Fraud probe highlights turmoil at state ATC office

Law enforcement officials are investigating possible payroll fraud within the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, an inquiry that has opened a window into internal turmoil the agency has seen under Commissioner Troy Hebert.

The investigation, launched at Hebert’s behest last year by the state Office of Inspector General, has focused on a veteran agent accused of violating ATC policy by claiming work hours while at home or driving to his office.

The agent, Brette Tingle, has cooperated with investigators and told them Hebert may have targeted him because he is a lead witness in a discrimination complaint against Hebert, according to new court filings.

Tingle, who is on military leave, previously served as the director of the ATC’s office in New Orleans.

Hebert, a former state senator from Jeanerette, has made a series of controversial changes in the agency over the past three years, including tracking agents’ vehicles with GPS devices and ending the practice of paying employees for their commute. He has required agents to punch a time clock, disciplined them for making personal calls on state cellphones and implemented a performance-based system that makes them work more.

“I don’t target any individuals,” Hebert said. “It’s obvious that I inherited a very troubled agency when I took over at ATC, and I certainly recognize why many employees would not be happy with some of the decisions I’ve made.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal tapped Hebert to lead the ATC, the agency that regulates the sale of alcoholic beverages and tobacco products, after former Commissioner Murphy J. Painter resigned in 2010. Painter had been beset by allegations he stalked a woman and misused law enforcement databases. However, a federal jury acquitted him in December of 29 counts of computer fraud and making false statements.

As an outsider without a badge, Hebert took a reformist approach and quickly became a polarizing figure in the agency, slashing positions and perks he said were wasting taxpayer dollars. The result, he said, has been a leaner and more efficient agency that has eliminated a deficit and, since 2011, reduced by half the amount of time it takes taxpayers to receive alcohol permits.

“ATC is doing a lot of good things,” Hebert said, “but change is sometimes hard to accept.”

Hebert’s tenure has been marked by contention, and there are many signs that he has alienated employees.

“Every time he opens his mouth, it seems like he’s putting his foot in it,” said Mike McClanahan, president of the Baton Rouge branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who has accused Hebert of wrongfully terminating black agents.

The unrest was illustrated one night last February when someone drove into the agency’s parking garage and opened fire on multiple unmarked ATC vehicles, an alarming incident Hebert said is likely attributable to a current or former agent. East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies have made no arrests in the case, but court records show they have sought to question at least two former ATC agents whose knowledge of the incident was deemed suspicious.

“During the investigation, detectives have learned that interoffice turmoil has caused numerous employees to leave the agency on bad terms,” Cpl. Jordan Webb wrote in an application for a search warrant.

Hebert declined to discuss the particulars of his payroll fraud complaint against Tingle, and would not disclose whether any other ATC employees are under criminal investigation.

In 2012, one agent resigned and two others were demoted after Hebert determined through GPS readings that they were shaving hours off their work day.

Hebert approached the state Office of Inspector General and, in May 2013, filed a complaint accompanied by an investigative report prepared by Amy McInnis, of the Shows, Cali & Walsh law firm. The report, which examined four months of attendance records between April 2012 and July 2012, found Tingle had routinely included time driving to work on his timesheet.

“These time periods would range from approximately 10 minutes up to several hours,” Robert Chadwick, an investigator with the Inspector General’s Office, wrote in an application for a search warrant.

In the complaint, Hebert said he had sent an email to agents in February 2012 admonishing them to clock in only after they arrived at work, not when they left home.

Tingle, who could not be reached for comment, told investigators he would answer emails from Hebert and subordinates in the mornings at home and took business-related calls during his commute. He said Hebert had given him complete authority over the New Orleans office, which Hebert supposedly referred to as a “pilot program” that didn’t play by the same rules as the rest of the agency.

“Mr. Tingle stated that Commissioner Hebert stated to him verbally and in emails that ATC Policy did not apply to him or the New Orleans Office,” Chadwick wrote in the search warrant, which sought access to Tingle’s state emails.

Hebert denied that claim last week.

“If I felt that way, I wouldn’t have forwarded the charges to the proper authorities,” he said. “ATC will never have a pilot program that pays people to stay home as long as I am the commissioner.”

According to the search warrant, Tingle said the payroll fraud allegations may have been raised because he is “a lead witness in a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint by other ATC employees against Commissioner Hebert.”

McClanahan, of the NAACP, said he expects Hebert to be sued in federal court.

Hebert maintains he has not fired a single black agent and that he did not target Tingle, who is white.

McClanahan, meanwhile, said he is waiting on additional data from Hebert’s office to show when agents were hired and how many black employees serve in supervisory roles.