Gift cards probation program graphic

Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier said the recent criticism surrounding the program that has allowed certain defendants to buy out up to half of their court-ordered community service doesn't make him any less proud of how it has helped others.

"When they realize what the money goes for, they feel like they're part of something better than themselves," he told the American  Press. "They're helping people who have less than they do."

However, McKenzie Newman and Jenny Odom, former employees of DeRosier, continue to question how the program was handled, specifically in terms of how gift cards and money orders were documented and where they were disbursed as part of the nonprofit District Attorney's Community Assistance Foundation.

"I don't see how it's accurate if there was no formal recording," said Newman, an employee of DeRosier's office from 2015 until July this year.

Following an Oct. 9 report from KATC-TV and a Nov. 1 opinion piece in the Washington Post, the 14th Judicial District Court judges issued a letter on Nov. 18, ordering DeRosier's office to stop accepting gift cards and money orders in exchange for community service.

Once his office disburses the "$20,000 worth of gift cards left," it will be "out of the gift card business," DeRosier said.

"We're going to probably use all of those for Christmas toys this year," he said.

From now on, DeRosier said, defendants who want to modify the terms of their misdemeanor probation must go before the judge that heard their case. He sent a memo on Nov. 4 to misdemeanor probation officers, informing them of the change.

Toy donations

DeRosier said he started the District Attorney's Community Christmas Program roughly a dozen years ago, allowing people to donate toys to offset their community service. Those toys, he said, would be distributed annually to all six municipalities. The program grew exponentially over the years.

"We had two big rooms in the DA's office; one year we gave away probably $60,000 worth of Christmas toys," DeRosier said. "We had more toys than we knew what to do with. We had to store them all year long."

At some point, his office began migrating to accepting gift cards instead of toys. Those gift cards, DeRosier said, would be used at the end of the year to purchase Christmas toys for donation.

"I wasn't directly supervising it," he acknowledged.

DeRosier said Odom notified him in the summer of 2015 of the gift cards not being managed well and there not being "appropriate record keeping." He also mentioned Barbara Adam — who has worked for the district attorney's office for decades — being unaware of how many gift cards the office had. DeRosier said Odom also told him about Adam asking her if she could use a gift card "to buy her grandkids" anywhere from $30 to $50 worth of toys.

DeRosier said he then contacted his auditor, Lester Langley, who gathered all the leftover gift cards that had built up over the years.

"We had over $100,000 worth of gift cards floating around misdemeanor probation and our pretrial diversion departments," he said.

Community Assistance Foundation

Starting in 2015, DeRosier said, he let his administration start tracking all of the gift cards and the disbursements. In October of that year, the 501C Calcasieu Parish District Attorney's Community Assistance Foundation was created for defendants to donate gift cards or money orders to cover up to half of their community service. A person would pay $8 per hour of community service assigned. For instance, someone paying out eight hours of community service would pay $64, while someone paying 120 hours would pay $960.

Those gift cards and money orders would be disbursed to various charitable organizations, including churches, community groups, individuals and businesses. Documents obtained by the American  Press show Boys Village Foundation, Diocese of Lake Charles, Abraham's Tent and the Salvation Army were just a few recipients of the gift cards from November to December of 2015 alone.

"Once it goes into the foundation, I've got a record of every penny spent," he said.

The program was created partly because there was "no teeth" in making sure people were fulfilling all of their community service, according to DeRosier.

"People that have an obligation, let's say for 32 hours of community service, show up for one 8-hour day," he said. "You don't see them again. Now, no judge in Calcasieu Parish is going to revoke somebody's probation for not doing their community service."

DeRosier said there were more people ordered to complete community service than there was community service to do.

Criticism

DeRosier provided documents from November 2015 until this September, detailing the foundation's expenditures, including gift card totals, recipients, tax identification numbers and the purpose for the donation. The donations listed in the file amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

However, Newman and Odom, former secretaries in DeRosier's office, expressed concerns about the Community Assistance Foundation. Newman, who served as a pre-trial secretary, said she was heavily relied on for reporting. However, the process didn't call for reporting to payroll, she said.

"They (gift cards and money orders) were simply to be gathered in an envelope, hand delivered or placed in the mailbox of John DeRosier's secretary," she said. Newman also questioned the legitimacy of the organizations and causes that the foundation supported.

"It was just his choosing taking public funds and deciding who you want those funds to go through without any other counsel or third party," she said.

Odom voiced concerns regarding the continual assignment of community service if availability was limited. According to advertisements for the program dated March 20, only 19 community service options were offered.

"He was quoted as saying there's more community service given than there is community service to complete," Odom said. "If so, why is he determined and bound in the paper saying he would continue with pre-trial diversion? Is that to line his pockets or help people in need?"

Newman noted ethical concerns over public employees performing job duties for a private entity on company time.

"It's not independent," she said, regarding those responsible for the administration of the foundation. "They were and are full-time employees of the office. On some forms, they're listed as if there was no actual time paid, but the thing is there were people working for the organization on DA time."

Program legitimacy

DeRosier said he discussed the diversion program with Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, Inspector General Stephen Street, and the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board.

