Advocate Staff Photo by Mark Saltz -- The front gate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the state's maximum-security prison, shot in 2009.

Mark Saltz

A high-ranking official at the State Penitentiary at Angola has pleaded guilty to a federal charge of wire fraud in connection with the theft or misuse of as much as $160,000 from a fund meant to improve recreational opportunities for prison employees and their families.

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Former Col. Shirley Whittington

Former Col. Shirley Whittington, who headed the maximum-security prison’s Emergency Medical Services department, entered the guilty plea Wednesday before U.S. District Judge James Brady in Baton Rouge, court records show. A sentencing date has not been set.

Whittington, 46, was charged in a bill of information filed Feb. 9 by U.S. Attorney Walt Green's office.

She resigned in September from her post at Angola amid a probe into the missing money; she had served as treasurer of the nonprofit Angola Employee Recreation Committee since it was set up in 2006.

The scandal over the missing money is just one in a series of embarrassing revelations to come out of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections since late 2015, most of which have involved alleged self-dealing by high-ranking officials.

The recreation committee, known among Angola employees as the “B-Line Rec Fund,” takes in money from annual dues from the families who work at the prison and live on the grounds in an area known as B-Line. It also brings in money from sales of food and drinks at the prison’s legendary rodeo, and from greens fees Angola’s Prison View golf course.

Two audits — the first led by the state’s legislative auditor and a second overseen by the corrections department — pointed to tens of thousands of dollars in committee funds that had been spent on personal items or were simply missing.

Among other findings, the latter audit said that Whittington spent at least $70,000 of the committee’s money on personal items over a nine-year period, including more than $27,000 on items purchased through Amazon and PayPal. It also found that she routinely withdrew cash from the committee’s accounts with an ATM card, to the tune of more than $17,000 over a four-year period.

A second employee, former Lt. Col. Debbie Leonard, who served as the recreation committee’s president, also has been accused of helping herself to some agency funds. The audit said that in addition to the other spending, Leonard and Whittington between them had shorted the committee’s bank account of at least $73,307 when depositing cash from sales at the rodeo.

In court documents, Whittington admits that the "loss" she is responsible for is "at least $40,001." That amount will be used by federal probation officers when they calculate a recommended sentencing range for the judge.

Both Leonard and Whittington face state theft charges that were filed by 20th Judicial District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla’s office.

D'Aquilla said Thursday that he will likely drop his office's case against Whittington because it relates to the same misconduct to which she pleaded guilty in federal court. 

Leonard has not been charged by federal authorities, and D'Aquilla said he plans to leave his office's charge against her in place for the time being.

Leonard's lawyer, Fred Crifasi, had no comment Thursday.

Whittington's lawyer, Michael Hesse, has not returned numerous messages from The Advocate.

"Louisiana's taxpayers want — and deserve — public officials and employees who do not use their positions to serve their own interests," Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, whose office uncovered the missing money, said in a statement. "We take public corruption very seriously and will continue to work ... to stop the misuse of public funds in Louisiana." 

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