When St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain closed down a privately run Covington work-release program in March 2014 following a series of escapes, he said that unless he could assure the public that such incidents would stop, the facility would remain shuttered.
More than a year later, the program has not reopened. But Northshore Workforce LLC, which had deep ties to the sheriff, is fighting Strain’s decision.
The company, which built the facility where prisoners stayed and oversaw their employment, is trying to compel the sheriff to submit the issue to arbitration, as called for in a cooperative endeavor agreement between the company and the Sheriff’s Office.
The company filed a motion seeking arbitration in 22nd Judicial District Court in November, and Judge Peter Garcia granted it in January, at the same time denying motions by Strain to continue the matter or dismiss the request.
Gray Sexton, a lawyer who is representing the company, did not return a call for comment. Jimmy Laurent, one of the owners, said he could not comment because of ongoing litigation.
But Capt. George Bonnett, a Strain spokesman, said the case is still in the discovery phase and an arbitration date has not been set.
State Inspector General Stephen Street opened a probe of the program a month after it was closed down, sending a letter in April 2014 to both Northshore Workforce and the Sheriff’s Office that essentially instructed them to preserve all documents related to the program.
The investigation is still ongoing, Street said Tuesday.
The provision calling for arbitration is in the final paragraph of the seven-page cooperative endeavor agreement between Northshore Workforce and Strain. It calls for any dispute to be settled by three arbitrators, one chosen by each party and the third to be picked by the other two.
Things weren’t always so contentious between Strain and Northshore Workforce. In fact, when the program was launched in 2008, Strain contracted with Northshore Workforce to run the lucrative work-release program without seeking competitive bids. Marlin Peachey, one of the firm’s owners, was Strain’s longtime campaign manager.
Northshore soon was running one of the largest work-release programs in the state. Strain then privatized another work-release facility in Slidell that had been run by his office until then.
But The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV produced a series of critical stories that revealed problems with the Covington program, including allegations of lax oversight and other violations.
The coverage highlighted a number of troubling incidents, including three inmate deaths. Two of the deaths were linked to drug use, one at the facility and the other in a trailer kept on property belonging to one of the companies that used work-release inmates’ labor.
Another inmate was murdered while he was supposed to be on the job but in fact had gone to his house in New Orleans.
But it was the escapes that proved to be the facility’s undoing. There were nine in 2013, the highest number in the state. They included the case of Johnathan Leger, who was booked on two counts of armed robbery, aggravated battery and aggravated flight after he walked off his work-release job in October 2013. Police said he stabbed one of his victims in the neck with a box cutter.
That incident triggered a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office and Northshore Workforce by Mark Cole, who said that Leger hit him with a car during the escape.
Then, in 2014, there were three escapes in just a few weeks, including that of Christopher Ricker, who authorities said kidnapped his girlfriend and forced her to drive him to Hammond. He was caught in Tangipahoa Parish after an intensive manhunt.
Strain shut down the program the day Ricker left, moving the 148 inmates who were housed there to other facilities.
In an emotional news conference, Strain blamed what he called “reckless journalism” for emboldening inmates to flee. But his decision was ultimately based on keeping the public safe, he said at the time.
“As sheriff, my No. 1 priority is public safety,” he said. “And we’ve had, what, three incidents (involving Northshore Workforce) in the last few weeks. And I was convinced that if I couldn’t assure the public … or if I wasn’t assured that these incidents wouldn’t continue, I was not going to allow it to operate. And until I can be convinced as much as possible that we can protect the public, it’ll remain closed,” he said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.