Terrebonne sheriff’s federal grant records questioned

Allegations that local law enforcement officers accepted pay for working a federally-funded anti-underage drinking program, while simultaneously on the clock for privately paid extra-duty details, are under on-going FBI scrutiny, Terrebonne Parish officials have confirmed.

For more than three years now, FBI agents have conducted interviews and examined records related to the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office’s operation of the Juvenile Underage Drinking Enforcement program.

No criminal charges have resulted to date, although agents were still conducting interviews as recently as two weeks ago.

The alleged improprieties occurred between 2008 and 2012, during the administration of former sheriff Vernon Bourgeois. The current sheriff, Jerry Larpenter, who was also Bourgeois’ predecessor, said he has cooperated through the course of the FBI investigation.

Documents investigators requested at various points have included payroll records and time sheets of two ranking deputies, Capt. Dawn Foret and Maj. Darryl Stewart. Foret is the department’s assistant chief of detectives. Stewart is commander of the narcotics division. Both officers have engaged legal counsel.

Craig Betzebe, a spokesman for the FBI’s New Orleans field office, said he had no comment when asked about the investigation.

Foret’s attorney, Rodney Baum, said his client has cooperated fully with the FBI investigation and done nothing wrong.

“Capt. Foret has been with the Sheriff’s Office for 18 years and has a spotless record,” said Baum, whose offices are in Baton Rouge. “The facts pertaining to the current FBI investigation have previously been investigated and also reviewed by the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office and Capt. Foret has been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. The FBI have been investigating this case for more than three years with no final disposition.”

Stewart also maintains that he has been involved in no wrongdoing.

“I have never taken the oath that I swore approximately 25 years ago lightly,” Stewart said. “Nor have I ever done anything to betray that oath.”

Interviews and reviews of records indicate that the allegations – and any remaining FBI interest – are focused primarily on Foret. Available records other than payroll documentation, so far, have not clarified the interest investigators have had concerning Stewart, whose record is described by TPSO officials as exemplary.

The JUDE grant provides payment to officers who identify underage people in possession of alcoholic beverages. First awarded to TPSO in 2009, the program pays for officers who do random checks of local bars and special events. In 2009 and 2010, a total of 268 summonses were issued to store clerks, bartenders and underage consumers of alcohol in Terrebonne, through the program.

Paid for with federal dollars, the program is administered in Louisiana through the state’s Highway Safety Commission.

Foret’s duties included preparation of reports in connection with the administration of the grant and tracking of its work at TPSO.

Hours spent doing the grant-related work, however, correspond with hours Foret spent working an off-duty detail at Settoon Towing, a tugboat company where she monitored the premises for signs of intruders or irregularities. There was no evidence, officials said, of any attempt to cover up or hide those records by Foret.

Settoon, which paid Foret directly for her off-duty detail work in its yard, is not known to have made any complaint.

The Times has acquired access to records relating to the grant and is continuing to review them for more detailed information.

Friends have said three years of knowing about the investigation with no indication yet of a resolution are taking a toll on Foret, whom they describe as an intensely dedicated officer who rose up the ranks of the TPSO through hard work and attention to duty.

They question why, over such a long period, inquiries continue.

“She is passionate about what she does, about her law enforcement work,” said Alison Bourdier, a personal friend who acts as a nanny to Foret’s two children. “If this is such big deal, why has she not been interviewed by the FBI itself? That speaks volumes. People who truly know Capt. Foret will continue to stand by her and support her. I think it’s a waste of the agency’s time and taxpayer’s money. They could be focusing that time on actual criminal stuff that is happening in the parish.”

Larpenter said he personally initiated contact with the FBI in 2012, as well as other agencies, after receiving an anonymous letter alleging improprieties.

Larpenter was at the time resuming leadership of the office, following the single term of former sheriff Vernon Bourgeois, who took the reins after Larpenter left to pursue an unsuccessful bid to be Terrebonne’s parish president in 2008.

The allegations centered on activities that occurred during the Bourgeois administration. Contacted Tuesday, Bourgeois said he had no information concerning the matter and no comment to make.

When he resumed the office of sheriff, Larpenter said, he ordered his own audit of many TPSO records. The anonymous allegations regarding administration of the JUDE program were included in the mix.

“I didn’t want to be biased toward anybody in the office, so I turned everything over to the legislative auditor and the attorney general and the FBI,” said Larpenter, who also ordered an internal affairs investigation.

“I am requesting that you review and take additional investigative steps, if necessary, in the investigation we have thus far conducted with respect to Capt. Dawn Foret of the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office,” reads Larpenter’s Aug. 30, 2012, letter to Assistant Attorney General Kurt Wall.

Nearly a month later, Wall responded that he had consulted with Larpenter’s internal affairs investigator and reviewed time sheets related to the JUDE grant work.

“There does not appear to be any evidence of criminal intent on the part of any of the participants in the grant,” Wall’s letter states. “While there was some ambiguity as to the procedural rules and restrictions associated with the grant guidelines, this would pertain to internal interpretations within the department as opposed to those of a criminal nature. Therefore, no criminal investigation is warranted and any corrective measures would be best handled through an internal administrative procedure.”

The FBI, however, continued to investigate, according to sheriff’s office personnel.

The TPSO internal affairs inquiry indicated Foret received guidance from superiors that caused her to believe she was authorized to handle the grant work in the manner she did.

Larpenter said information regarding that aspect is conflicted, and that he cannot make a conclusive determination.

“It didn’t happen under my watch,” Larpenter said of Foret’s work for the grant program. “It was a different administration. The FBI has been in my office for the last three to five years dealing with something that happened under Vernon’s administration. They have talked to people in my office. I’m now in my second term and I am told this is still ongoing. Our books are open if anybody wants to look at anything. The only thing we can do is wait for whatever happens in the future.”

Capt. Dawn Foret (l) and Maj. Darryl Stewart of the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office were cleared by the Louisiana Attorney General of any alleged wrongdoing in connection with records relating to a grant-funded program. A federal investigation, however, has persisted for more than three years.