SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - A year and a half after the Louisiana legislative auditor launched an investigation into whether DeSoto sheriff’s deputies abused the ticket-writing detail known as LACE, the agency released its official report Monday morning implicating 23 DPSO deputies in possible criminal activity, including public payroll fraud, theft, filing false public records and malfeasance in office.
Under the LACE program, deputies worked overtime shifts earning extra money, writing speeding tickets to improve traffic safety on Interstate-49 in DeSoto Parish.
Investigating a five-month period, from January 1, 2017, to June 2, 2017, the auditor’s report found 23 DPSO deputies getting paid $15,075 for 335 overtime hours of LACE detail they may not have worked. If the deputies submitted erroneous time sheets, according to the Legislative Auditor, and accepted payment for hours they did not work, those law enforcement members may have violated state law.
The report states seven of those law enforcement members allegedly took home most of that cash, with each deputy possibly pocketing more than $1,000 each.
The possible criminal wrongdoing outlined in the auditor’s report took place during Rodney Arbuckle’s tenure as Sheriff. And as investigators sifted through evidence early last year, trying to determine whether DPSO deputies committed payroll fraud, Arbuckle suddenly announced his retirement, saying he was tired of the “arguing and bickering and fighting” of DeSoto Parish politics and he wanted to spend more time helping care for an ailing grandchild.
At that time, Arbuckle’s department was already under scrutiny, after he suspended three deputies in connection with auditor’s investigation, saying he had reason to believe public funds may have been misappropriated.
The investigative cloud hanging over DPSO became a full-blown public controversy when a KSLA investigation uncovered records showing that the alleged fraud was more widespread than officials initially indicated, with at least half a dozen deputies appearing to submit overtime pay sheets for LACE hours they did not work.
Now according to the Legislative Auditor’s report, copies of its nine-page investigation are in the hands of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, the Louisiana Attorney General and the DeSoto Parish District Attorney.
While the US Attorney’s office has not returned a request for comment, aJacques Ambers, Press Secretary for Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, says that the AG’s office is reviewing the audit and will make a determination whether to launch a criminal investigation at the appropriate time.
The auditor’s report also points out a problem with the LACE program first reported by KSLA last February: DPSO had few policies setting out how the LACE detail was supposed to operate. That deficiency lead to a lack of oversight when it came to whether deputies worked the hours they claimed on overtime time sheets.
While the Legislative Auditor’s report examined the first five months of 2017, KSLA spent weeks examining LACE records covering the final six months of 2016, discovering six current deputies with overtime discrepancies, four of whom were not specifically identified in the state’s audit. Together, the two investigations uncover almost a year of potential payroll fraud committed by multiple DPSO deputies, the majority of which remain on patrol in DeSoto Parish.
Several former deputies, some speaking with KSLA, others speaking to state investigators, told how some deputies spent part of their overtime hours running personal errands or doing other things, instead of sitting on I-49 writing LACE tickets.
Those law enforcement members also told both KSLA and the Legislative Auditor that deputies frequently claimed one hour of overtime work for each speeding ticket written. Meaning some deputies supposedly got paid for the number of LACE tickets written, not the number of hours actually worked.
While the LACE program operated in DeSoto Parish for several years, in 2016 deputies began using a device called “digiTICKET” to issue speeding citations. According to the auditor’s report, there were only five digiTICKET devices in the department, and each deputy had a unique user ID login and password.
By comparing information from the digiTICKET devices to LACE time sheets, the auditor’s report shows how some deputies submitted time sheets covering hours they did not have a digiTICKET device and did not write LACE tickets. Information appearing to corroborate claims made by former deputies in interviews with both KSLA and state investigators, that some DPSO deputies were getting paid for overtime hours they did not work.
According to the auditor’s report, DPSO now led by Sheriff Jayson Richardson, got an advance copy of the Legislative Auditor’s findings last week. Attorneys writing on Richardson’s behalf say investigators may have “overestimated” the “overpayments” deputies received and that “DPSO has taken appropriate action regarding the LACE program.”
Sheriff Richardson also told KSLA Investigates that DPSO has been in contact with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office since 2017, providing them with relevant information and that he looks forward to finalizing this issue with them as soon as possible.
But during the Legislative Auditor’s inquiry, investigators uncovered DPSO records showing Richardson, then DPSO Captain of Patrols, temporarily suspended the program in May 2014, when he became aware that a deputy was claiming overtime hours based on the number of citations issued. And while that deputy was removed from working future LACE details according to the report, the lack of oversight that allowed him to submit an improper time sheet was never corrected prior to LACE operations being suspended in DeSoto Parish in June 2017.
The report also details how Richardson (as Captain of Patrols) usually signed the LACE time sheets after deputies submitted them. However, according to the Legislative Auditor, Richardson said his signature did not “prove that deputies were working every minute of every day they said they worked” and it meant nothing more than a supervisor acknowledging that the time sheet was submitted.
In early February 2017, while still serving as DeSoto Parish Sheriff, Arbuckle agreed to sit down with KSLA Investigates and talk about LACE operations in the parish. But that interview never happened, and after replacing Arbuckle as interim Sheriff in March of last year, Richardson also declined to speak on camera about the controversy.
However, in October while running for election to win his own term as Sheriff, Richardson filed suit to block DeSoto Parish District Attorney Gary Evans from launching a grand jury investigation into possible criminal misconduct related to the DPSO LACE program.
Richardson claimed Evans investigation was a political witch hunt, meant to influence the upcoming election and help defeat Richardson. While Evans denied the claim and voluntarily recused himself from any investigation involving Richardson, 42nd Judicial District Court Chief Judge Charles Adams barred Evans from conducting a grand jury investigation into any matter related to the LACE program.
Evans’ office is currently appealing that ruling with the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal.
“It’s a lonely, lonely job fighting corruption in DeSoto Parish,” Evans told KSLA Investigates. “There is much more to come.”
Meanwhile, despite multiple investigations into possible payroll fraud, outside of the three deputies that former Sheriff Arbuckle suspended last January, no other law enforcement members with DPSO have been placed on administrative leave.