Since 2013, employees at the state department charged with caring for and honoring the state’s military veterans were found to have misspent thousands of dollars and failed to report alleged crimes against veterans, according to an investigative report released Monday by the Louisiana legislative auditor and the State Inspector General’s Office.
Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David LaCerte, who stepped down in October 2015 amid the investigation, also was found to have padded his own military record submitted on his résumé and listed in his biography on the Veteran Affairs website, according to the report.
Investigators took notice of LaCerte’s spending and management practices in particular, saying he paid $44,128 in public funds to former law school classmates without entering into a contract. He also hired another former law school classmate as the agency’s internal auditor. The position was created in 2013 by LaCerte, but no one else was interviewed for the job even though 17 other people applied.
State Inspector General Stephen Street said several matters are still under investigation, but he stopped short of calling it a criminal probe.
“We’re still looking at things like the destruction of records, the potential failure to report possible theft of funds by Veterans Affairs employees from patients. … We’re going to continue to go where the facts take us and at the end figure out what it means,” Street said.
LaCerte, who served the agency under Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration between 2010 and 2015, could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Jarrett Ambeau, vehemently denied all the allegations and said the attack on his client’s military record was morally objectionable and easy to disprove.
“To have Mr. LaCerte’s public and military service questioned is deeply offensive, but to have it questioned in a public forum, with such reckless disregard for the facts, is absolutely deplorable,” Ambeau said. “A minimal amount of research would have confirmed Mr. LaCerte’s military record and avoided this grossly erroneous public attack.”
LaCerte’s biography on the Veterans Affairs and the Governor’s Office websites reported that LaCerte served in the Marine Corps infantry and “led over 100 combat patrols and missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan and also served as a member of interrogations teams for high-value Al Qaeda targets.”
To verify LaCerte’s record, investigators obtained a certificate of release from active duty called a DD 214, which showed that LaCerteserved only 99 days in the foreign service while at the rank of corporal.
“It appears to be an embellishment of his actual service,” Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said.
The report states that LaCerte, based on the claims in his résumé and biography, should have received a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal “if he indeed conducted the activities listed in his biography.” However, the report notes that no such medal is listed in his service record, and his record has no mention of interrogation training.
Ambeau noted that the award isn’t on the DD 214 because LaCerte ended his deployment in 2002 and the award wasn’t created until 2003 by an executive order of President George W. Bush.
Ambeau also maintained that it’s entirely possible for LaCerte to have led 100 combat missions in 99 days.
“It’s not an eight-hour, behind the desk job,” he said. “It’s 24 hours, seven days a week. That’s a lot of time to be on the ground. It’s very easy for him to accomplish that many missions.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards, himself a U.S. Army veteran, issued a statement admonishing the alleged misconduct that happened under LaCerte’s watch.
“I will not tolerate the kind of mismanagement that the previous leadership provided at the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs,” Edwards said. “It is a new day for veterans in Louisiana. These heroes deserve our lifelong respect and gratitude for their selfless service and the sacrifice they and their families made for our country.”
The audit also took issue with a payment of $44,128 to a former law school classmate for consulting and professional services without having a formal contract. The contractor was looking at the possibility of moving the veterans’ home in Jackson.
State law requires a valid contract for professional services for amounts exceeding $2,000 to be reviewed by the Office of Contractual Review.
Ambeau said he believes that law didn’t apply to LaCerte because he was a cabinet-level appointee.
The report also found that employees failed to disclose information of potential crimes against residents at three of the five War Veteran Homes.
In the first instance, LaCerte did not report an employee’s repeated theft of a veteran resident’s funds to law enforcement or the resident’s family in 2013. In another instance, during a death investigation of a resident, it was found that an employee failed to check on the resident after a fall. But the employee falsified the medical documents to show the resident had been checked on multiple times and was fine, the report said.
The report also states that employees at the War Veteran Homes deleted 116 incident reports, mostly related to falls. Of those, 82 had duplicate records that were still in the system but 34 did not.
Ambeau stated in a written response there was no theft, rather, the resident had authorized the use of his funds. However, he stated that the employee admitted it was a mistake, resigned and agreed to pay restitution to the family.
He also said the Veterans Affairs administration was authorized to delete the incident reports with errors, and that any abuses in the system were limited to a single nurse.
The report also said LaCerte used $27,560 in federal funds designated for the use of the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Cemetery in Slidell to buy a Ford Expedition that was used exclusively by administrative staff in Baton Rouge.
“An ongoing investigation revealed that the vehicle was never given to the cemetery or used for its intended purpose,” the report states. “Instead, the vehicle was kept at headquarters and used by headquarters staff to transport Mr. LaCerte to meetings and events.”
LaCerte already received a $500 monthly stipend for the use of his personal vehicle.
During a time when Jindal was cracking down on out-of-state travel for state employees, Veterans Affairs employees also spent $19,414 on travel that was either unauthorized or improperly documented. LaCerte took 11 trips over the time frame costing $14,431, of which 34 percent was found to be improperly reimbursed or authorized.
Ambeau called the allegations “political fiction.”
“The allegations contained therein are nothing more than baseless assertions designed solely to attack Mr. LaCerte and denigrate his honorable service to the veterans of the state of Louisiana.”
Mark Ballard, of the Capitol News Bureau, contributed to this report. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.