Angola

This April 22, 2009 photo shows a view of the front entrance of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. (AP file photo/Judi Bottoni)

An internal audit by the state’s correctional department concludes that two high-ranking officials at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola diverted at least $160,000 from a fund meant to provide recreation for the prison’s employees.

Among other findings, the audit — which has yet to be released but was obtained by The Advocate — says one of the officials used the Angola Employee Recreation Committee’s money for nearly $70,000 in personal purchases over a nine-year period, including more than $27,000 in items from Amazon and Paypal.

Auditors found that same official, former Col. Shirley Whittington, also routinely withdrew hundreds of dollars in cash using an ATM card billed to the committee, taking out more than $17,000 over the past four years.

And they found that Whittington and her alleged co-conspirator, Lt. Col. Deborah Leonard, routinely shorted the deposits of cash raised from sales of concession items at the prison’s annual rodeo, to the tune of $73,307.

Whittington also signed off on the use of approximately $5,000 in cash to buy a Kawasaki four-wheeler from Leonard’s husband — a vehicle that auditors apparently have been unable to locate.

The audit is one of two pending audits of the Angola Employee Recreation Committee. The second, by the state’s legislative auditor and also not yet released, plows much of the same ground, according to sources familiar with it.

The legislative audit, which covers a shorter period than the nine years examined in the correctional audit, found approximately $50,000 in missing or misappropriated money.

The Employee Recreation Committee’s problems have also attracted the attention of the FBI, which has begun investigating the matter, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the probe.

Neither Whittington nor Leonard returned phone messages from The Advocate.

The money missing from the recreational fund is the latest in a series of embarrassing revelations at the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, most of them involving alleged self-dealing by high-ranking officials.

The cascade of bad news began a year ago, when longtime Angola warden Burl Cain was forced to resign after The Advocate reported he had done business with a relative and an associate of two Angola inmates who were seeking special treatment.

Cain was involved in setting up the Employee Recreation Committee, and its bylaws required that he sign off on any purchases of more than $1,000 that it made. He told The Advocate in a recent interview that he rarely if ever reviewed any transactions, however, and the audit says Cain did not sign off on the purchase of the Kawasaki four-wheeler.

In addition to being potential crimes, thefts from the recreation fund may be partly to blame for the dearth of recreational options for prison employees, the audit notes. As an example, it says that “the community swimming pool has not been maintained properly or open for entire summers” because of a lack of money.

Records show the committee takes in about $150,000 a year from rodeo concession sales, greens fees at the Prison View golf course and a $75 fee assessed to employees who live in state-owned housing on the prison’s vast grounds.

Both Whittington and Leonard resigned their correctional jobs last month — with Whittington first spending two months on paid leave as auditors dug through the records.

By the time they quit their correctional posts, both already had resigned from the recreation committee, where Leonard served as president and Whittington as treasurer. New members have been appointed to those positions.

The correctional audit attributes about three-quarters of the missing money to Whittington, who had been the treasurer since the group was created in 2006.

The remainder was attributed to Leonard, who told auditors that she “consciously and voluntarily delegated her presidential responsibilities and authority, except for check-signing, to Ms. Whittington.”

Sources familiar with the findings of the legislative audit told The Advocate that it places the blame for the missing money squarely on Whittington.

The correctional audit is silent on whether Whittington or Leonard should be prosecuted, but it recommends that they be made to pay restitution.

It also recommends that the Employee Recreation Committee — which correctional officials have previously maintained is a private entity — should be subject to stricter state oversight.


Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @GordonRussell1.