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

Former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain.

It takes a thief to catch a thief, as the old saying has it. An understanding of the criminal mentality is the key to solving crimes.

Jack Strain certainly had that advantage when he was in charge of catching thieves in St. Tammany Parish, according to federal prosecutors. He was supplementing his sheriff's pay with more than $1,000 a month in kickbacks.

Strain ought to have had an advantage in his capacity as a thief as well, being well acquainted with how the law enforcer's mind works. He was a policeman for several years before being elected sheriff in 1996. We now discover that he was allegedly on the take when voted out of office two years ago.

Surely Strain knew that the successful crook covers his tracks. Yet the criminal conspiracy he allegedly headed was not hard to detect. A quick look at the Louisiana Secretary of State's corporations database was enough to raise instant suspicions.

A crooked sheriff is more or less immune to state charges, unless he decides to arrest himself, and there was a time when the piney woods north of Lake Pontchartrain seemed a haven from the political corruption for which Louisiana is famous.

Not anymore, because the feds were watching. The downward spiral began when Eddie Price was imprisoned in 2010 after pleading guilty to fraud when Mayor of Mandeville.

It is rare even in Louisiana to find a coroner stuffing public money into his pockets, but St. Tammany achieved that distinction with Dr. Peter Galvan, who wound up doing state time after completing a federal stretch.

It is rare too for a parish to have a crooked DA and a crooked sheriff at the same time — thus taking two thieves to catch a thief — but that was the case in St. Tammany. Walter Reed, who quit as DA in 2014, has been sentenced to four years but is free on bond pending appeal. Now that Strain's indictment appears imminent, St. Tammany must envy the upright politics of New Orleans.

St. Tammany Sheriff Randy Smith: Federal probe of Jack Strain's administration likely to bear more fruit

Federal prosecutors have just named two of Strain's friends and former aides in what is known as a bill of information, which is standard practice when suspects have waived indictment and made a deal to plead guilty and finger a bigger fish. This bill of information gives such a wealth of detail about the alleged kickback scheme and cites so much corroborating documentation, that Strain may be a fairly easy fish to land. Metropolitan Crime Commission head Rafael Goyeneche thinks the pressure may be on him to plead guilty.

Strain allegedly hatched a scheme with two top deputies, David Hanson and Clifford Keen, to milk the work — release program for inmates of the parish jail approaching the end of their sentences. Inmates who qualify are housed in a dormitory and let out to work during the day to prepare for their return to freedom.

The program used to be run in-house, with most of the wages earned by inmates going to the sheriff's office, but Strain allegedly decided to grab the moolah for himself and his cronies. He therefore privatized the program and handed the contract to run it to a corporation called St. Tammany Workforce Solutions that was formed days earlier. Officers in that company, listed on the Secretary of State's website, are Hanson's daughter Brandy, Keen's son Jarrett and one Allen Tingle.

Former high-ranking St. Tammany Sheriff's deputies charged by feds in work-release probe

David Hanson and Clifford Keen could not be listed as owners while remaining on the sheriff's office payroll, the bill of information explains. Naming their kids as proxies was asking for trouble, especially as those kids were clueless and Tingle had to be hired to run the show in return for 10 percent of the profits.

St. Tammany Sheriff Randy Smith: Federal probe of Jack Strain's administration likely to bear more fruit

The other 90 percent went to the kids, who received $1.2 million over three years and passed $700,000 on to their fathers, who in turn saw that Strain was taken care of, prosecutors say.

There is evidently plenty of money to be made from inmate labor. Workforce Solutions was also able to pay a relative of Strain's, evidently his nephew Ryan Palmer, $30,000 a year for doing no work whatsoever, the feds say. Nobody understood the criminal mind better than St. Tammany Parish law enforcement.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.