KSLA Investigates: alleged LACE abuse in DeSoto

(Source: KSLA News 12)
(Source: KSLA News 12)

DESOTO PARISH, LA (KSLA)

A review of thousands of pages of documents shows that payroll fraud by deputies in the DeSoto Parish Sheriffs Office was possibly more widespread than officials initially indicated.

In January, Sheriff Rodney Arbuckle suspended three deputies, after writing to the Louisiana Legislative auditor he had reason to believe that public funds from his agency may have been misappropriated, in relations to the Local Agency Compensated Enforcement program, also known as L.A.C.E.
One of the deputies retired, and the other two resigned over the controversy.
L.A.C.E. is a now suspended, overtime ticket-writing program, in which DeSoto Sheriff deputies were paid $45 an hour to write speeding tickets on a stretch on Interstate 49 in the parish.
KSLA spent weeks, comparing six months of L.A.C.E. timesheets with the corresponding tickets written by deputies from July 2016, through December 2016. 
Looking at the records of six current deputies, ones consistently billing a high number of overtime hours, discrepancies and patterns of possible fraud were evident almost immediately.    
The documents examined, showed all six deputies frequently claiming overtime on the interstate without writing a single ticket for hours on end.

The expectation would be to write at least one to two tickets per hour, said a former DeSoto Parish Sheriff Deputies, who spoke to KSLA on the condition of anonymity.

It was very widespread, said a second former deputy, claiming former colleagues got paid for hours they did not work, by simplifying writing in false starting times.

There were times, people were supposed to work the detail at five in the morning and not actually hit the interstate until ten or eleven."

Dozens of time sheets, submitted by multiple deputies, appear to corroborate that deputies' account. 

In one example, a deputy writes 4:00 P.M. as his shift start time, but three hours and 18 minutes pass before writing his first ticket at 7:18 P.M. Another example shows a deputy clocking in at 12:00 P.M, however, no tickets were written for three hours and 34 minutes later, at 3:34 P.M.

Not all deputies did it, said one of the former deputies, But there were quite a few that did."

Stretches of time can pass on the interstate when no one speeds, but bother of the former deputies KSLA spoke to say the examples we uncovered were not a coincidence.

It can happen a day or two, said the second deputy, referring to the possibility that an hour or two may pass when no motorists are caught speeding on I-49, But it definitely shouldn't be a pattern."

KSLAs review of L.A.C.E. timesheets and tickets discovered examples of another pattern, deputies writing all their tickets in clusters, then recording no L.A.C.E. activity on the back end of their shift, while continuing to bill overtime hours.

Records showed one current DeSoto Parish Sheriff deputy writing all his lace tickets two, three, sometimes four hours before clocking off the detail on multiple occasions.

There were no checks and balances," said a deputy that wished to remain anonymous.

 According to the two former deputies, department supervisors in the Sheriffs office paid little attention to L.A.C.E.  They claim that lack of oversight allowed deputies to frequently leave their posts, do other things and still get paid overtime.

You know deputies going to softball games, while on that detail and basketball games and things like that, said one of the former deputies.

Initially, Sheriff Arbuckle agreed to sit down and talk about L.A.C.E. operations in the parish. 
When KSLA finished reviewing program records obtained through an open records request, the Sheriff declined a formal interview request, stating he could no longer talk, claiming an outside agency is investigating.

While Arbuckle says his office sent L.A.C.E records to the Louisiana Attorney Generals office, asking for an independent investigation.

However, KSLA has not been able to independently confirm that fact. Additionally, the DeSoto Parish District Attorneys office and the Louisiana State Police both state their agencies have not opened any type of criminal investigation.

In fact. DeSoto Parish District Attorney Gary Evans says the Sheriffs office has not been very forthcoming as it relates to information regarding the departments own internal affairs investigation, and an ongoing state investigative audit.

He contacted me on January 18th almost a month ago, said he was going to send some files over for me, for my review, said Evans, referring to a conversation with Sheriff Arbuckle, As of this date they have not come.

 Arbuckle allegedly called Evans around the same he wrote the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, stating "I have reasonable cause to believe there has been a misappropriation of public funds or assets from my agency in regards to the operation of the lace program."
Last August, the DeSoto Police Jury passed a resolution, asking the Louisiana Legislative Auditor to investigate L.A.C.E. operations in the parish.

Now that audit has started, says Desoto Parish Police Juror Thomas Jones. And we are going to learn what comes out of that audit because we are concerned that the jury has lost money."

Despite multiple ongoing investigations, Arbuckle has not placed any more deputies on administrative leave since January.

The two former DeSoto Parish Deputies say a captain with the Sheriffs Office supervised the program and various Sergeants trained deputies on the workings of the L.A.C.E. detail.

But according to them, if a deputys ticket total matched the number of overtime hours claimed, supervisors typically turned a blind eye to time sheet discrepancies.

You were going to come out and write citations and however many citations you wrote that's how many hours you were going to claim, said one of the former deputies. Even though it may have only taken you two hours to do that."

It should have had rules established, said the other former deputy, referring to the fact that the DeSoto Parish Sheriffs office did not create any written L.A.C.E. guidelines.

In response to an open records request, the Sheriff's office confirmed no such policy existed.
However, other law enforcement agencies working L.A.C.E., such as state police and the Mansfield Police Department have written guidelines.

If there are some criminal things going on we need to address those things, said Jones, who is now part of a small group seeking a police jury resolution, inviting the Federal Bureau of Investigation to conduct a criminal investigation of L.A.C.E. operations in the parish.

Police Jury President Reggie Roe would not go on the record to say if he endorses that proposal.

Well that is up to the jury, Roe said after a recent police jury meeting.

There has to be a majority vote to approve it. I can't make that decision myself. It has to be a majority vote, said Roe before refusing to answer any more questions.

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