Ex-St. Landry official underreported during campaign
OPELOUSAS — Former St. Landry Parish President Don Menard turned in only a handful of receipts for $16,612 he charged on a parish credit card and appears to have handed over day-to-day duties to an underling while campaigning for the Legislature during his last year in office, according to a state audit released Tuesday.
The state Legislative Auditor’s Office concluded that the former parish president “may have violated” state law.
“The key words in the finding are ‘may have violated,’ and I didn’t violate anything,” Menard said Tuesday.
Menard, who served as parish president from 2004 until January, characterized the audit as the product of a “political witch hunt” against him by some of his enemies on the Parish Council.
The audit states that from 2009 to 2011, Menard made 275 purchases totalling $16,612 on his parish-issued credit card but turned in only nine receipts.
Menard said the receipts might have been lacking, but the credit card statements show what was purchased and that none of the expenses was improper.
About half of the credit card purchases were for gasoline, according to the audit.
Auditors questioned whether all of that fuel was used for Menard’s parish-issued Chevrolet Trailblazer or for parish business and noted that he did not turn in any receipts or mileage reports to the parish in 2011.
The audit states that Menard bought about 1,000 gallons of gasoline with the parish credit card over seven months in 2011, enough to fuel the Trailblazer for an estimated 16,000 miles.
But odometer readings on the vehicle indicate it travelled no more than 4,653 miles during that time period, according to the audit.
The audit also noted that Menard’s fuel spending was highest in the months when staff reported that he was spending less time in the office while waging his unsuccessful campaign for state representative last year.
During 2011, while campaigning for the legislative seat, Menard stopped attending Parish Council meetings and handed over the day-to-day operations of the parish to his nephew, Jessie Bellard, whom Menard hired in 2004 as an office manager, according to the audit.
Menard initially told auditors that he continued to regularly go to his parish government office during the legislative campaign but later “changed his statement and admitted that his attendance at the office had declined,” according to the audit.
Menard maintained that he remained in contact with his staff to manage the affairs of parish government when out of the office.
Parish President Bill Fontenot, in a written response to the audit, offered a defense for his predecessor, stating that Menard did take time to campaign but “at no time did he abandon his responsibilities as parish president.”
Fontenot wrote that while Menard was out of the office he delegated duties to staff, directed the daily workings of parish government and made himself available by telephone, email and text messaging.
Auditors wrote that Bellard said he would hear from Menard by phone or in person “maybe once a week” and that parish Public Works Director Tim Marks recalled hearing from Menard about once a month in 2011 and “only saw him once or twice all year.”
Parish Council Chairman Wayne Ardoin said he expects the council to meet soon to discuss the audit and decide what action to take, including possibly seeking repayment for some of the credit card expenses.
“We need to move forward as a council and try to prevent these things from happening again,” Ardoin said.
Any state violations arising out of the audit likely will be referred to the state Attorney General’s Office, St. Landry Parish District Attorney Earl Taylor said.
“We are in the process of reviewing it (the audit) to determine what action we are going to take,” Taylor said.
The audit also explored allegations of dual office holding against Bellard, who continues to work as the parish’s director of administration while also working full time with the Opelousas Fire Department.
State law generally prohibits a person from holding two full-time jobs with state or local government, but Bellard could still hold both jobs if one were part-time.
Auditors wrote that they could not determine if Bellard’s two jobs violated state law because Bellard was paid a set salary for his parish government work and there were no records indicating how many hours he was working or whether he was considered a full-time or part-time employee.
At the recommendation of the legislative auditor, Bellard began submitting time sheets in February after Fontenot took office this year.
The time sheets from this year indicate that Bellard is working part time, meaning there would appear to be no legal issues with his other government job at the Fire Department, according to the audit.
Bellard’s continued employment in parish government has been a source of contention between Fontenot and the Parish Council.
The audit also states that Menard allegedly signed three parish contracts without the required approval of the Parish Council, used his parish vehicle for personal business and did not have the required parish government emblem on his parish-issued vehicle.