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Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Charlie Melancon.

HILARY SCHEINUK

State authorities are deep into a criminal investigation of officials at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, focused among other things on the potential misuse of government-issued credit cards and money from a BP grant. 

The probe was first reported last week by the political newsletter LaPolitics, which cited unnamed sources saying that a public report from the state inspector general and legislative auditor is expected “in the coming weeks” and that officials in the department would “be shocked” if there aren’t arrests.

LaPolitics said that at least two whistleblowers had come forward with distinct allegations and that investigators are probing how the department spent a $8.6 million seafood testing grant awarded by BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.

Authorities also are examining “contracts and possible nepotism,” as well as improper purchases of clothing and other personal items with state money, the newsletter reported.

Inspector General Stephen Street confirmed the probe in a telephone interview with The Advocate but said he could offer few details about its substance.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera confirmed he has a “multi-disciplinary team” of auditors on the job and said he expects a report within two months.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore confirmed to The Advocate that he had received a letter from Charlie Melancon, secretary of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, warning him that an investigation had uncovered possible criminal violations at the department. Moore said he wrote Melancon back seeking more information.

Moore said he could not provide copies of the letters to The Advocate because the investigation is ongoing. LaPolitics reported that Melancon’s letter said “there may have been misappropriation of public funds and assets by the previous administration of this agency.”

Purpera confirmed that the allegations being explored date from the previous gubernatorial administration. The department was headed by former state Sen. Robert Barham during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. Melancon, a former congressman, was appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Barham now works as assistant secretary of the Office of State Parks, which is under the umbrella of Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser's office.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Barham said he had been interviewed by auditors for about two hours, but not by investigators with the Office of Inspector General. He said the process was not unlike the audits the agency undergoes annually.

Among the questions he recalled auditors asking was why the department had purchased used boats in some cases instead of new ones. Barham said he did not typically get involved in such low-level decisions, as long as each section of the department stayed within its budget.  

Toby Gascon, Melancon’s chief of staff, said he couldn’t divulge much about the probe. But he said that upon taking office, Melancon ordered a full review of spending with state-billed credit cards.

Since then, he said, new “checks and balances” have been instituted to guard against improper purchases, and the number of credit cards issued to Wildlife and Fisheries employees has been cut by half.

Editor's note: This story was updated Aug. 10 to include comments from former Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @GordonRussell1.