In the race to replace four-term Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom, past controversies have come back to haunt three of the four candidates in the campaign’s contentious final stretch.
For Rick Chargois, it’s a personal financial history that includes bankruptcy filings related in part to his wife’s two-year imprisonment for embezzling money from a local casino. Meanwhile, a document showing Chad Leger failed a promotional exam at the Sheriff’s Office came to light, as did audio recordings depicting his questionable attitude toward female officers. And Mark Garber has had to defend his role in an Arlington, Texas, police officer’s death during a weapons training exercise, along with his profession as a worker’s compensation attorney that serves Spanish-speaking clients.
The information has been spread via news outlets, websites and social media as the hard-fought campaign has played out over the past nine months. The only candidate who seems to have come out unscathed is John Rogers, who has raised the least amount of money among the candidates and is running what he describes as a “grass-roots” campaign.
“I’m just hoping the people look at that and say, ‘You know what? This is Washington politics and this is not what we want.’ And I hope it has a positive effect on my campaign,” said Rogers, a litigation specialist for Neustrom’s office.
Questions have risen about Chargois’ personal financial history, one blighted by his wife’s two-year imprisonment and the subsequent restitution costs for embezzling money from the Acadia Parish casino where she worked.
Chargois had just retired from State Police when his wife was implicated in the crimes. After paying his wife’s restitution costs and suffering financially when his private security business went under about the same time, his wife was diagnosed with a serious illness.
“It did cause us a lot of financial difficulty,” Chargois said.
Chargois and his wife have since filed for bankruptcy. They were subject to about $130,000 in tax liens, some associated with Chargois’ ventures in the private security sector, according to public records.
“The tax issues are there. And I’m working those out. They’re going to be cleared up. They’re going to be taken care of,” Chargois said. “This is my personal life. My professional life is just about unblemished.”
As of Tuesday, Chargois was listed on the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program’s website as failing to file his personal finance disclosure form. Chargois said he was unaware he was on that list but could not confirm with his accountant why the form had not been filed. He said he suspects there were technical issues with his filing.
KATC-TV also obtained Chargois’ State Police internal affairs records and reported he was disciplined for renewing the permit of a business whose owner was facing felony drug distribution charges, and then lost documents associated with the case.
“The business had a standing license already. We held that the investigation and the court process needed to go through because he had not been convicted yet,” Chargois said, adding that the files were lost in an administrative error.
“And it was in my fault because it was in my section,” Chargois said.
Attempts to discredit Leger have mostly appeared through a fake news website called “The Scott Times,” a pro-Garber site that popped up last month with an article showing Leger failed the Sheriff’s Office exam that would have allowed him promotion to sergeant — the first of several posts that criticize Leger and support Garber. One recording posted on the site shows Leger telling a female officer to “nut up or shut up.”
Leger said he has not visited the website, that he questions the validity of the Sheriff’s Office document revealing he failed his sergeant’s exam and said he had not heard the recordings and therefore had no comment on them.
“This website is not an official website, so I try not to go to it because of the lies and the way that it is misportraying our city and miscrediting our city as a website for our city,” Leger said.
Garber’s time working in Arlington, Texas, has come under scrutiny as well because an officer was shot and killed in 2001 during a weapons training exercise he was supervising.
Garber said he left another senior officer in charge of the exercise while he left to participate in a drug bust. The stand-in supervisor then allowed a corporal to pose as the target for a simulated shooting, in a departure from protocol that led to the man’s death when the supervisor used his service weapon to demonstrate, Garber said.
“I accept responsibility. I think about it all the time. It shaped me into the leader and the police officer I am today,” Garber said.
As discipline, Garber was offered either a 20-day suspension — on the condition he admit to guilt and responsibility in the corporal’s death — or he would be demoted. He chose the latter and filed a lawsuit. It alleged the discipline was racially motived, as the chief was black and the officer who abandoned protocol was black — but that officer received no discipline in the matter.
Garber said he didn’t intend to file the suit with racial motivation, but rather to tell his story, and his attorneys went with the racial aspect in the lawsuit.
“For me it was about telling a story. For them, it was about a case,” Garber said.
Garber’s job as a worker’s compensation attorney has also come under fire, after a sitting public official unearthed a 2013 news clip of him speaking to a Honduran news station about workers rights.
First-term Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope held a news conference in early October, in his official capacity, to criticize Garber’s appearance in the broadcast, suggesting he was encouraging illegal immigrants to come to Louisiana to file claims.
Garber said he traveled to Honduras to set up a trust for the daughters of a Honduran native, who died while on the job in Louisiana and whose family he represented after his death.
“The news media caught wind of it and they did a human interest story on it. I’m pretty proud of what I said. I said, ‘Tell the truth, don’t use drugs and you’re not going to be retaliated against by the federal government for filing a worker’s comp claim,’ ” Garber said.
Pope — who’s endorsed Leger and has publicly supported him since he announced his candidacy — also used his platform during the news conference to raise concerns over the Sheriff’s Office’s current policy on federal immigration enforcement.
Leger denies his campaign played a part in planning Pope’s news conference but he’s since made the immigration policy a central focus in the final days of campaigning.
He noted that the U.S. Center of Immigration Studies, a nonprofit group that advocates for tough restrictions on immigration, has called Lafayette Parish a “sanctuary city.”
The phrase is used by critics of the nation’s immigration enforcement policies to describe a local government that won’t honor federal requests to detain, without probable cause, people believed to be in the country illegally.
Lafayette Parish is among more than 300 local governments across the country that have quit honoring federal detainer requests, according to the U.S. Center of Immigration Studies.
Neustrom’s administration put the policy in effect in September 2014, after courts in other jurisdictions ruled the federal detainer documents are not legally binding and do not count as probable cause for holding an individual, thus opening agencies up for civil rights lawsuits on the public’s dime, Lafayette Parish Corrections Director Rob Reardon said.
The agency now only detains individuals with a court order signed by a judge, Reardon said. Reardon has been openly supporting Garber, as has Neustrom, who endorsed the candidate.
Garber and Leger have been the two top money raisers in the campaign for sheriff.
Garber’s campaign raised $414,000 in contributions, not counting the $337,000 of his personal money loaned to the campaign, which is about what he’s got left over; and more than $401,000 solely in contributions have gone to Leger, with about $96,000 left over.
That compares with about $73,000 raised by Chargois, who had about $7,000 left over at the close of the last reporting period. The figure does not include a $50,000 loan he made to his campaign.
Rogers brought in about $50,000, with $735 on hand at the close of the last reporting period.
The primary election is scheduled for Saturday.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.