By Sara Pagones | | February 16, 2020

A St. Tammany Parish task force studied a proposal to create a parish inspector general’s office for months in 2013 before finally scrapping the idea.

Now, the citizens group that had pushed the proposal appears ready for another go.

During a panel discussion on public corruption last week sponsored by Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, some audience members asked the panelists, including Louisiana Inspector General Stephen Street, if the parish needs an inspector general.

CCST has pushed hard for the creation of such a position, although without success, and Rick Franzo, the watchdog group’s president, indicated it’s gearing up to try again.

A parish task force that met for about six months beginning in 2013 ultimately rejected the idea, opting instead for enhanced audits of parish agencies by the state Legislative Auditor’s Office.

As recently as last year, Franzo was involved in efforts to pass state legislation that would have created a framework for parishes that want to pursue the creation of an inspector general’s office. That bill would have allowed any parish or municipality with a home rule charter to create an inspector general’s office as long as it is included in the charter.

Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Mandeville, sponsored the bill but withdrew it due to lack of support in the House Committee on Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs. Hollis and Franzo said the bill got a hostile reception at a hearing, with then-St. Tammany President Pat Brister testifying against it.

Among other things, the legislation would have expanded the scope of an inspector general’s oversight by including political subdivisions contained within a parish, including cities and towns.

“You have to have access to all the dollars (being spent by government), and the only way to do that is to change state law, which would give an IG the ability to do what they have to do: follow the money,” Franzo said.

Franzo said Friday that Hollis has agreed to try again, and Franzo said he is going to make a higher-profile effort to drum up legislative support. The state legislation is needed first, he said, before he makes a renewed local push.

At the forum, Street told the audience that an inspector general must have sufficient authority and independence to be effective. “The caveat is that you’ve got to do it right,” he said.

Creating the appearance of oversight is worse than having no oversight at all, Street said, warning against creating an inspector general’s office that corrupt officials can hide behind “but never be threatened by.”

Only two parishes in Louisiana, Orleans and Jefferson, currently have their own inspector generals, panelists said.

“Keep trying and eventually you’ll get there,” Street told a full house at the Abita Springs Town Hall, adding that such offices are almost always ushered in following a major corruption scandal that provokes a high level of public outrage.

“You would think in St. Tammany Parish, you’d have plenty of that,” said panelist Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

Goyeneche noted that all three major criminal justice officials in St. Tammany have either been convicted or are under criminal indictment.

Coroner Peter Galvan was convicted of corruption and served time, and former DA Walter Reed is currently in federal prison. Former Sheriff Jack Strain, meanwhile, has been indicted in federal court for an alleged kickback scheme, and in state court on sex crime charges.

Goyeneche said public support is crucial to fighting corruption. “We’ve seen too many classic examples just in St. Tammany alone,” he said. “It has to start with tips from the community.”

Franzo said he thought the forum helped people understand the problem of corruption and potential solutions like an inspector general.

“If people understood it, most people would support it,” he said, although he acknowledged that there’s a lot that has to happen, including putting a home rule charter amendment on the ballot, getting voter approval and getting funding.

But Franzo said he is hopeful that new Parish President Mike Cooper will be more open to the idea, or at least will not actively oppose it.

“The time is right,” he said. “We have a legitimate shot.”