LSU students promised reimbursement in scheme at McDonald’s

More than $30,000 stolen at LSU Student Union location

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- LSU freshman Tiffani Merridy of Baton Rouge sits down in the student union after purchasing with her school-issued 'paw points' debit card a McDonald's meal on Thursday in Baton Rouge. Merridy was aware of Wednesday's arrests of four McDonald's employees for allegedly overcharging students that used the card.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- LSU freshman Tiffani Merridy of Baton Rouge sits down in the student union after purchasing with her school-issued 'paw points' debit card a McDonald's meal on Thursday in Baton Rouge. Merridy was aware of Wednesday's arrests of four McDonald's employees for allegedly overcharging students that used the card.

The company that operates a McDonald’s inside LSU’s Student Union pledged Thursday to reimburse students targeted by former restaurant employees in an alleged scheme that police say resulted in the theft of more than $30,000 in the past year.

Meanwhile, LSU Police arrested a seventh person accused in the fraud scheme, which could result in more arrests as the investigation continues, said Capt. Cory Lalonde, an LSU Police spokesman.

Seated outside the popular eatery Thursday afternoon, Jonathan Brown, 20, said he was happy he made purchases at the restaurant in the past because it already netted a $50 fraud reimbursement deposited into his Tiger Cash, a debit account that limits spending to businesses in partnership with LSU.

But Brown also said the news about the alleged scheme makes him skeptical of non-cash purchases.

“I guess now I’ve got to watch who I give my money to,” said Brown, a sophomore at LSU. “I’m starting to wonder if it’s safe to even swipe my Tiger Card at my dorm,” he said, referring to a security measure at many dormitories that requires students to scan their identification cards to access the buildings.

On Thursday, police arrested Cassandra Nicole Bell, 31, of Baton Rouge, and booked her into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on a felony theft count, bringing the number of people implicated in the scheme to seven. Four Baton Rouge residents were arrested and booked Wednesday into Parish Prison, and two people were issued summonses on misdemeanor thefts earlier in the investigation.

The four arrested Wednesday include: Jeannine A. Rooks, 34; Constance Lacole Brown, 31; Bertrand Lawrence Brown, 34; and Danielle Marie Casey, 23, all of Baton Rouge.

Chartwells, the company that operates the McDonald’s through a partnership with LSU, sent an email Thursday to students victimized in the scheme, pledging to pay back anyone who “used their account at this McDonald’s restaurant during the time period when the suspected unauthorized transactions occurred,” the email states.

LSU deferred questions to Chartwells, and a company spokeswoman refused to be interviewed and did not respond to questions by email.

It’s unclear where the reimbursement money will come from, how much it totals, how many students are eligible for it or how the reimbursement system will work.

John Valluzzo, owner of Valman Union, LLC, which owns the McDonald’s, said Thursday the four employees arrested Wednesday were fired months ago after an investigation revealed their involvement in the fraud scheme.

“The employees who work in my franchises are excellent employees,” Valluzzo said. “This activity did not reflect the values that we want from any employee.”

He also said company leaders are looking for technologies that might aid in fraud prevention.

“The minute I found out about this, we put some different systems in place to prevent this type of activity in the future,” Valluzzo said.

Tiffani Merridy, 18, said she was on her way to an on-campus Subway on Thursday afternoon when it started raining. She sought shelter inside the Student Union and settled for McDonald’s, a restaurant where the freshman eats breakfast about once a week.

Merridy said she had not received an email about a possible reimbursement as of Thursday afternoon. She also said the alleged scheme has forced her to question the trustworthiness of the payment system, in which restaurant employees type in chargeable amounts in a separate scanner from the cash register before completing the transaction.

According to arrest warrants, students weren’t provided receipts on many occasions, which might have tipped off attentive customers.

Police records indicate the scheme targeted students paying with meal plan money that can be spent only at certain campus restaurants and stadiums. It’s unclear whether the thefts also targeted people using other forms of payments.

Jasmine Freeman, 21, said while munching Thursday on some McDonald’s food outside the Student Union that she always pays in cash, a lesson her father taught her, to shield her from fraud schemes.

“I’ll stick to using cash,” Freeman said. “I always trust daddy.”