Tammany president ousts recreation board member tied to work-release program

Jimmy Laurent, a longtime board member of St. Tammany Parish Recreation District No. 4 and co-owner of a controversial work-release program, was ousted from the board Friday by Parish President Pat Brister.

Brister, who last week asked for Laurent’s resignation, sent him a letter that thanked him for his service and then cited the parish ordinance giving her the authority to appoint and remove one member of the board.

The law says: “A member appointed by the parish president may be unilaterally removed, with or without cause, at any time by the parish president.’’

Laurent, who had refused to resign on his own, did not return a call for comment.

Also Friday, the state Department of Insurance reported on its website that Michael Neely, owner of a St. Tammany Parish insurance agency, had been served by fraud division investigators with a cease-and-desist order and a summary suspension of his license for alleged misappropriation of funds in his dealings with Recreation District No. 4.

The department said Neely accepted a check for $9,824 from the recreation district to buy property and casualty insurance but then failed to buy it. Neely refunded the money two years later.

Brister did not give a reason for Laurent’s removal from the board in her three-paragraph letter. She simply wrote, “You are noticed herein that effective upon receipt of this letter I hereby remove you as the parish president appointee to the Board of Commissioners.’’

When Brister was asked earlier to comment on her request to Laurent to step down voluntarily, her spokesman Ronnie Simpson said only that she wanted the board to be above reproach and that questions had arisen that needed further investigation.

While Brister did not elaborate on her reasons for wanting Laurent’s removal, others have criticized him for hiring two inmates from Northshore Workforce LLC to serve as maintenance workers for the recreation district. Laurent was one of the company’s owners.

Northshore Workforce, which was closed down by St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain last month, kept 62 percent of the gross wages earned by inmates or $63.50 per day, whichever was less.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the use of inmates poses a potential ethical dilemma if someone hiring them has a financial stake in their employment. Don Bordelon, a member of the recreation board who was appointed after the two work-release inmates were hired, said he viewed the use of the inmates as a conflict of interest.

Minutes from board meetings and other documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act offer no indication that Laurent ever told other board members that his company made money from Northshore Workforce inmates’ labor, nor did he indicate his connection to the firm on forms that board members had to fill out listing their outside business interests.

St. Tammany Parish Councilman Jake Groby, who represents the area served by the recreation district, said he had issues with using inmates in close proximity to children, such as at recreational facilities.

Groby said he supports Brister’s decision to remove Laurent.

Simpson, Brister’s spokesman, said he does not know who will replace Laurent.

Laurent was initially appointed to the recreation board by Brister’s predecessor, Kevin Davis, and was reappointed by Brister in 2012. He served as chairman of the board until Jan. 1, when Brian Moore took over following a board vote late last year.

Recreation District No. 4’s insurance problem was exposed in a state Legislative Auditor’s Office investigative audit issued in September. Goyeneche said Friday that the Metropolitan Crime Commission had received a tip about the problem with the policy and alerted the legislative auditor and the Department of Insurance.

Neely, owner of Mike Neely Insurance Agency, said Friday that some of the information the state acted on was not accurate and that he will appeal the cease-and-desist order and the suspension.

His daughter-in-law, Alicia Neely, was also served with a cease-and-desist order for operating as an insurance agent without a valid license. Neely said she had applied for a license and attended classes and had received a waiver.

He characterized what happened with the recreation district as a communication problem and said it had never happened previously in his dealings with the district going back to 2008. “Everybody is covering up over there and just leaving me out to dry,’’ he said.

The legislative auditor’s report said the recreation district was not insured from Aug. 11, 2011, to Aug. 11, 2012, because the policy was never purchased. According to the audit report, the problem was not discovered until later, even though the district did not receive an invoice for the policy until Oct. 6, 2011, and didn’t pay the premium until Oct. 19, 2011.

“Since the payment was made approximately three months after the application date, it is reasonable that the district should have questioned whether its two buildings were insured during this period. However, we did not find any evidence that the district took action to confirm whether the buildings were properly insured,’’ the report said.

Stacey Henry, administrative assistant for the district, told auditors she began to suspect there was no policy in effect after board members asked for a copy of the expired policy in August 2012 and she could not find it. Neely did not provide one after numerous requests, she said.

The recreation district filed a formal complaint with the Department of Insurance on Oct. 2, 2012, according to the audit.

Goyeneche said it took almost a year for Neely to refund the money to the recreation district. The Department of Insurance does not issue a cease-and-desist order or suspend a license without probable cause, he said.

The question, Goyeneche said, is whether the problem with the recreation district was a one-time mistake or whether other clients may have been affected.