Audit says Amite police chief may have violated state law

Amite Police Chief Jerry Trabona may have violated state law when he paid 25 off-duty policemen $18,000 for 360 court appearances even though the officers did not attend court on those days, state auditors said.

State auditors reviewed the Amite Police Department’s time sheets after Lee Gray, Amite’s independent auditor, told state officials about discrepancies in the town’s payroll and court records from April 2012 to October 2013, according to a Legislative Auditor’s Office report released Monday.

State auditors determined Trabona was incorrectly paying off-duty officers for appearances at arraignments even though the officers did not attend court on those days because their appearances would have been unnecessary.

State law says officers who are off-duty but are called to court to testify as a witness can be paid up to $150 a day for appearing in court. Those payments are commonly referred to as “witness fees.”

In state district courts in Louisiana, a police officer generally does not need to attend an arraignment because testimony is not given during those proceedings.

In some city courts, all of the proceedings for a case — including arraignment, trial and sentencing — are usually held on a single day.

Trabona told auditors that was the case when he first took office in January 2005, according to a letter from Trabona to the Legislative Auditor’s Office included in the state’s audit report.

Trabona told state auditors he typically looked at the town’s weekly arraignment dockets and noted the officers who issued citations that led to guilty pleas in court.

He would submit the names of the off-duty officers he assumed had appeared in court to the town’s clerk to have witness fees paid to them.

Trials and arraignments at Amite City Court were separated several years ago, and even though the officers no longer appeared in court for the arraignments, Trabona continued to have them paid, the state’s audit report says.

Amite hired a new prosecutor in April 2012 to handle arraignments and trials, Trabona wrote in his letter.

Trabona said he explained to the prosecutor how he submitted the paperwork for officers to be paid “for their court appearances.”

The prosecutor told Trabona to “continue as I had in the past” with the witness fees payments, Trabona said.

“This continued for eighteen months,” Trabona’s letter says. “Additionally, I was never instructed or informed by our auditor, Lee Gray, that I was doing anything inappropriate or wrong.”

However, the state’s audit report says Trabona appeared to fully understand the state’s witness fee law.

“Because Chief Trabona appears to have understood state law governing the payment of witness fees and materially misrepresented police officers’ time sheets, Chief Trabona may have violated (state law),” the audit says.

The auditor’s office says it has sent its report to the 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which includes Tangipahoa Parish.