A state district judge will rule next month on whether the two men in charge of Harvey Volunteer Fire District No. 2 stole public money by spending it lavishly on banquets and conferences and, in the case of one of the men, using it to buy personal items including pricey Oakley sunglasses painted in LSU colors and a genital enlargement device that he invoiced as a “hose coupling.”
Prosecutors with Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick’s office finished making their case last week that Chief Scott Berthelot and Deputy Chief Michael Reason knew they were misappropriating property tax revenue and conspired with each other to do so.
Reason also faces three counts of filing false public records because of the way he accounted for a trio of dubious purchases.
Attorneys for Berthelot and Reason countered that the money that comes in for Fire Protection District No. 6 — about $2.8 million per year — becomes private once it enters the fire company’s coffers. They said the money was all accounted for and spent according to the district’s bylaws, and the documents related to Reason’s purchases are not actually public records.
Both sides wrapped up their closing arguments last week, and 24th Judicial District Court Judge Glenn Ansardi said he will rule on the matter June 18.
The state’s case questioned more than $325,000 in spending between 2007 and 2012.
Prosecutors Cliff Milner and Michael Morales said $162,000 was spent over a four-year period on meals and entertainment alone, with $72,000 of the spending for meals involving purchases that exceeded the department’s allowable limit.
Defense attorneys argued that theft requires specific intent and that neither the parish nor the state Attorney General’s Office has told the company it spends its money improperly.
“They can’t be found guilty of spending money that they thought was appropriate to spend for recruitment and retention,” said Wiley Beevers, who is representing Berthelot.
Beevers pointed to testimony during the case that social functions play a key role in attracting and retaining volunteer firefighters.
He pointed to one of the dozens of checks included on the bill of information charging the two men, noting that it was used for “tools that were bought and put on a fire truck.”
“How in the world is that theft?” he asked.
Prosecutors, however, said the case is not about limiting the ability of volunteer fire departments to hold social functions to recruit new members. It’s about knowing “you shouldn’t spend $6,700 to send five people to a convention in downtown New Orleans,” Morales said.
“This is a classic misappropriation case,” Milner said.
Beevers chided the prosecution’s emphasis on purchases of ribeye steaks for department brass while the rank-and-file ate pot roast, as well as the pink color of the iPod that Berthelot bought for himself using the fire company’s now-discontinued incentive-points program.
He said the $600 watches bought by the department to honor volunteers for 20 years of service amounted to $30 a year, and he asked who would knowingly gather the beneficiaries of theft together, take their picture and send it to everyone.
“Is that theft?” Beevers asked. “Ask yourself what (Berthelot) converted and put in his pocket. Zero.”
Milner presented an ad the fire company put in The Times-Picayune newspaper in support of a 2009 millage renewal. Signed by Berthelot and Reason, the open letter to voters said the millage was for fire prevention and suppression services, to pay for training, wages, matching funds for retirement and renovations to an aging fire station.
“This was the public statement by Scott Berthelot and Michael Reason ... to taxpayers that this is what they were going to use the money for,” Milner said. “This case, Your Honor, is about a bait-and-switch.”
Milner said a charge of conspiracy requires only that two people worked together to break the law, which he said Berthelot and Reason did in their open letter to taxpayers, when Reason signed a contract with the parish to provide fire service, and when they made improper purchases and approved them.
Reason’s defense against the counts of falsifying a public record hinges on whether the documents are legally considered public record.
Prosecutors noted that the documents were handed over to comply with a public-records request, but Reason’s attorney said the department handed over everything it had in order to be cooperative and because it felt it had nothing to hide.
In addition to the $288 genital enlargement device, Reason purchased $147 in fungal ointment and billed it to the fire company as sponges and medical supplies. He billed the $290 Oakley sunglasses as fire goggles.
Reason contends he used the wrong credit card when he bought the penis pump, and his attorney, Chris Edwards, said fighting athlete’s foot and protecting one’s eyes while fighting fires are legitimate expenses, noting the definition of goggles as “protective glasses.”
Morales, however, said the fact that Reason deliberately billed the pump as a hose coupling undermined his excuse that he used the wrong credit card. He said Reason also knew the sunglasses weren’t a billable expense because he had been forced to reimburse the department for a pair of them three years earlier, which is why he billed them as “fire goggles” the next time.
“He clearly misstated what he purchased, and he misstated what he purchased on all three occasions,” he said, noting that Reason reimbursed the money for the fungal cream only after the investigation started.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.