East Feliciana grand jury clears tourism officials

An East Feliciana Parish grand jury declined Tuesday to indict two women arrested last year on more than 200 counts involving a program designed to promote the historic and economic redevelopment of Clinton’s old commercial district.

The grand jurors returned “no true bills” on possible felony theft and public contract fraud charges involving Carol Shirley, former director of the Clinton Main Street program.

The grand jury, which heard testimony in the case Monday, also reported a “no true bill” on a possible felony theft charge against Alice Kent, treasurer of the nonprofit Friends of Clinton Main Street.

Shirley and Kent testified before the grand jury.

After the grand jury reported, attorneys for Shirley and Kent blasted former Clinton police Lt. James Cook, who conducted the investigation, calling him a “rogue cop.”

Cook shrugged his shoulders and declined comment as he left the courtroom Tuesday.

Cook booked Shirley, 67, in November on one count each of racketeering, felony theft and malfeasance in office, 196 counts of money laundering, 15 counts of filing false public records and six counts of contract fraud.

He also booked Kent, 63, as a principal to malfeasance in office, principal to six counts of public contract fraud, principal to 15 counts of filing false public records, 196 counts of money laundering and one count each of racketeering and felony theft.

At the time of the arrests, then-Police Chief Eddie Stewart said the investigation focused on three state grants and state appropriations totaling $65,235 during a five-year period.

Shirley and Kent said Tuesday that Cook never asked them questions about the program’s finances and never asked for receipts.

“He never questioned us. He never asked for documentation. Nothing,” Kent said.

Shirley also said the town’s auditor, Mary Sue Stages, examined their records and asked them questions about the finances each year and never issued “a finding” of a financial discrepancy.

Shirley said she is glad to put the matter behind her.

“I just hope it doesn’t have any bad effects on the Main Street (tourism) program,” she said.

“I don’t think it was a problem with the (Clinton) Police Department. It was a problem with just one officer, who has since been fired,” Kent’s attorney, John McLindon said.

“Everybody knew these were bogus charges,” McLindon said. “There was a board that oversaw every penny they spent.”

Shirley’s attorney, Lance Unglesby, said Cook had been a state trooper but was forced to resign.

“This is a great example of people who are undeserving of certain positions getting into those positions of power and abusing that power,” Unglesby said. “They can take advantage of innocent people.”

McLindon and Unglesby said 20th Judicial District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla should be commended for his handling of the case.

“We thank the district attorney for allowing this to be decided by the public,” Unglesby said of the grand jury’s unanimous decision.

The arrests came near the conclusion of last year’s heated race for mayor in Clinton, pitting incumbent Don Reason against Lori Ann Bell.

A news release issued through Cook quoted Reason as saying Bell, as the Board of Aldermen’s finance director, should have paid as much attention to the Main Street program as she did to police officers’ gasoline use.

Bell denounced the statement as “dirty politics.” She won the Dec. 8 runoff and replaced Stewart as police chief after taking office in January.

Stewart initially said Cook resigned but later said he fired the officer.

“I have no idea what drove Mr. Cook to do this. It’s beyond me,” McLindon said.

“He knew these people. If he had a question, why didn’t he just come and ask them? But he didn’t. He went behind their back and got an arrest warrant. It’s just bizarre the way he handled this case,” McLindon said.