Louisiana in struggle vs. nature as rivers flood, break 1983 records; see projected crest times, heights _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Tangipahoa Sheriff Daniel Edwards talks about the situation with the floods at the Eagle Heights Community Church temporary shelter in Tickfaw, La.

HAMMOND — The FBI has launched an investigation into a fraudulent bail-bond scheme within the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office, bringing fresh federal scrutiny to the administration of Sheriff Daniel Edwards. 

The bureau, which recently raided the Sheriff's Office here, has taken over a criminal probe that began at the local level last year after authorities intercepted jailhouse phone calls relating to the illegal bonds, according to two senior law enforcement officials and records obtained by The Advocate. 

The FBI is said to be pursuing bribery charges against several Sheriff's Office employees implicated in the scheme, including a sergeant who supervised the agency's Criminal Records Division. 

Federal authorities have been knee-deep in the Sheriff's Office in recent months following a mid-December raid in which dozens of agents descended on Edwards' office, as well as that of the Hammond Police Department, and spent nearly 24 hours copying files and computer hard drives and questioning employees. The search stemmed from a broadening U.S. Justice Department investigation into a New Orleans-based federal narcotics task force that included several former Tangipahoa Parish deputies, including two charged with stealing drugs and cash from suspects.

That probe has rocked the New Orleans field division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and resulted in a host of leadership and policy changes, and it's caused the government to bring in special prosecutors to handle cases that may have been tainted by the agents under investigation.

Edwards this week confirmed the FBI's probe into the bail-bond scheme and said that, to the best of his knowledge, no one in a leadership position at the Sheriff's Office had been questioned by federal authorities. He declined further comment.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment Friday. 

Before federal authorities intervened in the case, the Sheriff's Office had arrested 10 people in connection with an illegal bail-bond operation that allowed several inmates to go free without posting their court-ordered bonds. One of those inmates, Robert Smith, had been ordered held on bond for failing to register as a sex offender. Records show that Smith's girlfriend, Raquelle Collins, conspired with Crystal Knight, a Sheriff's Office employee in the criminal records office, to forge the bond for Smith.

Knight and Collins later split $1,200 they received for forging the bond, records show.

Five other illegal bonds were discovered when the woman whose property had been put up as a surety for the bonds showed up the Hammond substation to inquire about the bonds. Deputies showed her the bond documents, and she confirmed that her signature had been forged and told them she had no knowledge of the bonds, the warrants show. Further investigation led to Sgt. Sonja Dyson and Knight, both of whom worked in the Sheriff's Criminal Records Division, where Dyson was a supervisor. The warrants allege that the two women worked together to forge bond documents for the five defendants, totaling some $272,000.

Eight other people, including one other Sheriff's Office employee, Latecial Milton, have been arrested in connection with the scheme. 

In total, at least seven different defendants were freed on bonds that relied on forged signatures, records show.

Despite the arrests, no charges have been filed while local authorities await the outcome of the federal investigation.

Edwards has said the Sheriff's office has tightened policies and changed leadership of the criminal records office to prevent future problems.

The probe is the latest twist in a tumultuous period for Edwards, who is Gov. John Bel Edwards' brother. Within the last three months, he has endured the attention-grabbing December raid, this new probe and the grisly murder of an inmate in his jail. In that last case, a dozen people were booked in what jail officials said resembled a "shark feeding frenzy." 

A dozen people have been booked in connection with that case, and the case has been referred to District Attorney Scott Perrilloux's office for prosecution.

In February, two inmates escaped from the jail in broad daylight, allegedly escaping through a "jail breach." One of the two, Christopher Woolridge, had been released in November after Knight and Dyson allegedly forged his $58,850 bond. Woolridge, who escaped with his brother, was recaptured less than a day later. He remains in the Tangipahoa Parish jail.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.