Last month, Louisiana Inspector General Stephen Street signed off on a report detailing how the Grand Isle Port Commission created its own police department — without having clear legislative authority to do so — and hired reserve officers without conducting proper background checks. Badges, remarkably close in design to those worn by the Louisiana State Police, were handed out, but, surprisingly, liability insurance was nowhere to be found.
Of equal interest: The report was the first of its kind released by the state IG since June 26, 2009.
When Gov. Bobby Jindal took office in 2008, he ushered a set of bills through the Legislature revamping the IG's position and office as part of his sweeping ethics reform package. The reconstituted office is a hybrid: equal parts white-collar watchdog and internal affairs division.
Accountants have been replaced by forensic auditors and former law enforcement officials, many of them toting guns and badges of their own. In the past, an investigative journalist was considered a good fit for the office (Times-Picayune legend Bill Lynch was the first IG), but now it's run by folks like Street, who has worked on practically every side of the criminal justice system as an attorney, and one-time Baton Rouge Police Chief Greg Phares, who oversees the investigations division.
The office now has the statutory authority to investigate every corner of state government, including the executive branch. Street's investigators can subpoena almost anyone, and they have access to confidential law enforcement databases.
"We're kind of finding ourselves in new territory," Street says. "We want the big cases and we want to root out the bad actors in Louisiana government. We want white-collar corruption and fraud. We're a law enforcement agency now."
Last fall, the IG's office took down Nellie Rogers, an ex-employee of the Division of Administration who stole more than $4,000 in health insurance premiums from recent state retirees. IG investigators have worked on racketeering cases and formed partnerships with the FBI and other law enforcement groups.
But the IG's office also is changing in ways lawmakers never expected.
Even though Act 831 of the 2008 regular session clearly states that the office's new duties "shall not include arrest powers," seven IG employees, including Street, were recently granted special officer commissions from the Louisiana State Police, which gives them full arrest powers.
When asked to explain how one part of state law prohibits his office from arresting people while another, through the special officer commissions, allows it, Street responded his office has not yet arrested anyone and doesn't plan to do so. He adds that Col. Michael D. Edmonson, superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, "didn't just hand over the commissions." He says his employees underwent intense training and passed several tests, adding, "Having those commissions is entirely consistent with the mission of this office."
As for how lawmakers might react to the news, especially after being told the new and improved IG would not have arrest powers, Street says they may want another crack at clarifying the situation.
Arrest powers aside, the changes have already given Street more independence than his predecessors enjoyed. He doesn't have to wait for a governor to approve a public report anymore, although the governor is offered a box on the cover page to "endorse" the findings. Moreover, it now takes a vote of both the House and Senate — and concurrence by the governor — to fire the IG, instead of the governor having that sole discretion.
All the same, during these times when streamlining is all the rage and state revenues are flat, Street may wish he had the protection of the governor. Some lawmakers have already questioned him about duplications; his office often partners with the attorney general and Louisiana State Police and carries out some of the same functions of the legislative auditor. "I think there are some similarities, but our focus is public corruption, fraud and abuse," Street says.
Street also has an ace in the hole. "I've already said that we will pay for ourselves by recovering money in these criminal cases and by fulfilling our mission," he says. "We were initially uncomfortable to climb out on that limb, but I think we can do it."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.