Pearl River Mayor James Lavigne and two other town officials were called out by the state legislative auditor Monday for allegedly using public resources for personal gain.
The report prompted the six-term mayor to issue a defiant response that called the audit a political attack.
Lavigne, Town Clerk Diane Bennett and Police Chief Bennie Raynor were singled out in the report, which looked at spending from December 2011 to July 2013.
Auditors detailed problems in 10 areas, including using public money to buy equipment for private use, using town funds to buy items in an effort to dodge paying state sales taxes and using employee labor to do private work on public time.
The report also pointed to eight extra payroll checks issued to Bennett from March 30, 2012, to Aug. 30, 2013, that totaled nearly $8,000. She was allowed to cash in unused vacation time, which the audit said violates a town ordinance as well as state law. Records show instances where she was absent from work but no leave was deducted, and cases in which she was paid extra money for meetings, including some that were held during regular business hours.
Bennett wasn’t the only town employee who received compensation that auditors questioned: Nearly $30,000 in Christmas bonuses went to employees and officials, an improper expenditure that the audit said was falsely recorded in budgets and financial statements as clothing allowances.
Lavigne responded to the audit with a hotly worded 10-page letter, much of it a defense of Pearl River itself — which he called the most progressive town in St. Tammany Parish. He also trumpeted his public service, saying he is on duty “24/7/365 1/4.”
He attacked Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, the activist group whose complaints prompted the audit, and Pearl River Councilwoman Katherine Walsh, who he says wants to be mayor.
“I may not be best record-keeper in the world. I am a better welder, inspector, town crew manager and forward-looking town leader,” he said, while promising to do a better job of turning in receipts.
Lavigne made 106 charges totaling $18,293 on his town credit card, but the town lacked documentation to back up 101 of them, totaling $13,036.
Lavigne and Raynor spent $6,495 on equipment that auditors said appeared to be for personal purposes, including a residential generator the audit said was never used by the town.
The mayor also paid $816 for a 10-foot boat and boating accessories, which he claims were for the Sewer and Water Department. The department supervisor told auditors that the boat, which is registered in Lavigne’s name, was never used by the town.
Lavigne and Bennett spent $5,215 and $1,046, respectively, on purchases for which they later reimbursed the town in what the report said they admitted was an effort to dodge state sales taxes. The mayor spent $150 on a ring at Sears and $896 on a washer and dryer at Home Depot, but it took him 56 days and 86 days, respectively, to reimburse the town.
“According to town administrative employees, these reimbursements were not initiated by Mayor Lavigne,” the audit said. Instead, the reimbursements came after employees questioned the purchases.
Bennett and Lavigne told auditors the Board of Aldermen passed a resolution allowing town employes and officials to purchase items through the town and then reimburse it for the amount spent. But Bennett couldn’t provide auditors with a copy of it. The town attorney said he didn’t know of such a resolution and that such a policy would be a violation of state law.
The audit also pointed to use of on-duty town employees to do work for both the mayor and clerk, including picking up building supply purchases for Bennett and making trips to pick up garbage from the mayor’s house and deposit it in a Dumpster by Town Hall because the mayor didn’t pay for garbage pickup.
Auditors also pointed out the town didn’t report additional compensation for Bennett or Lavigne — including Christmas bonuses and retirement allowances — to the Internal Revenue Service but instead processed them as if the two were contractors, which meant taxes and other required withholdings were not deducted. In two cases, retirement allowance payments were made to Lavigne before they were due, the report said, and Bennett also appears to have been given an advance payment.
The mayor’s use of a public vehicle also was not reported to the IRS as a fringe benefit. As for the car itself, Lavigne bought a new Dodge Ram truck in 2013 and turned it in for another vehicle a week later because he didn’t like it, costing the town more than $8,000. Pearl River didn’t comply with public bid law in the purchase of either vehicle, the report said.
Raynor, who has been police chief since 1982, was criticized for a potential violation of state ethics law because the Police Department bought an off-road vehicle for $4,200 from the chief’s stepson, Jody Miller. The audit notes that the vehicle was registered to Raynor.
In a separate response, the chief said he had first sold the four-wheeler to his stepson but Miller decided he didn’t want it. He didn’t change the registration because Miller was still paying him for the vehicle, he said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.