Outgoing Tammany sheriff touts office’s solid financial position; incoming sheriff plans major review _lowres

Former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain.

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith said Thursday that the criminal charges filed this week against two of his predecessor's high-ranking deputies are not the end of a federal probe of former Sheriff Jack Strain, and he expects more charges will be coming.

David Hanson Sr. and Clifford "Skip" Keen, both longtime friends of Strain, were charged Wednesday in a bill of information with conspiracy to commit bribery. Defendants who are charged in a bill of information have typically agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with authorities.

The document named Strain only as Public Official A, but it identified him as a primary beneficiary of an alleged kickback scheme involving St. Tammany Workforce Solutions LLC. That firm managed a Slidell work-release program after Strain privatized it in 2013, handing it over to the adult children of Hanson and Keen in a no-bid deal.

In return, the government said, the adult children, who together received about $1.2 million from the firm over 3½ years, gave significant portions of the money to their fathers. Hanson and Keen, in turn, gave Strain regular cash payments of more than $1,000, according to the bill of information, though it does not say how much he allegedly collected in all.

Smith, who ousted Strain in a fall 2015 election, said he first learned about the probe during the campaign. He found out more during the seven-month transition period between his election and when he took office on July 1, 2016.

Federal investigators, he said, have asked for information and records from the Sheriff's Office that go back as far as 10 years.

"I know there is more to come and more charges against individuals who previously worked here," Smith said.

When federal agents served a grand jury subpoena for records on the Sheriff's Office in March, Smith said he anticipated additional subpoenas. On Thursday, he said that has not happened yet, but that there have been informal requests for more documents that indicate the probe extends beyond the work-release program.

The requests sought documents related to the office's payroll, the K-9 division, jail operations and the budget, he said.

Hanson was the head of the K-9 division, while Keen was over maintenance.

The bill of information said that while Keen was employed by the Sheriff's Office, he worked part-time for a Covington work-release program from 2008 through about 2014, for which he was paid about $30,000 a year.

That facility, which was launched as a private enterprise, was shut down by Strain in March 2014 after a series of escapes and walk-offs by inmates taking part in the program.

Smith said he believes it was an ethics violation for Keen to have worked for both the agency and the work-release program, but that Strain allowed friends and relatives to do what they wanted.

Ethics experts contacted by The Advocate said the arrangement could run afoul of the state’s ethics code, but the question is more complex than it might appear and would require additional information to answer.

The bill of information also mentioned a fourth person who was hired by the Slidell work-release program, identified as Person 4, a relative of Strain's and an employee of the Sheriff's Office who was paid about $30,000 for what the government called a "no-show" job.

That description fits Ryan Palmer, a nephew of Strain and one of the subjects of the federal subpoena that arrived in March.

Smith said he did not know that Palmer, who worked in the Sheriff's Office's maintenance division, had also been on the work-release payroll until he learned about it in news reports Wednesday. While Palmer was one of several Strain insiders retained by Smith, he resigned about seven months after Smith took office to take another job.

Smith, who had worked under Strain before being elected Slidell police chief and later sheriff, said he had no idea that the sort of corruption outlined in the bill of information was going on, However, he said he had been puzzled by Strain's decision to privatize the Slidell work-release facility, which should have been a revenue source for the agency.

However, Smith said that after taking the facility back under agency control and running it for a year, he decided that it was not feasible for an agency of the Sheriff's Office size and budget to operate it. He also cited the potential liability of inmates escaping and harming someone.

Smith called the charges a sad day for St. Tammany Parish and the taxpayers, adding that concerns about corruption had in part prompted him to challenge Strain, a 20-year incumbent.

"We cleaned up quite a mess," Smith said in a news release. "St. Tammany taxpayers were taken advantage of to fund cozy relationships that were not in the best interest of the parish or crime fighting.”

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.