Vacherie Volunteer Fire Department
Vacherie Volunteer Fire Department

The former president of the Vacherie Volunteer Fire Department used $56,500 in department money for personal purposes over a two-year period, a new investigative audit says.

Jacolby Octave deposited thousands of dollars in cash into his personal accounts, according to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office. They say he also used department funds to pay personal loans and phone bills and took reimbursements twice for the same unauthorized trip.

The department is funded through local property tax revenue, fundraisers and donations.

Octave, who was also a full-time emergency manager for the parish, may have violated state fraud, theft or malfeasance in office statutes with his handling of the volunteer fire department's money, according to the auditor's office.

The auditors say Octave shifted $58,916 in certificates of deposits to department accounts between May 5, 2017, and Nov. 18, 2018, though the fire board only authorized one of the seven transfers, for $9,989.

Then, without board approval, Octave issued or negotiated 37 checks totaling $54,006 that were made payable either directly to himself or to "cash," auditors said. Some of the checks had the signatures of other fire board members who disputed signing them, according to the audit report.

After cashing the checks, auditors said, Octave made simultaneous deposits into his personal accounts of some of the money.

Auditors also found that $2,494 in department funds were used to pay Octave's personal loan payments and AT&T bills through 13 electronic payments directly from the department account.

Louisiana State Police had notified the state auditors in December of questions that had surfaced regarding Octave's handling of the department money.

State Police said in a statement on Monday that they recently received the audit and have the matter "under review."

St. James Parish government officials said they turned over records after state auditors informed them about "potential irregularities" and said they terminated the employee in question — Octave — after receiving the auditors' findings.

"St. James Parish will be working with the various Fire Departments in reviewing present procedures and tighten control measures to avoid this from being repeated," the parish government said in a prepared statement. "St. James Parish will be consulting with our legal counsel to consider actions towards restitution.”

Amber Shepard, parish spokeswoman, said Octave had been with the parish a little more than a year. He was hired as an emergency preparedness planner in March 2018 after previously working part time for the Sheriff's Office, officials said. 

Vacherie fire officials say they have already taken several steps auditors recommended to avoid problems in the future.

Octave, who became president in March 2016, was removed March 18 after the state Auditor's Office began its investigation.

Octave initially told auditors some of the checks he cashed were used to pay undocumented workers who didn't want to go through the parish vendor process, the audit report says. But later told them the cash was being held at the fire department. 

He acknowledged that the deposits into his personal bank accounts "did not look good" but was adamant that they weren't department funds and denied using any of the department's money for personal use.

He said the money was for departmental expenses he was owed or went into his accounts because he was uncomfortable having that much department cash at the fire station.

Octave told auditors, "He wanted to run the Department the way that he wanted to run it, and he did not feel it was necessary to discuss things with the Board since he did the majority of the work for the Department," the audit says.

Under the fire board's policy at the time, expenditures of more than $500 needed board approval.

Octave's listed number rang unanswered Monday, and he hadn't responded to an automated voice message. 

The shift of certificates of deposit happened about a year and a half after the parish took over directly paying the fire department operating expenses, instead of reimbursing it as the parish had in the past. 

Octave maintained his own checkbook, although the department's bylaws require the board treasurer to have the department's only checkbook.

Auditors noted one instance on Nov. 20, 2018, in which Octave wrote an $8,709 department check for cash, with the note that it was going to an air-conditioner unit.

But the audit noted the bulk of that money, $8,000, was deposited in Octave's personal bank accounts on the same day he wrote the department check. Then five days later, Octave wrote a $5,000 check from his personal account for a down payment on a personal vehicle.

At the next fire board meeting, Octave told fellow board members that no checks had been issued from the department checking account and the balance had remained the same since the last meeting, the audit says. By the following February, parish government paid directly for new air-conditioning units for the department. 

Attempting to explain another $9,000 in checks, Octave said he routinely paid undocumented workers to wash fire trucks and make repairs. But about $4,575 was deposited as cash into his personal bank account on the same days he cashed those department checks, auditors found. 

Octave also wrote 11 checks for $8,760 for travel expenses, auditors wrote, although he was not approved to spend department money on travel and board members say that signatures on six of the checks were falsified.

The auditors also found parish government reimbursed Octave for some of those same trips. Auditors say he wrote himself four checks totaling $4,040 for a 2017 trip to the Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but also received $1,993 in reimbursement for trip expenses from the parish government. 

Octave told auditors the trip notes on the department checks were inaccurate.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.