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Darlene Landry, Assumption Parish Clerk of Court

Assumption Parish Clerk of Court Darlene Landry may have broken state ethics laws by granting file delivery contracts that paid her daughter and juvenile granddaughter nearly $10,250, but that the clerk said were necessary due to the huge amount of appellate filings from litigation over the 2012 Bayou Corne sinkhole, a new state investigative audit says.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office found Landry switched the contracts from her daughter to her granddaughter in January 2018 to avoid ethics prohibitions — and the state Ethics Boards agreed later the granddaughter could do the work — but auditors discovered the granddaughter's parents still did most of the deliveries though the youth was paid.  

In addition to the delivery contracts, state auditors found Landry may face more serious, criminal culpability for failing to turn over to the state treasury more than $26,750 in fees she collected for birth and death certificates over a 2½-year period, the audit says.

Lonny Cavalier, spokesman for Sheriff Leland Falcon, said the Assumption Parish Sheriff's Office received the audit over the weekend and already has transferred the report to its chief of detectives.

"We will actively investigate it," Cavalier said Tuesday. He added the detectives' findings will be brought to 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin.   

Responding to complaints from May and July, state auditors found that Landry stopped transferring to the state treasury its legally mandated $4 share of fees for death and long-form birth certificates starting in January 2015. Landry later told auditors the state never enforced the remittance payments, adding the state should bill her if it wants to be paid.

Through footnotes, the state audit specifically raises the prospect that Landry's actions with the fees could amount to malfeasance in office and misappropriation of state funds. 

In a statement, Landry says she only withheld the state treasury's share pending further clarification of the remittance requirement. She sent the $26,756 in fees to the state treasury in September after she got that clarification from her own auditors. 

During the time in question, Landry continued to send an additional share of the birth and death certificate fees that was due to the state Office of Vital Records, the audit says. 

Landry, a four-term Napoleonville Democrat who has worked in the clerk's office for 30 years, said she immediately responded to the auditors' concerns and apologized for "any unintended inconvenience these matters may have cause my employees, the litigants or the citizens of Assumption Parish." 

"Any decisions that I have made were for the betterment of the office," Landry said. An email to Landry's adult daughter, Jamie Delaughter, was not immediately returned Tuesday. 

The state Board of Ethics didn't immediately return a message for comment Tuesday about the file delivery contract, but, in the clerk's statement, Landry blames the voluminous Bayou Corne sinkhole filings for her decision to hire her family as couriers.

The sinkhole emerged in the Assumption Parish swamp due to a failed salt dome cavern, displacing dozens of homeowners in the Bayou Corne community, causing other damage and sparking a yearslong environmental response from the state and operator Texas Brine.

Many homeowner claims were settled in federal court. A number of other claims, including over pipelines destroyed by the sinkhole and state response costs, ended up remaining in state court in Assumption.

Landry said those suits, consisting of tens of thousands of pages, overwhelmed her small office in Napoleonville and produced an unprecedented number of appellate filings.

Litigants and the courts later complained about poor delivery services to the higher court. Files were late or damaged and had to be resent, Landry said.

Landry said she decided to hire a person she could trust, her daughter who lives in Baton Rouge, to handle the records after problems with the old shipping service.

Landry paid her a $25-per-box charge — less than what the courier was making — with advance fees from sinkhole litigants' attorneys. Landry said she believed — it turns out erroneously — that those fees weren't public dollars. 

Delaughter, the daughter, earned $1,200 from July to December 2017 to deliver files to the 1st Louisiana Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge, the audit says.

The Louisiana Code of Ethics bars government officials from contracting with or participating in transactions with immediate family members in which they have a substantial economic interest. Immediate family includes children, but not grandchildren.

Amid nepotism concerns about her daughter's contract, Landry told auditors, she ended that deal and hired her granddaughter in January 2018 at the same $25-per-box rate. In March, Landry also received an advisory opinion from the state Ethics Board saying the state code would not prohibit that agreement.

Landry's minor granddaughter, who is Delaughter's daughter, earned another $9,049 in fees and mileage for deliveries between January and August 2018, the audit says.

Yet, state auditors found that Landry's daughter and son-in-law continued to play an important role. Auditors found that the granddaughter rarely completed the job, picking up the files but most often leaving the appellate delivery, usually during school hours, to her parents.

Also, Landry herself also brought files to her home or to Gonzales to facilitate the deliveries and deposited about half of her granddaughters' payments into an account for which Landry was one of the signors and which Landry acknowledged she monitored.

Landry told auditors she never spent any of the delivery payments, but Landry's daughter and son-in-law said their daughter sometimes reimbursed them for purchases they had made.      

Landry said that she personally reimbursed the funds that went to her daughter and granddaughter and no delivery fees were charged to litigants. A new independent courier service has been delivering files since Aug. 30, 2018, the clerk said. 

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.