"None of them said there's a problem here," DeRosier said. "The only comment that anyone of them had was ‘That's innovative.' (Street) said, ‘I have no control over what district attorneys do anyway.' "

Street did not respond to requests by the American Press for comment.

DeRosier said Purpera suggested forming a 501C nonprofit. Purpera confirmed to the American  Press that he advised DeRosier to "form some type of organization" after hearing about how the gift cards were being handled.

"I'm asking (DeRosier), ‘Where do you keep them?' He said, ‘In our desk drawer.' I said, ‘No, it's not an official district attorney office function to collect gift cards and give them out," Purpera said.

Purpera said there was no conversation between him and DeRosier about calling the program the District Attorney's Community Assistance Foundation.

"I would not have advised for him to call it (that)," he said. "It needs to be separate from your office."

Purpera said his office is currently discussing whether an audit should be done on the program.

"I'm certainly leaning to doing an audit," he said. "We're kind of questioning do we have the legal authority to audit. It depends on if (the program) gets public funds."

Purpera said his issue with diversion programs is their overall "lack of law" for the agencies that use them.

"Most state and local government programs have a body of law, and you all follow the law," he said. "There are multiple diversion programs. I just worry when you don't have a set law, they can wander from their intended purpose."

Gift card spending

The American Press obtained documents showing the gift cards purchased by the person listed as "Kenneth" in the Washington Post piece. It showed a $40 gift card, along with three $200 gift cards purchased in July 2014 that were used to cover all 80 hours of his court-ordered community service.

The Washington Post piece mentioned a $40 gift card cashed in August 2018 at a Walmart in Eunice. Among the items purchased were "denture cream, two knives, over-the-counter heartburn medication, rice, vanilla wafers, bread, coffee products and K-Y lubricant." The American Press obtained a receipt confirming the purchase.

DeRosier explained the $40 gift card was given away as a door prize during a 2018 Louisiana Misdemeanor Probations Offices Association conference in Eunice. DeRosier provided documents showing $200 worth of gift cards were donated to the association as door prizes for the conference. The request was made Feb. 26 and approved March 6.

DeRosier, a Eunice native, said he provided his personal calendar to the Washington Post to prove he was not in Eunice when the $40 gift card was used.

"I have no need for denture cream, I promise you," he said.

DeRosier also addressed Odom mentioning his request for $5,000 in gift cards in $1,000 denominations. Odom told the Washington Post that request was the tipping point for her. The American  Press obtained a letter of resignation Odom emailed to Russ Haman and Adam in October 2015. Haman, who at one time was president of the Community Assistance Foundation's board of directors, left the district attorney's office in early September.

Records provided by DeRosier's office show $5,120 disbursed to the Diocese of Lake Charles on Nov. 20, 2015.

"It was right before Thanksgiving and Christmas," DeRosier said of the disbursement. "Remember, we just discovered that we got over $100,000 worth of gift cards, so I'm giving out a pretty good amount of gift cards."

The reason Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana received a large lump sum is because they serve all Catholic churches in the diocese, DeRosier said. Meanwhile, smaller churches received smaller donations for their individual charity programs.

DeRosier also addressed allowing defendants to purchase gift cards from Stine Home & Yard, of which Adam's sister is the store's general manager. He said those cards were used to purchase supplies for Habitat for Humanity.

"Getting Stine cards was a good thing to do with that because it's local," DeRosier said. "(The program) was open to any gift cards. At some point, we said let's start using Stine cards all we can. It's migrating."

Public Defenders' Office

DeRosier also refuted comments by Harry Fontenot, Calcasieu Parish's chief public defender, to the Washington Post. Fontenot said his office was getting roughly $3,000 to $5,000 annually from DeRosier through the Local Agency Compensated Enforcement, or LACE, program.

DeRosier provided documents to the American  Press showing his office paid the Public Defenders' Office just over $1 million since 2014. The PDO got $417,302 in 2017, $318,715.04 in 2018 and $109,598.03 so far this year.

"What's wrong with this picture," DeRosier asked.

DeRosier acknowledged recently halting the revenue-sharing arrangement with the PDO. He said he will pay the PDO $45 for all traffic tickets, except for the ones diverted to pay for the LACE program. Under LACE, district attorneys can pay state troopers overtime for pulling over drivers for traffic violations.

"(Fontenot's) income is going to increase tremendously," DeRosier said.

Fontenot declined the American Press' request for comment.

Article criticism

DeRosier said Radley Balko, the writer for the Washington Post piece, is "very anti-prosecution, anti-death penalty" and against "anything that the current district attorney is going to be for in Calcasieu Parish." He also refuted a July opinion piece by Balko on jury pools, in which his office was mentioned.

"This ain't about gift cards," he said of the reports.

DeRosier said Balko's piece was inaccurate in suggesting individuals could buy their way out of all of their community service.

"You can actually buy your way out of half of your community service," he said. "There ain't no rich people in pretrial diversion."

However, DeRosier said he "doesn't know exactly" when the program began limiting the hours of community service defendants could pay to 50 percent.

"I can't tell you if it was before or after the 501C was formed," he said.

DeRosier said he can only recall two instances where people paid out a majority of their court-ordered community service. One of them was the person named in Washington Post story as "Kenneth."


American Press Staff Writer Marlisa Harding contributed to this report.

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