Grand Isle fire department spent public funds on unnecessary, possibly illegal purchases, IG report finds _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Jefferson parish Inspector General David McClintock.

The volunteer fire company protecting Grand Isle spent a significant chunk of its public funding from Jefferson Parish on things that had no valid purpose and were possibly illegal at times, according to a parish Inspector General’s Office report released Wednesday.

For instance, the fire company paid more than $46,000 to the president of its own board for contract work related to the 2010 BP oil spill, said the report from Inspector General David McClintock’s office, which examined a period from 2011 through 2013, when the agency operated on almost $2 million in parish property tax revenue. It also spent almost $1,000 on Halloween candy and paid for food and fuel bought by people not working for the fire company.

The audit could bring another round of public scrutiny to the town of Grand Isle, whose Police Department was raided earlier this month by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, which alleged the local cops were careless in safeguarding evidence and had interfered with deputies’ undercover narcotics investigations.

In response to the audit, Parish President Mike Yenni’s administration said it would seek to require all parish-funded fire companies to submit reports detailing how they are spending their millage money monthly, instead of annually, as has been the case since before Yenni took office in January.

McClintock’s report says executing such a plan would “result in a substantial step forward in the oversight of parish millage funds.”

Aubrey Chaisson, who is central to one of the more notable findings in the new report, is no longer the Grand Isle Volunteer Fire Company’s chief, having stepped down after being booked on misdemeanor marijuana possession during a Sheriff’s Office drug sting that ensnared 20 people in November 2014. Chaisson pleaded guilty in July under a law that would allow him to have his conviction expunged upon completing six months of probation.

The report says that for six months beginning Jan. 1, 2011, Chaisson hired the president of the fire company’s five-member board of directors, Chris Santiny, for $46,500 worth of “contract work associated with the BP spill.” That arrangement apparently was a conflict of interest, the report says.

Further, the report says, an unnamed former fire company employee falsified four timesheets related to the BP spill work and was paid $576 for 36 hours of labor not provided. Chaisson signed off on two of those timesheets.

Grand Isle audit

Other findings in the report include:

— The company annually averaged far more paid firefighters (25) for far fewer incidents (66) than most similar parish fire departments.

— The fire company spent almost $7,000 on things such as fuel, vehicle repairs and ambulance response books pertaining to the Grand Isle Volunteer Emergency Services agency, which receives its own millage funding. It spent nearly another $16,000 on groceries and cleaning supplies that benefited both the fire company and the emergency services agency, which once listed Joel Bradberry — Chaisson’s successor as fire company chief — as president, state records show. According to the report, state law requires that money from the fire company’s dedicated millage be used exclusively on the company — not shared with another agency.

— Almost $6,000 in fuel purchases are questionable, largely because related documentation did not say which vehicle or piece of equipment was involved.

— The report could not account for more than $242,500 worth of assets. One reason: Some assets were reported “destroyed” during Hurricane Gustav in 2008, but then records show they were put back into service after the storm.

— Almost $30,000 in grocery expenditures lacked the names and signatures of people either making or approving the purchases. They also lacked a stated public purpose.

— Almost $7,600 were spent on cellphone bills for people who were not firefighters, on cellphone accounts with unidentified users, and purchasing cellphones with no documented public purpose. The fire company no longer pays staffers’ cellphone bills.

— The fire company paid $6,540 for 15 rooms at a hotel off Grand Isle during Hurricane Isaac in 2012 without documenting who stayed in the rooms or whether they were actually used. The company ultimately covered a $505 hotel stay for a non-employee.

— More than $1,700 in other expenditures might be “gratuitous” and therefore violations of state law: $958 used to buy Halloween candy for children, $750 for two unspecified donations and $29 for milk bought for students.

— Other questionable payments: a $200 check written to cash for a boat repair that had no documentation attached to it; $50 per diems each for four firefighters and one board member to attend a funeral not related to firefighting or training; and $339 spent on food and fuel charged by non-employees.

Additionally, outside the audited period, McClintock’s office noted that non-employees charged more than $3,500 worth of groceries to the fire company.

Most of the inspector general’s recommendations to the fire company deal with doing a better job of documenting the purpose of fuel and grocery purchases as well as limiting the number of people authorized to buy them. McClintock’s office also reminded the fire company to avoid conflicts of interest.

The fire company did not formally respond to the report’s findings, even after participating in an exit conference with McClintock’s office. The fire company on Wednesday did not immediately answer a request for comment.

In the report, McClintock’s office said it “is concerned that (the fire company) chose not to respond to the audit” and that the “failure to engage publicly in finding solutions is inconsistent with the obligation of entities that receive public funds.”