ST. JOSEPH, La. -- A scathing investigative audit of the town of St. Joseph by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor claims the town’s finances and spending practices are as muddy as the town’s water and accuses Mayor Ed Brown of possibly breaking the law.
The investigative audit alleges grant money meant to fix the town’s aged water system was improperly spent, including an accusation that Mayor Brown paid his cousin, Bobby Conner, for work that Conner didn’t perform.
“We found through interviews with the mayor and Mr. Conner that in many cases, the mayor was actually preparing the invoices for his cousin. The mayor said at one time the mayor said he had to prepare the invoices for his cousin because his cousin did not know what to charge for his services. That's a red flag that the whole transaction with the town, could be paying for something that they're not getting,” said Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.
In one instance, auditors found evidence Brown had paid Conner 9,000 for use of Conner’s personal truck to haul material for the town.
“When we sat with Mr. Connor and asked him about it, the invoices indicated it was for the rental of a dump truck but Mr. Connor told us he did not rent a dump truck to the town,” Purpera said.
The town of St. Joseph received a $25,000 state grant to fix broken parts of its water system in 2013. Mayor Brown again hired Connor to do the work. But auditors found the nearly $21,000 in work Conner was paid for was never done.
Brown said he canceled his unwritten contract with Conner when then-Gov. Bobby Jindal promised to give the town millions to overhaul the aging water system, but he let Conner keep the money.
“That's totally inappropriate for him to pay money to somebody and that individual to keep the money they didn't perform the services for which they received it and then for the town to have this off-books, not documented thing of well, you're gonna do some work for us free of charge until I feel like you've done enough. From an auditor perspective that's just ridiculous. And I think any mayor running a town ought to know better,” Purpera said.
The audit also accuses Brown of reimbursing himself more than $19,000 for personal travel from the town coffers, including three trips to New Orleans for the Bayou Classic football game. The audit says Brown may have broken the law in doing so.
From 2011 to 2013, Brown was reimbursed $3,137.25 for travel miles on his personal vehicle, lodging and meals for his trips to the Bayou Classic, Brown claimed for meetings of the Louisiana Asset Management Pool, or LAMP. Auditors found LAMP had no record of any meetings those weekends.
“There are numerous officials in New Orleans during the Bayou Classic weekend and there is no better time to meet with Black Leadership to strategize and plan for improving communities throughout the state,” Brown said in his response to the auditor’s findings.
“His records should clearly show why he's making the trips and why he's using the town funds to make those trips,” Purpera said Wednesday.
In addition, Purpera said problems with record keeping that are similar to the ones outlined in the audit are delaying the completion of the town’s annual financial audit.
Any additional money from the state, including grant funds, cannot be released to the town until that audit is completed and submitted to the Legislative Auditor.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has committed to release more of the money earmarked for St Joe’s water system under Gov. Jindal, however, state law prohibits that from happening until the audit is complete.
Bel Edwards released a statement, saying: “My top priority is to ensure that the people of St. Joseph have access to clear, clean drinking water. The findings from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s investigation are extremely concerning,” said Governor John Bel Edwards. “ This problem has persisted for far too long, and I urge the mayor to continue working in good faith with everyone involved to resolve it. I am meeting with state officials to evaluate a possible path forward, and am optimistic that we can end this nightmare for the residents of St. Joseph in the near future.”
The Tensas Parish District Attorney, James Paxton, said his office received the Legislative Auditor’s findings and an investigator is reviewing them for possible prosecution.