Bourgeois deserves due process

Six months after retiring as Terrebonne Parish sheriff, Vernon Bourgeois continues to absorb criticisms over decisions he made during his one four-year term.

Chief among them is his alleged inaction in recouping more than $300,000 – or three years’ worth – in back property taxes owed by the company Baby Oil, according to a draft-form report penned by private auditors.

The Louisiana Constitution dictates that the tax collector, or Bourgeois in this case, must “advertise for sale the property on which the taxes are due” to satisfy the debt, a step the embattled former sheriff did not take, according to the report.

Sheriff Jerry Larpenter has filed a lawsuit against Baby Oil owner Neil Suard in an effort to collect the taxes. According to court filings, Suard has acknowledged requesting extra time from Bourgeois to pay his taxes.

Bourgeois said he doesn’t know of any such request and that he doesn’t remember speaking to Suard at all during his term.

The audit-report draft, as prepared by the firm Kolder, Champagne, Slaven and Co., also criticizes bookkeeping of federal grant and office credit-card issues and alleges misuse of parish equipment for production of the reality-based show “Cajun Justice,” among other allegations.

“This appears extremely serious and requires a formal investigation to determine if there is any unlawful conduct,” said Rafael C. Goyeneche III, president of the New Orleans-based Metropolitan Crime Commission. Goyeneche reviewed the report at the Tri-Parish Times’ request.

We couldn’t agree more. And we’ll reserve judgment until the specifics come to light.

The report and court filings seem to be smoldering embers, but Bourgeois still deserves the benefit of due process.

Auditors have not contacted the former sheriff for his explanations, and he has not yet seen the report, which was not meant to judge criminal activity or intent. It’s way too early to judge.

Considering early indications, we do hope the finalized audit report, expected soon, prompts Larpenter to request a full investigation by the state’s Legislative Auditor and Attorney General.

The allegations are serious, and the level of wrongdoing and intent needs to be determined.

The former sheriff’s reputation has taken a public beating since April 2011, when Larpenter announced his bid. Whether it was the handling of seized criminal assets, seemingly granting a favor for a drunk driver or Larpenter’s incoming disapproval of “Cajun Justice,” a string of criticisms prevented Bourgeois from a graceful ride into the sunset.

It would be easy to pile on now, but it’s too soon. It’s time to temper the judgment and wait for the full slate of facts – and a formal, independent and law-centric review – to emerge.