Capitol file

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- File photo, Louisiana Capitol

A former mechanic working in St. James Parish's public transit and elderly services programs is accused of ordering thousands of dollars in auto and boats parts for his personal vehicles, charging the purchases to the parish government. 

State auditors say Klay Becnel appears to have used false requisition forms to buy $11,053 in such parts over a nearly three-year period using parish money.

According to a newly public state investigative audit, the parts didn't fit vehicles in the parish programs for which Becnel was supposedly ordering them.

Col. Sid Berthelot, chief deputy for the St. James Parish Sheriff's Office, said Tuesday that detectives are investigating the allegations in the audit report.

St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said Tuesday Becnel was terminated in March after the initial discovery of the discrepancies, which the parish reported to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office.

Auditors reported their findings Aug. 14.

The audit is the second in a week to uncover alleged misappropriation of public funds by someone affiliated with St. James Parish government.

On Aug. 7, state auditors found the former president of the Vacherie Volunteer Fire Department used $56,500 in department money for personal use. State Police say they have that audit "under review."

Working telephone numbers are no longer listed for Becnel at home or at the location of an automotive shop in Vacherie associated with him. It's not clear if that business is still open, but a trade name registered to shop has been inactive since mid-2016, online records say.

Becnel, who did not respond to an attempt to reach him through social media by deadline Tuesday, admitted to auditors that he ordered  some parts for his personal use but also suggested that others also had the ability to order auto parts.

Roussel said Tuesday that the parish and state did not find involvement by any other parish employees. 

St. James Parish Transit provides weekday transit service for people to work, school, medical facilities and other destinations. The cost per ride is $1 for the general public and 50 cents for the elderly and disabled. 

Costs not covered by rider fares are covered by federal highway grant money, funneled through the state Department of Transportation and Development, and by parish dollars.

The parish also uses vans and meal trucks to deliver food and other services to the elderly through another parish program. Becnel maintained vehicles for both programs, the state audit says. 

Parish officials told auditors they are trying to determine if Becnel also submitted expenses to DOTD that went to his personal use. The parish would have to pay DOTD back for any money that had been misspent. 

In late February 2019, parish government auditors uncovered discrepancies in auto parts orders, finding then that Becnel had ordered $2,181 in parts from a store in Reserve between January 2018 and January 2019 that didn't fit parish vehicles.

"Parish officials confronted Mr. Becnel regarding the use of Parish funds to purchase parts for vehicles not related to the Parish fleet," the state investigative audit says. "According to Parish records, Mr. Becnel did not respond and shrugged his shoulders."

Becnel ended up signing a letter on March 3 agreeing to pay back the full amount from his last paycheck after his termination.

But state auditors then looked at the prior two years, back to March 2016, and found additional purchases for parts that did not fit parish vehicles. 

In his response to auditors, Becnel "told us he purchased parts through the Parish for his personal vehicles" but had paid the parish back when he was terminated, the state report says. 

When auditors pointed out they had found far more purchases than those, "Mr. Becnel stated that he was not the only person who could order parts."

Auditors said they checked with Becnel's helper, who said he never ordered parts from the store in Reserve, but would, on occasion, go to the store and buy parts that Becnel wanted. 

A store employee confirmed the helper's statement, auditors said. 

Becnel told auditors that "he may have ordered parts for vehicles he worked on at his home, but could not recall," the investigative report says.

"He also told us he did some things wrong, admitted to it, and was fired for it, and is now trying to move on," the audit says.

In a statement, parish government officials  said they are looking at measures to minimize unauthorized purchases and at ways to get restitution.

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