BIENVILLE PARISH , LA (KSLA) - A former Bienville Parish fire chief faces an open criminal investigation as questions surface over how Patrick Conley, the onetime boss of Fire Protection District 7, spent thousands of dollars in district funds, officials says.
While he resigned as fire chief without controversy last fall, District Attorney Danny Newell tells KSLA Investigates that Conley is in a pretrial diversion program.
Newell would not specify the crime or crimes Conley possibly committed, only saying that charges are pending while Conley works to pay thousands of dollars in restitution.
It’s a case that might not ever have come to light if not for Rose Jackson, a whistleblower who did her own digging into the fire district’s finances.
Jackson, who spends most of her days in Bienville Parish working for Shady Grove Recreational District, filed a series of public records requests after learning that Conley suddenly stepped down as fire chief in August.
According to a report in The Bienville Democrat, citing public records from the fire district’s governing board, Conley resigned “due to being exhausted and having a new job.”
Jackson had her doubts about that explanation and spent the next few months looking over receipts from purchases Conely allegedly made using a fire district debit card.
“I have the bank statements that says ATM debit card and receipts. From January 2017 until August 2018.”
Finding receipts among the financial documents for purchases she thought questionable, including The Tire Rack, House of Flowers, Superior’s Steakhouse and 2 Johns Steak & Seafood.
Jackson says she gave her binder of financial records to the Bieneville Parish Sheriff’s Office.
While law enforcement authorities won’t discuss the matter, Newell tells KSLA Investigates that an investigation into Conley’s use of the fire district’s debit card raised issues of possible criminal conduct.
“I’m not going to get into the definition of theft, it’s an ongoing case. But money was definitely misused.”
But instead of charging Conley with a crime, the district attorney says he offered the former fire chief pretrial diversion.
It is a program that allows Conley to avoid arrest and a criminal record if he meets with the district attorney’s counselor once a month and repays every dime of the public’s money he allegedly misused.
“Before law enforcement got involved, he was repaying money,” Newell says. "And I think it was somewhere around $13,000; and he has since paid it down to close to $8,000.”
That pretrial diversion deal infuriates Jackson.
"It’s not right,” she says, stating that she thinks Conley is getting off easy because he’s a public official.
“Why should he get a sweetheart of a deal?”
The district attorney denies Jackson’s claim that Conley is getting preferential treatment because he is a former fire chief.
“I’ve never met Patrick Conley in my life,” Newell says. "This case was handled like every other case.”
The district attorney says he’s offered the same deal to other first-time felony offenders, including some of whom were accused of taking more money than Conley allegedly misused.
“We’ve offered diversion to roughly 15 people since I took office for theft,” Newell tells KSLA Investigates. “It’s just a super-efficient way of allowing a first-time offender to avoid a criminal record and pay restitution and to make the victim whole.”
KSLA investigates tried calling Conley multiple times, hoping to speak about the case.
While no one answered the cell number KSLA Investigates has for the former fire chief, Newell says everyone in his pretrial diversion program has criminal charges pending against them.
So according to the district attorney, Conley is not free of legal trouble just yet.
“If he doesn’t make it through the program, he’ll be prosecuted. If he gets new charges, he’ll be prosecuted.”
Regardless of whether Conley completes pretrial diversion and repays all the money, Jackson says she is not satisfied that justice is getting served.
So she’s launching a grass-roots campaign to get some members of the fire district’s board removed from their posts.
Elected officials in Bienville Parish appoint the board members.
Jackson believes those members should be held accountable for Conley’s questionable spending and lose their positions of power.