BESE member Walter Lee indicted

Walter Lee, the longest-serving member of Louisiana’s top school board, was indicted Friday by a DeSoto Parish grand jury, District Attorney Richard Johnson Jr. said.

The indictment includes two counts of felony theft, public contract fraud and malfeasance in office, Johnson said in a telephone interview.

The accusations stem from a highly critical report by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.

Lee, who lives in Shreveport and is former DeSoto Parish school superintendent, has not returned calls and emails for comment.

Taylor Townsend, a Natchitoches attorney who represents Lee, said Friday the case presented to the grand jury and Purpera’s audit are based on a “skewed” version of the facts.

“Walter Lee is innocent of the charges,” Townsend said. “I firmly believe he will be acquitted.”

He said Lee would turn himself in to authorities on Friday.

In a prepared statement, Johnson said Lee’s case is especially bothersome.

“Public officials are required to carry out their duties in a way that encourages the support and confidence of the community,” he said.

“That was not done here,” the district attorney added. “We must take these acts seriously because to do otherwise would undermine the public’s trust.”

Johnson said Lee is scheduled to be arraigned on Feb. 5.

The felony theft charges allege that Lee failed to reimburse the DeSoto Parish school system, where he was superintendent, for $3,968 in fuel expenses and $1,578 for lodging and meals.

Purpera said in his report that Lee collected travel expenses from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that he did not personally pay.

The auditor said Lee used a parish school system credit card to pay for his travel and did not forward his reimbursement from BESE to the school system.

Johnson said the public contract allegation stems from how Lee handled a vehicle leased on behalf of the school system.

The district attorney says the BESE member terminated the lease early, cost the DeSoto Parish School District about $10,000 by doing so and then got a “substantial” discount on another purchase shortly afterward.

The malfeasance in office accusation says Lee intentionally performed his duties as superintendent in an unlawful manner.

The four charges carry maximum penalties of 27 years in jail and fines totaling $12,000.

Johnson said Purpera’s office launched its investigation of Lee last year after uncovering irregularities in a routine review of BESE records.

The report was released on Dec. 11.

A spokesman for BESE said that, if a panel member is convicted of a felony, he or she would be suspended without compensation pending any appeals.

If the appeals are unsuccessful, they would be removed from office.

A guilty plea to a felony charge would also result in removal from office.

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

Lee is one of eight elected members. Three others are named by the governor.