Auditor questions ‘Cajun Justice’

Photo provided -- Sheriff Vernon Bourgeois Jr. stands in an airboat with some of his deputies to promote the A&E show ‘Cajun Justice.’ Behind Bourgeois are, clockwise from left, Dep. Melissa ‘Catfish’ Quintal, Dep. Paul ‘Highlights’ Thibodeaux, Cpl. Storm Fitch, Det. Lt. Terry Daigre and Lt. Merlin Daigle. Show caption
Photo provided -- Sheriff Vernon Bourgeois Jr. stands in an airboat with some of his deputies to promote the A&E show ‘Cajun Justice.’ Behind Bourgeois are, clockwise from left, Dep. Melissa ‘Catfish’ Quintal, Dep. Paul ‘Highlights’ Thibodeaux, Cpl. Storm Fitch, Det. Lt. Terry Daigre and Lt. Merlin Daigle.

“Cajun Justice” star and former Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Vernon Bourgeois Jr. allegedly bent some rules himself off screen, according to a report released Monday by the Louisiana legislative auditor.

Described in the show’s publicity as “a king” with “extraordinary powers,” the legislative auditor’s report said Bourgeois improperly used parish dollars for clothing and vacation trips.

He also allowed Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies to work 53 hours filming re-enactments for the reality television series “Cajun Justice” during the same hours they claimed to be performing their regular job duties, according to the report by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.

Both the film production company and the Sheriff’s Office paid the deputies. As a result, Terrebonne Parish taxpayers improperly paid the deputies $988, according to the audit.

Phone calls to Bourgeois’ home and office, as listed in the phone book and on public documents, were not answered Monday.

In a note dated July 15, Bourgeois responded to the auditor: “Under protest, I will reimburse the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office $19,175 to cover the cost of the annual leave I received, clothing allowance and also fuel expenses incurred.”

Of the dozen deputies who collected pay from both the producers and the parish, current Terrebonne Sheriff Jerry Larpenter said only a few are still employed. “Most of them quit or moved on or they weren’t renewed,” said Larpenter, who had to lay off some personnel when he took over in July 2012.

Whether the deputies would be required to reimburse the parish is still being decided, Larpenter said. The audit was turned over to the District Attorney’s Office in Terrebonne Parish, he said.

The deputies shown on the “Cajun Justice” series were filmed looking for Rougarou — described as a “shape-shifting swamp monster” — investigating voodoo and following up on neighbors stealing air conditioners during a heat wave.

The reality show, which ran in 2012 on A&E Network, was canceled.

“Deep in the remote bayou, certain residents think the rules don’t apply to them and are more than willing to fight back,” as A&E advertising described the show. “With the fiery personalities of the local Cajuns and the uniqueness of the Louisiana justice system, there’s no such thing as a routine police call.”

“Most of everything was staged,” said Larpenter, who had been the parish’s sheriff for 22 years before stepping down to run for parish president in 2007. “Everything was about voodoo, it had nothing to do with the Sheriff’s Office answering daily complaints ... They used our office for two years so that he (Bourgeois) could become a Hollywood movie star.”

The show’s producers, MAK Pictures LLC, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., did not respond to a request for an interview.

The production company applied for tax credits from the Louisiana Economic Development. The company reported spending $4.8 million on the show, of which $1.5 million were Louisiana expenditures.

Chris Stelly, the director of entertainment for the state economic development department, wrote in an email that while LED doesn’t comment on legislative audits, the agency is reviewing a copy of this one.

“Given that the report raises the question of duplicative payment for services, we will ensure that only qualified expenditures receive tax credits,” Stelly wrote in an email. “... the production company has not yet received tax credits from the State of Louisiana for this project.”

Bourgeois was elected in October 2007 with 14,728 votes — or 53 percent of the total cast in the four man race. He did not run for re-election in 2011. However, Bourgeois raised more than $100,000, according to campaign finance disclosures. His latest report, filed in February, showed the campaign account still had $83,477.

“As far as ‘Cajun Justice,’ it was a very small amount,” said Allen Brown, the assistant legislative auditor for local government audit services. “One of the most egregious findings was that he failed to collect about $400,000 in unpaid taxes.”

Bourgeois failed to sell or seize property of Baby Oil Co. sufficient to pay $394,627 of back property taxes, including interest and penalties, owed for years 2009 through 2012, the audit claimed.

The auditor also alleged Bourgeois received a $16,133 payment for unused accumulated leave. Bourgeois also received $600 per year in clothing allowance payments during his term from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2012, which also caused his pay to exceed the statutory maximum, according to the audit.

Additionally, the legislative audit alleged the Sheriff’s Office improperly paid $1,950 for fuel when Bourgeois took a sheriff’s vehicle and charged the parish for fuel on personal trips between Jan. 1, 2009, and Nov. 4, 2011. He took six football trips out of state to see LSU play, including the Cotton Bowl in Dallas in January 2011, and to Atlanta to see the New Orleans Saints play in December 2009.

He also drove to racing events, including Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama in October 2011, according to the audit.

“In addition, former Sheriff Bourgeois may have violated a state ethics law by accepting a free round-trip flight on a private jet to a conference in Nevada,” the audit stated.

“For three years, former Sheriff Bourgeois directed/authorized Terrebonne Parish deputies to provide a security detail for the Nicholls State University football team when it traveled to its away games,” the audit stated. Nicholls State is in Thibodaux, in neighboring Lafourche Parish.

“Sheriff Bourgeois told us that TPSO funds could be used for this detail because approximately 75 percent of the student body of Nicholls State University comes from Terrebonne Parish,” the audit stated.

Deputies were paid a total $21,392 in salary, meal costs and fuel expenses totaling $21,392 for this out-of-parish — and sometimes out-of-state — detail that was provided for the 2009, 2010, and 2011 football seasons. Auditor Purpera said the cost of the out-of-parish security detail may represent an improper donation and a violation of the state constitution.

The audit report also found that Bourgeois failed to comply with a cooperative endeavor agreement by donating about $350,000 of inmate labor to the Louisiana Workforce LLC to perform improvements to a public building used for the work release program.