The head of the state’s Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control fired one of his agents Wednesday after a review of work cellphone records revealed the agent made racial and sexual comments in text messages to co-workers.
The action came after veteran agent Brette Tingle had been disciplined over the past decade for other violations, including stealing agency property, “unbecoming” conduct and failing to properly inspect businesses.
In a six-page disciplinary letter provided to The Advocate, the ATC alleges Tingle texted with other ATC employees using racial slurs, sexually aggressive remarks to and about women, referenced using marijuana and threatened violence toward his superiors.
The letter sent Aug. 18 also says Tingle, who supervised about eight to 10 agents, falsified payroll documents to make it look as though he had been working at times when he was not.
J. Arthur Smith, Tingle’s lawyer, said Wednesday that his client’s firing is a form of retaliation tied to an unrelated federal race discrimination case against ATC Commissioner Troy Hebert, in which Tingle is a witness.
“That’s ridiculous,” Hebert said in response to the claim.
Tingle was first notified of the intent to terminate him on Aug. 5, just days before Hebert’s state-issued vehicle was stolen and later recovered with evidence that someone tried to light it on fire.
Hebert said State Police are trying to figure out whether the incidents are connected.
Lt. J.B. Slaton, a spokesman for the State Police, said Tingle is not a suspect in the probe, which is ongoing.
In one of Tingle’s exchanges from December 2011, the disciplinary letter said, a former ATC agent texted Tingle using a racial epithet to say she hated black people. Tingle replied, “Me too!!!” and “Scourge of the earth,” according to the document.
In another text message conversation from May 2012 about an ATC employee leaving the company, Tingle’s co-worker asked where the agent was going, and Tingle responded, “Not in law enforcement. Said something spiritual. Probably joining the Jihad.”
The co-worker said, “Yikes. Maybe he’ll suicide bomb maniac’s (Commissioner Hebert’s) office,” and Tingle replied, “I’m hoping!!!” according to the letter.
When one of the agents he supervised requested sick leave because of her pregnancy in June 2012, Tingle told her to seek “oral stimulation” for treatment, the document said.
Tingle also texted at least one of his own supervisors inappropriate messages, one of which was an April 2012 note: “Bout to smoke a fat one and eat some brownies,” according to the letter.
Hebert said he believes most of the other employees Tingle texted with have left the agency. None of Tingle’s supervisors reported the behavior, Hebert said, adding, “and they certainly were obligated to.”
The internal investigation into Tingle, who served as the Special Agent in Charge of ATC’s New Orleans region, began around 2013 after his unit was found lagging in performing required compliance checks, Hebert said.
The inquiry then spread to Tingle’s payroll documentation, and found he’d been at home when he should have been at his workplace, Hebert said. In one 55-day period in which Tingle should have been working, GPS records showed Tingle was absent for 37 of the days.
Smith, in a letter to the ATC in February, said the purported absences are a misinterpretation of the GPS records as Tingle sometimes left his state-issued vehicle at home so he could carry out undercover operations, or drive his personal automobile to work.
Tingle in 2011 had accused other ATC employees of faking their time sheets, similar to his own behavior, the disciplinary letter said.
In 2008, Tingle was put on a one-day suspension without pay for not filing his income tax return on time, and in 2004, he was given a three-day leave without pay for “failure to follow directives and conduct unbecoming of an agent,” according to the letter. He was accused of not properly inspecting businesses and failing to follow his superiors’ instructions.
In 2003, Tingle was accused of stealing agency property, according to a letter ATC sent him.
Hebert said that though Tingle had been accused of violations a few times over several years, he wasn’t fired until now because Louisiana State Civil Service Commission rules heavily protect employees, and because investigators didn’t gain access to the text messages until recently, after Tingle returned from a two-year military leave of absence.
“You can’t just fire somebody. There has to be a progression,” Hebert said. Civil Service imposes “strict and stringent guidelines you have to follow … if not, they will get it overturned, because obviously everyone has a right to due process and they can appeal it.”
Tingle also lied to a supervisor, had unauthorized secondary employment and failed to follow directives, the disciplinary letter says.
“This type of behavior will not be tolerated at ATC. It jeopardizes ATC’s creditability [sic], as well as ATC’s ability to serve everyone in the state fairly and impartially,” Hebert said in a statement.
Smith said Tingle will appeal his firing with the Civil Service Commission.
The ATC turned over the forensic evidence it gathered during its investigation of Tingle to the State Police, the Attorney General’s Office and the F.B.I., Hebert said.