Louisiana's former veterans secretary mismanaged his department, the state legislative auditor and inspector general said in an investigative report released Monday.
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana's former veterans secretary mismanaged his department, the state legislative auditor and inspector general said in an investigative report released Monday that describes widespread improprieties at the Department of Veterans Affairs under David LaCerte's leadership.
LaCerte "engaged in questionable organizational, hiring and pay practices that appear to have contributed to an environment with little accountability," the report says.
The ex-secretary's lawyer blasted the report in a written response, saying the allegations were untrue and describing the investigation as a "character assassination."
LaCerte abruptly resigned in October, amid the investigation by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera and state Inspector General Stephen Street. The investigation looked at LaCerte's tenure at the Department of Veterans Affairs, from July 1, 2010, through Oct. 8, 2015, during which time he worked as deputy secretary, interim secretary and secretary for former Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration.
Among the findings, investigators say LaCerte paid more than $44,000 to a company owned by two of his law school classmates without a proper consulting contract and with no evidence that work was done.
They say LaCerte used more than $27,000 in federal funds earmarked for a Slidell veterans cemetery to instead buy a sport utility vehicle used by department staff to transport LaCerte and other employees to meetings and events, even though LaCerte received a $500 monthly stipend to use his personal vehicle for state business.
"According to multiple interviews with (department) staff, Mr. LaCerte used his position of authority to threaten the jobs of employees who questioned certain actions such as travel. Staff also stated that the general culture was that you do as you are told, regardless of what the proper policies and procedures are," the report says.
During LaCerte's leadership tenure, department employees "failed to disclose information of potential crimes involving veteran residents at three of the five war veteran homes," which offer long-term health services, the report says.
Investigators also say LaCerte's military service record doesn't match claims in his department biography or resume.
LaCerte's biography said he served in the Marines in Afghanistan and Pakistan and led over 100 combat patrols and missions, according to the report. But a review of his military records show LaCerte had a seven-month sea deployment, with only three months and nine days of foreign service, the report says.
LaCerte's lawyer, Jarrett Ambeau, described the report's findings as "patently false, blatant character assassination and appear to be a calculated attack on the integrity and credibility of (the) former veterans affairs secretary."
Ambeau denied that LaCerte threatened workers' jobs and said the former secretary properly hired his law school classmates' company for consulting work related to two potential construction projects. The lawyer offered a point by point rebuttal of the allegations in the report — except on the military record questions.
"Attacks on Secretary LaCerte's service record are below the standard of a public office in the state of Louisiana, and will not be given the dignity of response herein," Ambeau wrote. "Secretary LaCerte served his country honorably and his service record speaks for itself."
The auditor and inspector general say after LaCerte resigned, Jindal appointed an interim secretary, Thomas Enright, "who took steps to address many of the issues cited in this report." The inspector general is continuing his investigation.
Joey Strickland, veterans secretary for Gov. John Bel Edwards, said he ordered an agency review to make sure all previous audit issues have been addressed. In a written response, Strickland said he's working on reforms so the department can "be back on track and again focused on its mission of supporting Louisiana veterans and their families."