A former sheriff from north Louisiana who pleaded guilty in 1999 to felony charges of misspending public money and mistreating inmates has been named by Gov. John Bel Edwards to a state commission that makes sure used car dealers comply with the law.
At the time of his plea, Jeff Britt, the former sheriff of Tensas Parish, was facing federal civil rights charges for allegedly beating two handcuffed inmates and lying about it to the FBI. He separately faced state charges related to the alleged misappropriation of money.
But a trial on the federal charges ended in a hung jury, and as a retrial loomed, Britt agreed to resign and plead guilty to four state charges of malfeasance in a plea deal that resolved both cases. He was sentenced to four years of probation and was ordered to pay $21,568 in restitution.
Records show the state Board of Pardons, which is appointed by the governor, unanimously approved Britt's pardon application in January 2017, recommending that his full rights, including the ability to carry a firearm, be restored. Edwards granted the pardon three months later.
The Edwards administration noted that both the sheriff and district attorney of Concordia Parish, where Britt lives now, supported his application for clemency.
"Law enforcement did not oppose him receiving a pardon," Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said of the decision.
Last month, Edwards named Britt to the board of the Used Motor Vehicle Commission, a decision Carbo said came after "conversations with individuals in his community who supported him."
The board, which has a relatively low profile, usually meets monthly; it oversees licensing and disciplining of used-car dealers. Members are given a stipend of $75 per meeting.
Britt said in an interview with The Advocate that he was recruited for the board by a fellow board member, Ricky Donnell, who told him the board needed a business person who was not in the used-car business.
Since resigning as sheriff, Britt has worked in the prison commissary business, providing goods like candy bars and ramen noodles to numerous sheriffs around north Louisiana for resale to inmates. Britt told Donnell he'd be glad to serve on the board.
"I'll be honest, this board ... it's an honor to serve, and I plan to do it," he said. "But I don't need this," he added, referring to the prospect of a story on his appointment.
Britt downplayed his 1999 conviction, saying the state charges against him were based on a biased report from the state's legislative auditor, which found that he could not document about $30,000 in expenses billed to the Sheriff's Office. Then-auditor Dan Kyle said $8,000 in public money was used to pay off a personal credit card, and another $4,500 was taken out in cash advances.
Britt said this week that he decided to plead guilty to put both of the criminal matters he was then facing to rest. He said he had spent more than $500,000 in legal fees and had to do what was right for his family.
"I took the deal and moved on," he said.
As for the beating charges, Britt said he was nearly certain he would not have been convicted in a second trial. In the first trial, the jury could not come to a consensus even after hearing testimony from one deputy that Britt had beaten an inmate unconscious and then made the deputy revive the man with water so he could resume the beating.
Britt says now, as he did then, that any time he laid a hand on an inmate, it was in self-defense.
"If it would have been all that bad, that jury would have found me guilty the first time," Britt told The Advocate. "I testified for eight hours. Not once did I deny anything. I explained every bit of it. I was doing my job."
But Britt was widely condemned at the time. In announcing the plea deal, Buddy Caldwell, then the district attorney of Tensas Parish and later the state’s attorney general, said Britt had been guilty of “wholesale abuse of power and abuse of the public trust.” And a federal judge over the case said Britt "abused his power beyond belief."
As part of his deal, Britt agreed “not to appeal or seek to have the conviction overturned, expunged or try to have his probation reduced,” according to a 1999 Associated Press story. He also agreed to never work in law enforcement again.
It’s not clear whether those terms meant he should not seek clemency.
But Mike Skinner, who was the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana when that office tried Britt, said in an interview that Britt’s pardon did not trouble him.
He also said he doesn't believe Britt's pursuit of a living by selling goods to sheriffs and inmates across north Louisiana violates the spirit of his plea agreement. The deal simply was intended to keep Britt from wearing a badge, he said.
"It seems like he's worked hard to turn his life around and be a good citizen," Skinner said. "I wish him the best, frankly."
Caldwell did not return a call seeking comment.
Britt said he believes the real scandal is that former Gov. Bobby Jindal almost never granted pardons, even when they were recommended by the Pardon Board he appointed. In fact, Jindal's Pardon Board recommended Britt for a pardon, in 2008, but the petition sat on Jindal's desk for his entire eight-year tenure.
Overall, Jindal, a Republican who unsuccessfully sought the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, approved just 83 of the 738 pardon recommendations he received, or about one in every nine.
"We're talking about second chances," Britt said. "I'm honored to sit on that board. You can't put a leper bell on someone for the rest of their life."
Carbo echoed that, noting that Edwards has supported criminal-justice reform efforts that have, among other things, sought to ease felons' re-entry into society.
"Everything we're doing in terms of re-entry is about having people return to some sense of normalcy," he said. "We're giving him a second chance."
Britt said he's looking forward to his first meeting on Monday as a member of the used-car board. "This isn't gonna hinder me from doing my job," he said.