteers running the department, and these trips often included airfare and food for wives.
In Atlanta 2007, a Morton's Steakhouse Meal with alcohol was over $1,000.
In 2008, a $780 meal at Ruth's Chris, one of several trips to the popular steak house.
In 2009, more than $1,100 was spent on just two meals at a convention in Dallas, and last year there was a $600 meal at a casino in Marksville, Louisiana.
And at a convention in Chicago, Harvey Number 2 leaders Berthelot, Reason and Parker charged nearly $450 to their rooms from the hotel bar.
'In effect the fire district credit cards become their credit cards,' Goyeneche said.
In the four years we looked at, the high-ranking volunteers had put more than 160 meals on the company credit card. Some were out of town, but most were down the street at local restaurants in Harvey, and many of them well over $100 and not itemized, showing exactly what was purchased.
And it's not just the purchase of food with taxpayer dollars. There's a receipt for a $400 bar tab at the Boomtown Casino and another for nearly $350 at the Royal Palm on Manhattan Boulevard and all of it was alcohol.
Three of the drinks on that receipt were special Crown Royaldrinks at $25 a glass.
'It doesn't instill public confidence and certainly...there's an attorney general opinion on point that prohibits the use of public funds for the purchase of alcohol,' Young said.
But it's not just food and alcohol. Goyeneche said the leadership spent $12,000 on six gold watches for lifetime department members. Berthelot spent $359 for XM Satellite Radio for his car.
And Reason, apparently a big sports fan, spent $700 in wall prints from the team fan shop, as well as a football helmet and a $106 computer mouse from the same place. There were computer games and an iPod Nano.
And last year after completing a training course, Reason, on the department credit card, purchased a $1,000 graduation ring in this case and in nearly all others. Reason himself requested the item and then approved it.
'Outrageous. I mean, it's great that he would consider continuing education, and if he felt he wanted a graduation ring, he can reach into his pocket,' Goyeneche said.
Young said there are many hard-working volunteers who put their lives on the line every day, but that the parish has done a poor job of following the money in the past. He said this is why Jefferson Parish needs an inspector general, and because there are 12 other non-profit volunteer fire companies with parish contracts, Young wants to look at all of them.
'Because these contracts need to be tightened up, so that we specify what's acceptable and what's not acceptable and maybe we do it on a reimbursement basis and cut out the credit cards to these type of situations as well,' Young said.
The parish suspended, with pay, Berthelot from his paying job as director of Jefferson Parish's fire training center. The parish also suspended Reason, another parish employee, at the training center.
Richard Parker Jr., a firefighter, but not a direct parish employee, was also suspended.
Officials with Harvey volunteers declined our request for an on-camera interview but saidthe departmentis reviewing travel, food and beverage policies.
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