Small town of Independence facing big problems: missing money, accusations of nepotism and bullying, a $300,000 bill for employee pensions _lowres

Photo provided by Google Maps -- Independence Town Hall

Missing government money, potential nepotism and evidence of other crimes have been uncovered by the Louisiana legislative auditor during an investigation of the town of Independence.

Since the report was released last week, elected officials and former staffers have hurled accusations at each other, alleging intimidation, political undermining and subterfuge in the town of 1,687 residents.

“Checks and balances broke down,” Alderman Calvin Batiste said during Tuesday’s Board of Aldermen meeting.

Earlier this year, a private firm published Independence’s annual audit, noting several troubling discoveries, including several thousands of dollars from utility payments that the town could not account for. The state stepped in and confirmed suspicions, and now the District Attorney’s Office is reviewing the report, though no charges have been filed.

The state audit reported that last year $4,242 was received as utility payments but never recorded into the town’s bank account, though neither auditors nor Independence leaders know where the money went or if it was stolen or lost.

Auditors also reported that Mayor Mike Ragusa failed to properly report his vehicle allowance to the IRS, and his son was given cheaper utility service for which he was ineligible.

The biggest impact on Independence’s bottom line, however, is the city’s failure to pay into employees’ government retirement funds in 2013 and 2014. The town owes nearly $300,000 to those accounts, the audit says, though Ragusa disputes the amount.

“Somebody needs to be punished,” Alderman Larry Cardaronella said in an interview, adding that he personally doesn’t know who to blame for the town’s myriad troubles.

Several aldermen commented on Ragusa’s leadership of the town. He’s a contractor and fits a particular stereotype, Cardaronella said.

“Contractors are strong, they’re bullies, they get their own way,” he said.

“(Ragusa) has done more for the town than any other mayor,” Cardaronella said, but “I would never work for him.”

Batiste gave Ragusa a “B+ on job performance,” despite calling the auditor’s report “disturbing.”

Alderman Angelo Mannino, Ragusa’s cousin, said the mayor “had done a lot for this town.”

Mannino then slapped an audit document with his hand, adding, “but some of the things that have gotten done with this, I can’t live with it.”

Ragusa told auditors that he didn’t know the town was required to contribute to the government retirement fund, though retirement system representatives said they reached out to Independence “as far back as March 2013,” the audit states. The mayor also said the town could not afford to contribute.

In an interview with The Advocate, Ragusa said he did not want to enroll his employees in the government retirement system because it is unfair.

“It’s a racket is what it is,” he remarked.

At least one alderman, Cardaronella, agreed and suggested the town reach out to state legislators to amend the system.

The mayor said that under certain circumstances, municipalities cannot recoup their payments if an employee resigns, and he loathes participating in the system, even if it is mandated by the state.

“I don’t care about the law. The law needs to be changed,” Ragusa said.

The issue that elicited the most personal attacks related to Ragusa’s son’s water and sewage bills. Independence charges lower rates to customers inside the town limits, and in June 2013, Ragusa’s son, who lives just outside the limits, was given the cheaper rate.

Ragusa blames “former disgruntled employees” Arlene Hall and Jeanette Pattanella. He told auditors that he suspected the two clerks were trying “to make him look bad before the next election.”

Pattanella and Hall said in interviews that they changed the rates, but only after constant berating from the mayor.

“He kept on hounding (Pattanella) every day,” Hall said. “He would scream at us daily.”

In audit documents and interviews, the clerks and mayor tore into each other.

Pattanella accused Ragusa of selectively shutting off water service when bills weren’t paid, of not collecting taxes and fines, and of generally being “a very hostile man to work for.”

Ragusa said the clerks “have taken documents out of city hall during their employment in an attempt to discredit the mayor.”

The mayor also suspects Pattanella of sending him emails under a pseudonym, one saying: “I assure you, you may think you know me, but you will for sure remember me.”

Pattanella denied sending the message, and Mannino said he does not believe she is behind the emails.

Pattanella did report Ragusa to the state Board of Ethics. The board, however, did not pursue the case because Ragusa’s son, Tim, paid more than he was billed, and rate changes made to his utility bill were not to the son’s benefit.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.