A former St. Mary Parish supervisor siphoned almost $2.6 million in taxpayer funds by routing money through his welding business, which for almost five years billed the Consolidated Gravity Drainage District No. 2 for work that was not performed or shoddily done, state auditors said in a report released Monday.
The report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor said Peter Businelle billed the district for work he claimed his company — PAB Welding Service — performed from January 2009 until November 2013. Those services included grass cutting and pump maintenance at the district’s stations.
Auditors, however, could not verify much of the work Businelle claimed that PAB had performed. And there was at least $11,000 in equipment Businelle purportedly bought for the district, but which inspectors could not locate or verify had ever been in the district’s possession, according to the report.
The report also singled out former drainage district board Chairman Carl Kraemer for allegedly taking tens of thousands of dollars from Businelle in questionable payouts.
And the audit chastised Kraemer and four other board members for providing little-to-no oversight of how Businelle conducted business.
“A review of board records confirmed that the board routinely failed to obtain bids or quotes prior to work being performed,” the report says.
Businelle and Kraemer resigned from their posts in 2013, and board members who served during Businelle’s reign have since resigned.
“Since being appointed, the current board has systemically taken steps to promote transparency in its operations, tighten internal controls, minimize risks and adopt best practices policies and procedures,” the board’s current chairman, Lee Dragna, said in a letter to the legislative auditor.
While Businelle ran the district, operations didn’t resemble anything close to best practices. According to the report, Businelle was an employee from 1997 until 2013 who made almost $13,000 a year. But through PAB Welding Services, a business that was not registered with the state of Louisiana, Businelle received over a half-million dollars a year for five years, the report states. Through PAB, Businelle billed the district for maintenance and repairs at the district’s buildings, pump stations and levees.
Investigators, however, found problems matching what Businelle claimed PAB did while on the job, and what was actually done. And the report noted the difference in drainage maintenance that averaged $274,500 a year when PAB was doing the work, and only $17,700 a year since Businelle left.
Investigators noted Businelle’s grass-cutting operations at the district’s pump stations, done through PAB over a little more than four years for a total of $100,300. Each time PAB charged $100 to $400 for equipment and labor, even though the district owned the equipment.
“In addition, Mr. Businelle charged for one station that had no grass and was surrounded by limestone,” the report stated.
Kraemer, the former board chairman, and Businelle apparently had a close relationship, the report noted. Over the course of four years, from February 2009 until February 2013, Businelle wrote out 11 checks worth $42,833 to Kraemer. The report said both men denied outside dealings with each other, then when they were confronted with proof of financial dealings, both men said Businelle bought equipment from Kraemer.
“When both were asked to provide evidence that the purchases took place (such as bills-of-sale, titles, registrations, etc.) Mr. Businelle and Mr. Kraemer were unable to provide records substantiating these alleged transactions or any explanation for the … payments,” the report stated.
The legislative auditor said its investigation of the drainage district was initiated after receiving a letter from the 16th Judicial District Attorney’s Office expressing concerns.
Anthony Saleme Jr., chief prosecutor in St. Mary Parish for the District Attorney’s Office, said late Monday that the auditor’s report was forwarded to 16th District Attorney Bo Duhé, whose office will review its findings and decide later whether to investigate further for possible criminal charges.
Dragna, the current chairman of the drainage district board, said Monday he was asked to join the board after Kraemer left in 2013. Later that year, the St. Mary Parish Council declined to renew the four-year terms for remaining members, and filled the board with new ones.
He said the district’s costs have been reduced greatly since the departures of Businelle and Kraemer, and that the district’s finances have stabilized.
Efforts to contact Businelle and Kraemer on Monday were unsuccessful. The number listed for Businelle was disconnected, and there was no answer at the number listed for Kraemer.