Ascension Parish deputies arrested the longtime treasurer of the St. Amant Volunteer Fire Department and his wife on counts of stealing at least $15,000 from the agency to pay for personal expenses, the Sheriff’s Office reported Friday.
Capt. Aaron Lee Gautreaux, 33, who has deep family ties in the department, and Melissa Pearson Gautreaux, 34, both of 13162 Spellman Lambert Road, St. Amant, were arrested Wednesday on single counts of felony theft, deputies said in a news release.
The arrests followed an inquiry by Fire Chief James LeBlanc and department President Shane Pourciau into possible bank discrepancies, deputies said.
LeBlanc said Friday that he and Pourciau began looking at accounts after merchants pulled him aside to tell him the department was months behind in paying its bills, although treasurer’s reports distributed at management meetings had been showing that the department was up-to-date on its expenses.
LeBlanc said he and Pourciau pulled bank records from 2010, 2011 and 2012, found problems, then turned over the records to the Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies said the fire officials’ inquiry revealed at least $15,000 in fraudulent transactions were made on the department account during the past six months.
Aaron and Melissa Gautreaux allegedly made the fraudulent transactions to pay for their cable television bills, car notes and other personal expenses, deputies said.
The couple also obtained an unauthorized credit card in the department’s name, deputies said.
Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Tony Bacala said in the news release that the amount of money stolen from the department could rise well beyond $15,000, and the couple may face prosecution on additional charges.
LeBlanc said that although he does not hold the checkbook or pay the bills, he takes full responsibility for the missing money. He said the department would work to improve accounting procedures and get the people’s money back.
“I take full responsibility because as fire chief, I am supposed to be on top of this. I am supposed to make sure I got the right procedures in place,” he said.
LeBlanc said department personnel already go through weekly character training as well as receive additional guidance from the state Board of Ethics.
Aaron Gautreaux has been treasurer for six or seven years, has been a highly decorated firefighter and serves with other family members in the department, including his father, Assistant Fire Chief Jerry Gautreaux, LeBlanc confirmed.
Aaron Gautreaux was named department Member of the Year for 2005 and, for 2006, he was named with his dad as EMS Responder of the Year, according to published reports.
Melissa Gautreaux was appointed secretary to the Fire Department’s management board in January.
LeBlanc said the Gautreaux family is working with authorities to restore the missing funds.
LeBlanc said the department’s operational account holds donations from fundraisers and pays for monthly expenses such as electricity, gas and supplies.
LeBlanc said the operational account was found by investigators to have only about $1,800 in deposits at this time of year when it normally would have contained about $15,000 to $20,000.
The account does not handle the department’s share of parish sales tax revenue, LeBlanc said. That money comes through an overseeing fire district.
However, LeBlanc said, the department also maintained a separate account that held its share of state fire insurance rebates. LeBlanc said he did not know whether money was missing from that account.
Aaron and Melissa Gautreaux were released from jail on $15,000 bail each set by Judge Ralph Tureau of the 23rd Judicial District Court, deputies said.
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