Hammond voters wanted to put a man convicted of theft and tax evasion back on the Tangipahoa Parish School Board, but a state court judge on Friday decided that can’t happen.
Eric Dangerfield will not be allowed to take the oath of office in January for the seat he vacated in July as part of a plea deal. But on Nov. 4, he ran for the office again and got 64.8 percent of the vote. The School Board now will have to call a special election — at an estimated cost of $12,500 — to fill the vacancy.
Dangerfield and his wife, Cassandra, also must make “good faith efforts” over the next 90 days to pay down their $3.5 million in court-ordered restitution, fines and costs, or else go to jail, Judge Mike Erwin, of the 19th Judicial District Court, said Friday.
But Erwin said he doesn’t expect the couple to avoid jail forever, noting that the Dangerfields are unlikely to ever pay the full $3.5 million.
Erwin ordered the couple to return to court March 17 with evidence they are complying with their plea agreement. But the judge said giving them another 90 days to start making “good faith” payments “won’t make any difference” in whether they’ll actually do so.
The Dangerfields’ attorney, Lance Unglesby said, “Maybe they’ll surprise you, your honor.”
“We’ll see,” Erwin replied.
The judge also ordered Eric Dangerfield to resign from the School Board — permanently.
The Dangerfields received suspended prison sentences in May after pleading guilty in a Medicaid fraud case tied to their personal care business, 1st Thessalonians Community Programs in Hammond.
But the state Attorney General’s Office sought revocation of the couple’s probations in July, saying the Dangerfields had paid only about $200 in restitution and had failed to forfeit the four luxury cars, shopping center and Washington Avenue home required under their plea deal.
Unglesby asked Erwin for three months to allow his clients — who he said were living on food stamps and couldn’t find jobs — time to “get back on their feet.”
Assistant Attorney General Kathleen Petersen said the couple could have taken a number of steps to show their willingness to comply with the deal they signed. Instead, they continued to drive at least two of the vehicles, refused to put the home — owned by Eric Dangerfield’s deceased parents — into probate, and continued to pay $1,500 per month in rent for their now-defunct business, Petersen said.
“They really have done nothing, and they’ve paid us about as much as you’d pay on a speeding ticket,” Petersen said.
As part of their plea deal, the Dangerfields agreed to be barred for life from owning or working for any entity that receives Medicaid or Medicare funding, “such as school systems.” Eric Dangerfield also agreed to resign from the School Board, which he did on July 15, one month before he qualified to run for the same seat.
“The intent was that he not be on the School Board anymore,” Erwin said. “And he was also not to have anything to do with Medicaid money, which the schools receive.”
Petersen said state law makes it a crime for someone excluded from participating in Medicaid programs to work for or receive compensation from an entity that receives Medicaid funding.
The Tangipahoa Parish school system receives about $500,000 per year in Medicaid funding for its school nurses, she said.
Asked Friday when Dangerfield will notify the proper officials that he is declining the School Board seat, Unglesby said, “I’m sure if he’s smart he’ll do it today.”
The Dangerfields’ business filed numerous false Medicaid claims, receiving more than $18 million in state Medicaid funding between 2002 and 2009, then used the proceeds to pay their salaries, buy property and luxury vehicles, pay college tuition for their adult sons and fund Eric Dangerfield’s previous School Board campaign. The couple filed false tax returns to hide the income.
Eric Dangerfield was given a suspended four-year sentence after pleading guilty to six misdemeanor counts of theft and two misdemeanor counts of tax evasion.
Cassandra Dangerfield, who pleaded guilty to one felony count of racketeering and two felony counts of tax evasion, received a suspended 10-year sentence and five years probation.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.