Two St. John the Baptist Parish employees accused of faking chlorine-level tests, which would have found the presence of a potentially dangerous amoeba in the parish water supply, have been suspended without pay following their indictment Monday on charges of malfeasance in office and maintaining false public records.
Meanwhile, parish officials, with the help of a third-party consultant, have undertaken a rigorous treatment of the system for Water District No. 1 after the state Department of Health and Hospitals found indications that the amoeba was present in the water supply. The parish is now in week 6 of flushing the system with high levels of chlorine and testing the water at 70 sites. That will continue until Nov. 18. Thus far, the water has tested safe for drinking, bathing and cooking, officials said.
The water district serves about 12,500 people in Garyville, Mount Airy, Reserve and a small part of LaPlace.
“All vulnerabilities exposed during this event are being addressed through organizational, structural and personnel changes,” Parish President Natalie Robottom said Tuesday at a news conference.
The state Attorney General’s Office announced Monday that a St. John grand jury handed up indictments against Kevin Branch, 54, of LaPlace, and Danielle Roussel, 43, of Paulina, on charges of malfeasance in office and filing or maintaining public records.
According to the indictments, State Police investigators reviewed data from GPS systems in parish vehicles assigned to the two employees that found they often were nowhere near the testing sites when they should have been and that they later filled out bogus paperwork in an effort to hide their actions.
Branch has worked for the parish for more than 17 years, while Roussel has been employed with St. John for nine years. Both have been inspectors for three years, Robottom said.
Branch was out of jail Tuesday on a $40,000 bond, according to Sheriff’s Office records. Roussel was free on a $30,000 bond.
A statement from Nghana Lewis Gauff and David Belfield, the attorneys for Branch and Roussel respectively, said the investigation and subsequent indictment placed the blame on the wrong people.
“This case evidences the most egregious form of politics: Honest, hardworking parish employees at the lowest level of the totem pole have been scapegoated and blamed, because those sitting at the top of the totem pole failed to provide proper training and education on policies and procedures aimed at keeping the water supply of St. John the Baptist Parish safe for public use,” the statement said.
“The officials at the top of totem pole, in contrast, continue to work, continue to draw their paychecks, and continue to be able to provide for their families, while Mr. Branch and Ms. Roussel are deprived of these basic rights, despite not being found guilty of any wrongdoing.”
The statement says Branch and Roussel will “vigorously defend” themselves against the charges. “Mr. Branch and Ms. Roussel trust that the judicial process will work to demonstrate their innocence and vindicate their good names and reputations.”
Robottom said Branch and Roussel were properly trained, adding that an internal investigation mirrored the results of a State Police investigation into the incident that found reporting errors that led to the indictments. She said that report would not be released yet because the case remains opens.
A third-party consultant and parish officials continue to oversee the “chlorine burn” in which elevated levels of chemical are used to try to wipe out the amoeba, Robottom said.
Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.