Three hope to unseat first-term St. John Parish sheriff _lowres

Mike Tregre

St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre solicited a legal opinion from the State Police and also paid an investigative consulting firm to review the making of a 2012 memo outlining minimum arrest totals for his narcotics enforcement team.

The Oct. 2, 2012, memo from Maj. Walter Chappel, on Sheriff’s Office letterhead, laid out minimum monthly responsibilities in the unit: “six felony arrests (excluding drug paraphernalia),” two search warrants and two new monthly informants on each deputy’s books.

Tregre has said he was unaware of the memo’s existence until a New Orleans Advocate story about it in December. As such, he has said, the memo was never office policy and therefore did not constitute an illegal quota under state law.

Nearly the entire unit has been turned over since earlier last year, with Chappel removed from its oversight.

State Police reviewed the case to see if the memo involved any criminal law violations. In a Feb. 18 letter to Tregre, State Police Capt. Kevin Devall recounted a Jan. 21 meeting with the sheriff and District Attorney Brigid Dinvaut regarding the alleged quotas.

“As a result of the meeting and having reviewed all the information made available to me, I have determined that there is no criminal violation of state law, and therefore no formal investigation is warranted,” wrote Devall, commander of criminal investigations for Region I of the State Police.

State Police spokesman Sgt. Nick Manale said Friday the investigation found the allegations to be “administrative in nature, not criminal. The issue was turned back to the Sheriff’s Office for their further review.”

That conclusion and a separate review of what Chappel and some deputies in the unit thought of the memo are contained in court papers filed in response to legal challenges to some of the unit’s drug arrests.

Attorneys for Tregre’s office argued in a recent court filing that the report Tregre requested from Slidell-based J.S. Investigations — registered with the state by Joseph and Melanie Schembre — amounted to a full investigation of the memo.

“The investigation found that no member of the narcotics unit met the minimum number of monthly felony arrests stated on the memo,” the filing said, “and no narcotics agent was disciplined for not obtaining these numerical ‘goals and objectives.’ ”

Therefore, any conclusion that “a quota was imposed” by the memo is unfounded, wrote Jonathan Brehm, an attorney for the sheriff with the Butler Law Firm.

Tregre’s office is seeking to beat back subpoena requests for monthly arrest and informant data — including names — for anyone who has been in the unit since the memo was written.

Tregre did not respond to interview requests last week. His claim that the outside firm’s report and the State Police review cleared his office of any wrongdoing in connection with the memo was first reported last week in the local L’Observateur newspaper.

J.S. Investigations reviewed personnel records and arrest statistics in the narcotics unit for the six months after the Chappel memo. It also interviewed a handful of those involved, aiming to determine “the facts and circumstances” behind the memo’s creation and the need for possible recommendations to “prevent any future incidents.”

The six-page report said Chappel was not aware when he wrote the memo that state law bars local police and sheriffs from creating, “formally or informally, a plan to evaluate, promote, compensate or discipline a law enforcement officer on the basis of the officer making a predetermined or specified number of any type or combination of types of arrests,” or even to “suggest” it as a requirement of the job.

Chappel, who took over the narcotics unit in 2012 after leaving the Sheriff’s Office in 2008 after 19 years, said he returned to find a lethargic, reactive group of detectives who favored sitting at desks.

“Major Chappel added when he took over the unit, it was like a hostile takeover. The unit was waiting around the office to respond to incidents,” the report said.

Chappel said he discussed the proposed numbers with the unit and received no questions about them. He also said he “did not use the goals and objectives to take any action, positive or negative, against any of his subordinates,” according to the report.

Yet the memo ended up in the personnel file of Hardy Schexnayder, a narcotics unit deputy who was in the middle of cross-allegations by himself and two other deputies in the unit over the beating of a drug arrestee. Schexnayder and former Deputy Travis Thomas were cleared in a federal civil trial last year, shortly before Chappel’s memo turned up in court papers.

A Sheriff’s Office lieutenant, Richard Dubus Jr., offered a different account from Chappel’s, according to the report.

Dubus, who said Chappel never told him about the memo, said he met afterward with three deputies who “wanted to know if it was legal and if not meeting the goals and objectives set forth in the memo would be held against them in any way,” the report states.

Dubus said he went to Chappel along with current narcotics unit supervisor Lt. Tanner Mangano and former narcotics Deputy Ed Howell to discuss their concerns. Howell, the report says, “was told if he did not like the memo he could put in for a transfer.”

Chappel denies any private meeting with the three deputies and said “no one approached him” after he issued the memo.

Mangano also denied recollection of such a meeting and said he’d forgotten about the memo, the report said. Mangano said he held a meeting with narcotics deputies after the memo surfaced in December, telling them there are no quotas.

The report added up the monthly arrest totals toward the end of 2012 — the three months following the memo — and found none of eight agents credited with arrests had made the monthly target of six. “No narcotics agent was disciplined for not obtaining numerical goals,” it said.

The report’s findings “do not support a violation” of the state law against arrest quotas, it found.

A pair of defense attorneys described as farcical any claim that the State Police report and the private investigators’ report clear Tregre’s office of an illegal quota plan.

For one thing, they argued, J.S. Investigations didn’t interview every detective in the unit — in particular, not Schexnayder, Thomas or former detective Justin Bordelon.

The allegations by the other two deputies against Bordelon, that he beat an arrestee bloody, were chalked up by a Sheriff’s Office investigator to jealousy over Bordelon’s stellar arrest statistics.

Nor did the J.S. Investigations report address possible civil rights violations, the lawyers said.

“We know it was, in fact, a quota policy. There’s no debating that on its face. There’s a quota policy that’s established,” said attorney Nghana Lewis Gauff, who said she represents eight clients arrested by narcotics agents in St. John Parish.

“In terms of whether or not it was ever operationalized, their investigation relies upon insufficient evidence. It seems deliberate,” she said.

She said every deputy in the narcotics division “who would have been impacted by the policy needed to have been interviewed,” and that the arrest figures cited by the consultant don’t jibe with other public records regarding deputies’ drug arrests.

“I’m not even going to sit down at the table to have a conversation about this finding,” she said.

Another defense attorney, David Belfield, called for a federal review of the St. John Sheriff’s Office’s policy.

Tregre and other deputies answering questions from a hired firm “and them answering questions from a federal agent are two different things,” Belfield said. “I’d like Mr. Chappel and those officers to answer questions from a federal agent, so if they’re lying they’ll be able to be dealt with accordingly.”

Belfield insisted that the four-year-old memo constituted a federal civil rights violation and the private firm’s report was an attempt to defend the office against legal claims.

“They talk to three officers and conclude nothing was done wrong. Why would you even have the (memo) on your letterhead, in the files of your office, and you claim you don’t know anything about it?” Belfield said, in a reference to Tregre. “I was born at night, but I wasn’t born last night.”

Thus far, however, defense attorneys have gained little traction in trying to use the memo to help their clients.

In a ruling last month, 40th Judicial District Judge J. Sterling Snowdy took a dim view of the evidence of an illegal quota system as he barred defense attorneys from raising the issue before a jury.

The case involved an October 2014 drug arrest, and Snowdy found the arrest came too long after Chappel’s memo, which called for a boost in arrest numbers through the end of 2012, to make the memo relevant.

The evidence, Snowdy found, “fails to establish recent, non-collateral (and therefore relevant) existence of such a practice.”

Tregre transferred Chappel from the narcotics unit along with several deputies who were removed a year after the infighting over the alleged beating, and prior to the memo turning up in news accounts.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.