BESE member under scrutiny

The longest-serving member of the Louisiana’s top school board faces a charge of felony theft after a state audit accused him of double billing for travel expenses, DeSoto Parish District Attorney Richard Johnson said Monday.

Johnson said he also plans to seek a separate charge of malfeasance in office against Walter Lee, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The district attorney said he intends to present the case to a grand jury on Jan. 13.

The issue stems from a report issued last month by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.

The review said Lee collected $13,073 from BESE for travel expenses between 2009-12 that Lee did not personally pay. The auditor said that may violate state law.

Purpera said Lee instead paid for his travel with a credit card from the DeSoto Parish school system, where he was superintendent from 1999-2012, but did not forward his reimbursement from BESE to the school system.

The audit also said Lee improperly terminated his school system vehicle lease contract 14 months early, which cost the district $10,653, and then bought the vehicle himself at a price well below market value, which could be a violation of state law and the state constitution.

The felony theft charge would carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000 or both, Johnson said.

The malfeasance in office accusation would apply to the allegations of double billing and misuse of the vehicle, he said.

In a third finding, Purpera said the school system could not demonstrate that pay raises given to Lee complied with the terms of his contract.

His salary rose from $70,822 to $240,912 during that period.

Lee, who lives in Shreveport, could not be reached on Monday by telephone or email.

He is a member of a special task force on state aid to public schools that met for the final time on Monday but Lee did not attend.

Taylor Townsend, Lee’s attorney, was in court and unavailable for comment, Townsend’s office said.

Purpera’s report said Lee declined comment on the audit on the advice of his attorney.

The auditor said BESE should seek recovery of the $13,073 in hotel and gasoline charges improperly reimbursed to Lee.

BESE President Chas Roemer said Monday that, shortly after the audit was made public, officials sent a letter to Lee that said the money should be repaid.

Roemer said a second letter sent to Lee said until the issue is resolved he would not be getting any reimbursements for his work on the panel.

“He and I spoke on the phone,” Roemer said. “He indicated he was going to do what needed to be done.”

What impact any charges would have on Lee’s status with BESE is unclear.

Officials of the board, in response to questions, said they were doing research on the issue.

BESE sets policies for about 700,000 public school students statewide.

Lee represents District 4 in northwest Louisiana and is one of eight elected members.

Three others are named by the governor.