Tammany sheriff to bring work-release program in-house on July 1 _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD –Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith, photographed Thursday, May 12, 2016, at his office. Smith will be sworn in as St. Tammany Parish Sheriff on July 1.

When Randy Smith takes the oath of office as St. Tammany Parish sheriff on July 1, a new regime also will be ushered in at the Slidell work-release facility that was privatized three years ago under Smith’s predecessor, Jack Strain.

St. Tammany Parish Workforce Solutions’ contract ends June 30, and Allen Tingle, one of the owners, turned down an offer from Smith to stay on as operator for a transitional period of a few months.

Smith, who promised in his campaign to bring the work-release program back in-house, said his reason for offering a limited extension to the current operators was to avoid any disruption for the local businesses who employ inmates in the program.

The program enables convicts nearing the end of incarceration to work at jobs in the community during the day and to sleep at the work-release facility — essentially a low-security prison — by night. About 150 inmates are currently housed at the facility on Production Drive.

Smith and the warden and assistant warden of the St. Tammany Parish Jail toured the facility Wednesday, in part to get a handle on what equipment belongs to the Sheriff’s Office, what belongs to the operators and what the office will have to replace.

Smith said he is happy with the condition in which he found the facility, which is owned by the Sheriff’s Office and had been rented by Tingle’s private firm. The sheriff said he plans to keep some of Tingle’s employees on initially and that it’s possible some will be asked to stay on permanently.

A supervisor with the Sheriff’s Office will be in charge of the facility, Smith said, but he has not yet named that person.

Tingle said he is proud of the job he’s done with the facility, which he called the “best halfway house in the state.” He chose not to stay on an interim basis, he said, in part because of a clause Smith wanted to include that said the company could be terminated at any time. Tingle said he didn’t see the need for that.

Had Smith chosen to keep him, Tingle said, “I’d have made him look as good as I made the last sheriff.” But he added that he’s ending on a “good note and not a sour note.”

Strain’s work-release programs generated some controversy toward the end of his 20-year tenure. But most of it involved the Covington work-release program, which was dogged by a series of escapes and lax oversight that were exposed in a series of stories by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV.

The problems prompted Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc to call the Covington program “an embarrassment,” and Strain closed it down two years ago. The state’s Inspector General’s Office, which investigates corruption, opened an investigation, one that apparently is still going on.

The Covington facility had been run by Northshore Workforce LLC, a firm started in 2008 by a group that included Strain’s longtime campaign treasurer, Marlin Peachey. That firm, as well as Tingle’s, won their deals through no-bid contracts.

Northshore Workforce filed a motion last year seeking to force the sheriff into arbitration, citing a paragraph in its cooperative endeavor agreement with the Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman George Bonnett said a judge ruled Thursday in favor of the sheriff, ending the issue.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.