In Louisiana, it seems a bureaucrat can get paid for swinging a club and bending his elbow.
Earlier this month, authorities arrested Louisiana Tax Commission Executive Director Charles Abels for fraudulent activities. He stands accused of drawing pay for hours not worked and reimbursing expenses unrelated to his job.
State police monitored him for a week and found him in his office for 100 minutes while he claimed 32 hours of work. Investigators also reviewed records in 2017 and 2018 to discover he submitted dozens of inaccurate time sheets and questionable expense reports.
Not that Abels hasn’t spent time in a jail cell before. For a while there, going back over two decades, he collected numerous driving-while-intoxicated charges. That record — and covering up a hit-and-run in a parish vehicle — forced his resignation in 2000 as Livingston Parish assessor, a job in which he succeeded his grandfather, who served in that position over half a century.
Only a couple of years later, the Tax Commission hired him, and within a few years, he assumed its top administrative job, which he's held since Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration. And in it he stayed, even when a critical Legislative Auditor report faulted the agency for lackadaisical review of parish requests, mostly to lower initial assessments, and also through an investigation into allegations that he faked documents — he called it a clerical mistake — to lower an assessment on a St. Francisville golf course.
Perhaps appropriately, many of the discrepancies noted in the current investigation stem from Abels apparently hitting the links and watering holes rather than staying at the office. However, speculated his lawyer Mary Olive Pierson, he might have been earning his almost $106,000 annual salary in the great outdoors and over drinks, since he could have met colleagues there to discuss affairs of state. Who knows? He might have been conducting course assessments on the fly to avoid his error of a few years back.
That tall tale aside, the agency’s checkered past under Abels’ command hadn’t seemed to trouble those Commission members overseeing him: Harold “Joey” Vercher, Michael Waguespack, Paul West, Regina Lynch Wood, or former longtime Jefferson Parish assessor and chairman Lawrence Chehardy. All were appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards shortly after he took office, together receiving more than $325,000 in annual compensation. They meet weekly to vet property tax recommendations forwarded by a staff of more than 30.
Vercher was the only holdover from a previous administration. The prior controversy surrounding the office should have prompted incoming members to take a fresh look at Abels’ performance. His arrest last year on a domestic violence charge should have acted as another reminder.
At the very least, chairman Chehardy, who endorsed Edwards and gave him a maximum $5,000 campaign donation, should have done some due diligence. It’s inconceivable that even a cursory review wouldn’t have turned up employees who knew the boss played hooky so often and so blatantly. Such evidence could have sped the process required under civil service regulations to fire Abels.
Sadly, such shenanigans for employees of Louisiana boards aren’t that uncommon. A former executive director of the Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protection Fund went to prison for fraud in 2011, and that same year, so did a lawyer associated with several state pension funds.
In those instances, volunteer panelists paid insufficient attention to agency doings. But we should expect more diligence from commissioners who individually make much more than the median family income in the state.
If this isn't an issue in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign, it should be.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com and writes about Louisiana legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.