Clinton Mayor Lori Ann Bell was arrested for the third time in recent months Wednesday, accused of failing to respond to multiple warnings about significant deficiencies in the town's water system.
Bell turned herself in to authorities Wednesday afternoon, when she was booked on a count of malfeasance in office. She immediately posted her bail, which had been set at $20,000, said East Feliciana Parish Prison Warden Kenny Sanders.
Bell's attorney, Niles Haymer, called the arrest on Wednesday misdirected and premature, coming more than a week before the town's final deadline to complete the water repairs.
"They’ve jumped the gun in Clinton," Haymer said of the investigators, calling Bell's repeated arrests a political attack. "It’s an embarrassment to the criminal justice system.”
Haymer acknowledged that the town's water system remains under ongoing work. But he said whatever shortcomings there may have been in addressing the system's problems don't add up to criminal intent by the town's chief executive.
“They’ve been working on repairing all the deficiencies since December; all the deficiencies should be cleared up by Jan. 17," Haymer said. "She’s been working diligently to make sure the water’s safe since she’s been there. ... These aren't criminal matters."
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Bell is accused of ignoring a September letter from the Department of Health that gave her 90 days to correct 15 “significant deficiencies” in the water system, including two that remained unresolved from a 2017 inspection, according to her arrest warrant filed Wednesday.
“The letter warns Lori Bell and the Town of Clinton that the deficiencies must be corrected to avoid possible enforcement action by the U.S. EPA,” the warrant says.
However, the warrant continues, about 90 days after that letter, another Department of Health inspection found that “Mayor Lori Ann Bell had taken no identifiable action.”
Bell's arrest comes two days after Louisiana Department of Health inspectors found additional violations in the town’s water system — including a 3-foot-deep sinkhole at the system’s Taylor Street well — despite Bell having advised the state that all the problems had been fixed.
The state gave the town an extended Jan. 17 deadline to fix the water deficiencies.
Robert Johannessen, a spokesman for the state health department, said Wednesday that the agency sent inspectors to the site this week to verify Bell had, in fact, begun making remediations.
In a letter the agency sent the Town of Clinton Wednesday, Region 2 Engineer Brian Suberbielle notes that nine of the original 27 deficiencies had been corrected. However, he tacked on four additional violations.
The resolved deficiencies include primarily general maintenance fixes such as replacing a mesh screen on a piping system and properly storing chlorine gas cylinders.
The additional four issues found were a strong odor of chlorine gas at the well site, improper ventilation at the chlorine station, a violation relating to staff not having attended a training course in public relations and customer relations and the development of a sinkhole next to the Taylor Street well.
Johannessen said the sinkhole is about 1.5-feet in diameter and about 3-feet deep.
Suberbielle’s says the sinkhole has developed next to the well foundation and “could indicate a potential structural issue which can be a pathway for contamination.”
If the town does not fix the remaining 22 deficiencies by the Jan. 17 deadline, LDH would issue an administrative order that would require the town to provide the state with a detailed corrective action plan and a timeline to complete the work.
LDH would need to approve that plan, Johannessen said.
Bell's arrest warrant also accused her of not alerting the fire department when the town's water pressure dropped to certain levels that cause emergency precautions for the firefighters, which happened a "number of times."
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The warrant says the parish's homeland security director made Bell aware of the events and her duty to inform the fire department "but she failed to do so.”
Haymer said Bell is working to address town communications on water issues to the best of her ability.
"She’s trying her best, she’s doing everything she can possibly do," Haymer said.
The town’s entanglement with the state health department over the water system began in August, when agency officials inspected the water system and reported more than a dozen violations including exposed wiring, corroded pipes, safety hazards and improper chemical storage.
One of the still-unresolved deficiencies is that the town’s water system is not operated by someone with competency certified by the state.
It’s unclear if that deficiency is related to the town’s water operator, Jeff Johnson, submitting his resignation letter Jan. 3. The letter said he would no longer serve as the town’s water operator, but did not give a reason for his departure.
The deficiency document states all water systems are required to have a certified operator who conducts daily duties to maintain the system including adjusting chemicals and operating pumps.
Haymer said it is unprecedented that a sitting mayor would be arrested during a crisis they are attempting to solve. He said Clinton's water crisis is nothing like the one in Flint, Michigan, in 2014, where officials did not alert residents about unsafe water, despite knowing about the potential danger.
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“I'm not saying the work was to the standards the state wants to see, but it’s not like the system was being neglected,” Haymer said.
He said Bell has not neglected or covered-up the issue, and that no one has been harmed by the water.
Bell is already out on another $20,000 bail from two prior arrests, both also on counts of malfeasance in office. Those arrests were over unrelated incidents involving the lease of police vehicles and the use of police funds for a tent and banner bearing her name.
The arrests stem from a growing State Police and East Feliciana Parish Sheriff's Office investigation into financial misconduct in the cash-strapped East Feliciana Parish seat, which also included two arrests of the town's police chief, who has resigned.