IG Report: Information suppressed

A Louisiana Office of Inspector General investigation into state Fire Marshal Butch Browning found he suppressed information about a carnival ride that severely injured two teens last year in Greensburg.

The investigation was triggered last winter by the Metropolitan Crime Commission when the New Orleans commission forwarded complaints to the state agency about Browning misusing his authority.

The findings of the investigation were released Tuesday, just weeks after the Metropolitan Crime Commission forwarded a new complaint to Inspector General Stephen Street about the circumstances of a deadly Grand Isle apartment complex fire investigated by the Fire Marshal’s Office.

One of the complaints the commission forwarded to the inspector general last winter was that Browning failed to release information about his office’s handling of the May 14, 2011, Greensburg carnival ride incident, during which two siblings, a 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy, were severely injured when they were thrown from a ride.

On the night of the accident, an investigator with Browning’s office discovered an earlier safety inspection conducted by a state fire marshal inspector failed to detect mechanical problems with the ride that, if noted and corrected, would have prevented the accident from happening, the inspector general’s report said.

The investigator informed Browning “several times” the inspector might have erred by allowing the ride to operate with improper equipment and such an error might expose the Fire Marshal’s Office to liability, the report said.

Despite receiving the information, Browning released two statements to the media shortly after the accident that said his office’s preliminary examination did not reveal any mechanical defects to the ride and the cause of the accident was operator error.

A month later, the Fire Marshal’s Office completed its investigation, which confirmed the operator’s control switches had been changed and did not have accidental activation guards.

The boom parking brake, designed to hold the boom during the loading and unloading of patrons, also had been removed.

Browning did not issue a public statement about those findings.

In a written response to the inspector general’s report, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and the Fire Marshal’s Office said Browning was not obligated to issue a news release about the conclusion of his office’s investigation and his office does “not have a practice of releasing unsolicited documents to the media or anyone else.”

The response denied Browning was informed there might have been an error in the ride’s set-up inspection and said in his two statements to the media, the state fire marshal provided to the public information then known to his office, “which did not at the time include a finding that there were any mechanical defects with the ride.”

Browning said Tuesday he did not suppress evidence or information and such an accusation was offensive.

“I don’t lie and I don’t cheat,” he said. “I do everything I can to do what’s right in this world and I would never be a part nor let anybody else be a part of lying and deceiving.”

The inspector general’s report proves the contrary, said Rafael Goyeneche III, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

“He (Browning) knew there was mechanical failure and that is confirmed by his employees,” Goyeneche said. “Not one, not two, but three employees, and each of them said that accident would not have occurred had the inspector done his job.”

The inspector general’s report recommends the Fire Marshal’s Office consider disciplinary action against Byron Wade, the inspector of the carnival ride.

It also suggested the office conduct its carnival ride inspections before allowing the public on the rides, force its inspectors to fill out their reports according to policy and consider requesting legislative changes to separate the duties of inspecting amusement rides and investigating amusement ride accidents.

The report did not suggest disciplining Browning over his handling of the amusement ride investigation.

The report did, however, suggest Browning should be disciplined for violating his office’s policy of allowing only commissioned investigators to purchase their old service weapons.

Browning did so by signing documents attesting three non-law enforcement employees were law enforcement officers, the inspector general’s report said.

The forms also certified that criminal background checks were conducted on the employees when they were not.

The inspector general’s report also found that while serving as state fire marshal, Browning wore military ribbons to denote certain firefighting accomplishments while with the Gonzales Fire Department.

Although Browning intended for the ribbons to represent firefighting achievements, rather than military achievements, the Stolen Valor Act prohibits the wearing of medals when not authorized under federal regulations.

Browning discontinued wearing the ribbons after Department of Public Safety administrators advised him to do so.

The report also found Joel Domangue, the fire marshal’s former chief of emergency services, instructed state fire marshal employees — deployed to Alabama in May 2011 to assist in search and rescue operations after a tornado — to claim hours on their time sheets for work not performed.

When Browning was made aware of the problem, he reported it to the Department of Public Safety, which resulted in the recovery of overpayments totaling $11,038 from 13 employees.

The inspector general’s investigation, which began March 2, was announced April 18, the day after Browning resigned from his position to take a job in the private sector.

State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said at the time that Browning’s resignation had nothing to do with the investigation, rather the fire marshal had been mulling the private sector job offer for months.

The next month, Browning decided to resume his governor-appointed position as state fire marshal after a State Police investigation into the allegations against Browning determined he did not attempt to defraud the Fire Marshal’s Office.

Edmonson said Tuesday he stands by his agency’s finding and is confident in Browning’s abilities as fire marshal.

Shannon Bates, a spokeswoman with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office, said in a prepared statement that they too are “confident in Butch and his ability to do his job.”