SORRENTO — The Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office found no criminal intent in its investigation into the Sorrento Police Department but did turn up several deficiencies, Sheriff Jeff Wiley said Thursday.
Wiley said he concluded after the roughly two-month investigation that Sorrento is a “dysfunctional town” that needs to seriously consider whether it’s providing the proper services to its residents or if it needs to become part of the parish again, where it would receive coverage from the Sheriff’s Office and public works services from parish government.
Mayor Wilson Longanecker Jr. stopped short of saying he agreed with Wiley’s recommendation, but he did say the town has blown through almost all of its savings and might not be able to provide the goods and services that residents expect.
“The way this town’s going with this reckless spending, we can only go in the piggy bank so much and then the piggy bank’s dry,” the mayor said.
Wiley said the Sheriff’s Office was presented a “litany of allegations” against the Sorrento Police Department, including alleged payroll fraud, evidence mishandling and illegal use of department vehicles. Deputies didn’t find any criminal activity, the sheriff said.
The sheriff assigned two veteran supervisors to oversee the investigation, which Wiley said involved “multiple interviews and an extensive paper trail.” He said Sorrento officials, including Longanecker and police Chief Earl Theriot, were “very cooperative” with the investigation, and the Sheriff’s Office turned over its findings and recommendations to the District Attorney’s Office.
“I do concur with Sheriff Wiley’s conclusion,” 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin said via email. “There exists considerable deficits in the management of the department in the areas of personnel records, evidence gathering, storage and disposal. But no criminal wrongdoing was uncovered by the sheriff’s police investigation.”
Theriot was unavailable to comment on the investigation’s findings. Town Clerk Fern Barnett said Theriot had been out sick all week, and attempts to reach him by phone at his home were unsuccessful.
Longanecker, said he wasn’t surprised by the Sheriff’s Office’s conclusions about the Police Department. He believed what the investigation would turn up would be “minor infractions” but nothing criminal.
“The results came back pretty much how I thought they were going to come back,” Longanecker said.
During the course of the investigation, Wiley said, deputies discovered the source of the Sorrento Police Department’s problems — that it was “underfunded, understaffed and underled.” He said the department was lacking in resources, training and sufficient supervision.
However, he added, that doesn’t separate the Sorrento Police Department from any other one its size, as small law enforcement agencies typically fight uphill battles.
“You could go to virtually any small department in the river parishes and you would find the same thing,” Wiley said.
What the deputies didn’t find was “any willful dereliction” of duties, the sheriff said.
Wiley said he invited the Office of the State Inspector General to investigate the payroll fraud allegation, which found that five officers had been paid a total of $239 for working the same time for the Police Department and security at River Parishes Community College.
The problem, investigators concluded, came from how the Police Department handled its time sheets — with officers filling them out every two weeks or every month, rather than daily. Wiley said there was no evidence that the five officers committed anything other than “human error” on their time sheets.
In addition, Wiley said investigators found a trail of evidence being disposed of in a bayou rather than through proper protocol, “unfounded” allegations of harassment and excessive force, and a “bizarre and totally unsubstantiated” complaint that Theriot’s son broke into the department’s evidence room and stole guns.
“When you look at everything, nothing really stood out at you as some big unethical process or procedure,” Longanecker said. “I didn’t see anything.”
The mayor said his biggest complaint was the town spent approximately $35,000 on the investigation, which is roughly 10 percent of the town’s budget that isn’t already allocated to the Police Department. While he said it was good to get recommendations from the Sheriff’s Office on ways to improve the department, he doesn’t believe it was worth the cost.
“I don’t want to pay $35,000 for bad publicity,” Longanecker said. “That’s basically what we did.”