“The integrity of the Office of State Fire Marshal is one of my top priorities. It’s what the public expects.” Butch Browning, state fire marshal
Butch Browning is resuming his position as State Fire Marshal, after an investigation by State Police determined he did not attempt to defraud the office or the public, State Police Col. Michael Edmonson said Friday.
“Could he have made better decisions as a supervisor, yes,” Edmonson said. “But, I didn’t see anything that laid evidence on Butch Browning to defraud or impede public trust.”
State Police and the Office of the Inspector General launched independent investigations a few months ago into complaints about Browning misusing his authority.
The complaints allege that Browning suppressed information about his office’s handling of an investigation of a carnival ride accident that injured two teens, allowed noncommissioned investigators to purchase their old service weapons and wore military medals and ribbons without having served in the military.
State Police and the Office of the Inspector General also investigated a letter Browning purportedly wrote and sent to the governor saying he mismanaged public funds for personal gain. State Police deemed the letter a fraud and found no evidence to support the complaints.
The Inspector General’s investigation into Browning is still open, according to Edmonson.
Browning said Friday that he welcomes any opportunity to make positive changes and appreciates any input he receives from State Police or the Inspector General.
“The integrity of the Office of State Fire Marshal is one of my top priorities,” he said. “It’s what the public expects.”
Browning, who will resume his post Monday, said he decided to accept Edmonson’s offer to return to the State Fire Marshal’s Office, instead of taking a job in the private sector because, “my passion is public service.”
Rafael Goyeneche III, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a New Orleans-based watchdog organization that focuses on public corruption, called Edmonson’s decision to reinstate Browning unconscionable.
“If the standard is going to be whether Butch Browning broke the law then this is a sad day in Louisiana,” he said. “State Police make decisions every day to discipline officers on administrative issues and this is someone who has made several managerial blunders.”
The blunders include the failure of the fire marshal’s office to properly inspect a carnival ride last year to make sure it was safe, Goyeneche said.
According to Goyeneche, whose office received complaints about Browning and forwarded them to the Office of the Inspector General, the fire marshal suppressed information about an investigation into a carnival ride accident in Greensburg last year that injured two teens.
Browning blamed “operator error” for the accident, saying shortly after the incident that the operator of the ride “somehow accidentally activated the boom switch at the ride control panel forcing motion of the ride, at the time the riders were exiting the car.”
Two siblings, a 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy, were thrown from the ride and airlifted to a Baton Rouge hospital with, according to a relative, broken and fractured bones.
Goyeneche said Browning failed to mention in his statement that the guard on the ride’s safety switch was missing.
Browning also failed to note that an accident investigator for the Fire Marshal’s Office had questioned why the office issued a safety permit for the ride without the guard.
According to documents in the investigative file obtained by The Advocate, operator error was deemed the cause of the accident. The investigation also concluded that several things needed to happen to the ride before it could operate again in Louisiana. One of those things was that accidental activation guards be installed.
Edmonson said that Browning did not know about the mechanical findings of the investigation when he issued a news release about the accident. The fire marshal, however, should have issued a subsequent news release to disclose those findings, he said.
In the future, Edmonson added, State Police will be the lead investigator of carnival ride accidents since the Fire Marshal’s Office is responsible for issuing the safety permits for such rides. The change in policy, he said, is to ensure the integrity of the investigation.
“Integrity is so important to me,” Edmonson said. “It defines what an agency is about.”