LACOMBE, La. -- Northshore construction company owner Jimmy Laurent is also one of the owners of a controversial work release program in St Tammany Parish. Last week, the St Tammany Parish President asked him to step down from his post on a local recreation district after it came to light that the recreation district hired some of the inmates, possibly putting money in Laurent's own pocket.
A small section of Lacombe near Bayou Lacombe park comes to life with kids and adults alike because of the programs run by St Tammany Recreation District #4.
Many consider it a community asset, but some are raising questions about the district’s hiring of inmates from North Shore Workforce in Covington, including why the public wasn’t notified, and whether the recreation district board knew their chairman might financially benefit from it.
Billy McBeth, 31, was the first work release inmate hired by the district. A spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections said he had been serving time for simple burglary and attempted simple burglary when he transferred to North Shore Workforce in Covington. He had been assigned to another work release center in the state before they moved him to Covington.
Pay records from the recreation district show he started working at the district in January of 2011.
The second inmate they hired was 38-year-old Bernard Alfonso. He was serving time for his third DWI and he started working at the recreation district through North Shore Workforce in September of 2011.
There's some question about whether the members of the recreation district board knew they were being hired.
“I know that my appointees that were seated around March of 2012 were not informed that those workers came from the North Shore Workforce. I've confirmed that with my appointees,” said St Tammany Parish Council Member Jake Groby.
At the time the two work release inmates were hired, Jimmy Laurent was Chairman of the recreation board.
Minutes from board meetings starting in 2010 make no mention of McBeth being incarcerated. In fact, in 2010, the board’s minutes say he was doing a great job and should get a raise.
But 9 months later, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, or DOC, said McBeth was removed from the work release program and fired from the recreation district for an undisclosed reason and put back in jail.
Jimmy Laurent filled that maintenance job with inmate Bernard Alfonso the next day. More board minutes appear to show the board knew at that point that Laurent was using a work release inmate, but some members said Laurent didn't follow proper procedure in filling the position and that "…the board must vote on any new employee."
Plus, there's no indication in documentation WWL-TV received from the recreation district whether the board was notified that as an owner of North Shore Workforce, Laurent could get some of the inmates' pay.
“I haven't seen any supporting documentation yet that he formally notified them,” Groby said.
“Something like that that could approach an appearance of impropriety, self-benefit, self-dealing, I think that it is incumbent on the board member to fully disclose something like that,” said Rafael Goyeneche, President of watchdog group the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
McBeth was paid nearly $12,000 dollars for his work at the recreation district while he was an inmate. Alfonso made more than $10,000. North Shore Workforce takes 62 percent of the inmates’ gross pay for room and board. As an owner, Laurent could have received some of that.
Our calculations show North Shore workforce may have made nearly $14,000 dollars on the two workers while they were at the recreation district.
“He is essentially using his business to render services at this recreation district and as such, he's making a profit off of those people working there,” Goyeneche said.
Aside from the financial involvement, DOC policies for the state’s work release programs say "No offender is to work for or on the premises of a school, day care facility, or other business or agency whose primary objective is in the service of juveniles."
“We don't know the exact nature of the work that was being performed by those individuals, but if they're working for a recreation district, the recreation is for children primarily and there will be children in and out of those facilities all day long,” Goyeneche said.
The DOC Spokeswoman, Pam Laborde said the recreation district job was primarily maintenance work. "The language in the regulation is specific to jobs where direct supervision/contact with children is the primary reason for the job. The main activities surrounding the recreation district job were maintenance, construction, general upkeep of property and facilities, not direct interaction/contact with children (from what I am aware of)," Laborde said.
Last month, DOC conducted a surprise inspection of North Shore Workforce for unrelated allegations of policy violations documented by our months' long investigation into the privately-owned program. 19 of the inmates were sent back to jail for allegedly violating DOC regulations.
St Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain gave Laurent and the other owners, including his campaign treasurer Marlin Peachey a no-bid contract to run the Covington work release program. However, Strain shut down North Shore Workforce after a string of recent escapes two weeks ago.
Last week, St Tammany Parish President Pat Brister asked Jimmy Laurent to step down from the recreation board.
“Out of an abundance of caution, the parish President used a member of the administration and asked for a resignation,” said Ronnie Simpson, the Director of Public Information for St Tammany Parish.
Laurent refused, and the president and Parish Council will now determine how to move forward.
In the end, the recreation district had a split experience with the inmates who worked for them.
Alfonso successfully completed his prison sentence working at the district. As for McBeth, the district minutes hint that he wrote a letter to the board apologizing for whatever got him fired, and they apparently re-hired him in 2012 when he got out on parole.
But McBeth was re-arrested while working there for stealing hundreds of dollars of equipment from the recreation district and for breaking into the snowball stand called the Snow Castle around the corner from the district, stealing money from it.
All within a week, McBride also committed a battery at a location just down highway 190.
He is currently serving time again in the St Tammany Parish Jail.
We tried to contact Jimmy Laurent to get his side of the story but he didn't return our calls or emails.
The recreation district board gave us the documentation, but board members did not comment on the situation.