The executive director of the Louisiana State Police Commission abruptly resigned Thursday, convinced the commission's board was about to fire her for helping to facilitate an investigation into illegal campaign contributions by board members and others.
The unexpected move followed months of souring relations between the commission — the civil service board for state troopers — and Cathy Derbonne, who served as the body's chief administrator for eight years.
Five minutes before the commission's monthly meeting, Derbonne dashed off a resignation letter that said the "time has come for me to move on and pursue career and educational goals."
But Derbonne later told The Advocate that she had fallen out of favor with the commission after months of turmoil, including a controversy last year that led to the ouster of three board members who made improper political contributions.
Derbonne said she believed a narrow majority of commission members intended to vote for her termination, adding that she felt intimidated from the moment she walked into the room where Thursday's meeting was held.
The commission did not publicly spell out a rationale for scheduling an executive session to discuss Derbonne's "professional competence," followed by a separate agenda item to publicly weigh her termination. But Derbonne said she expected some board members to accuse her of misrepresenting the commission's budgetary needs to a legislative committee.
In a lengthy interview, Derbonne said she also received an anonymous letter this week warning her of "an emerging plot" to remove her from office. The letter said that while a "vast number of troopers" welcomed her oversight, the senior command at the State Police was upset that she wouldn't "rubber-stamp their desires."
The commission hears complaints from rank-and-file troopers and has final authority over the State Police Service.
"I didn't want to resign, but I didn't want to be tainted either," Derbonne said in the interview. "Resigning today was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, because my passion is law enforcement."
The commission's chairman, Trooper Thomas "T.J." Doss, refused to comment on Derbonne's resignation at Thursday's meeting and would not even discuss the procedure for naming her replacement.
Not all of the commission members welcomed Derbonne's departure, and two of them, Calvin W. Braxton and Jared Caruso-Riecke, voted to reject her resignation.
W. Lloyd Grafton, a commission member who missed Thursday's meeting because he was testifying at a trial in Shreveport, said the Louisiana State Troopers Association had been "very unhappy" with Derbonne's handling of the political contributions scandal.
The troopers association — a group made up of current troopers who pay dues, along with a substantial number of retired troopers — was accused by whistle-blowers of using its executive director, David Young, as a straw donor to give thousands of dollars to seven political candidates and the House Democratic Campaign Committee. Three members of the State Police Commission also were accused of making improper campaign contributions.
As executive director of the State Police Commission, Derbonne hired an outside attorney, Taylor Townsend, a former state lawmaker from Natchitoches, to investigate the claims, and she reported the allegations to the Louisiana Board of Ethics and Gov. John Bel Edwards' office.
"She did exactly what the regulations required her to," said Grafton, the commission's longest-serving member. "But from that point forward, the people that were put on the board tended to align themselves with the State Police.
"The purpose of the State Police Commission is to be a civil service board and to follow policy and procedure," he added. "We're not there as just cheerleaders for the State Police, but my personal feelings are that we have members who look at the State Police and see themselves as the cheerleaders rather than the civil service board."
Derbonne alleged that State Police brass have sought to subvert her autonomy over the years. As a result, she said, she worries about the fate of rank-and-file state troopers, "who need to know that civil service is actually impartial, and that we're compliant with the constitution."
"That's not what's happening," Derbonne said. The State Police "have their own rules."
Maj. Doug Cain, a State Police spokesman, denied Derbonne's claims, saying the Louisiana State Police Commission is "a completely independent agency."
"State Police has no role in the management of that commission," Cain said, adding that the State Police also do not select the commission's members.
It was not clear Thursday when Derbonne's successor would be named. She said that, under the commission's bylaws, the board's members must select an interim executive director and then a permanent replacement.