Audit finds 'questionable' spending by Wildlife and Fisheries

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is under the microscope after a legislative audit identified "questionable" spending practices in the last years of the Jindal administration.

"They made some purchases that we found to be excessive and really unnecessary," said Daryl Purpera, the state's Legislative Auditor.

One finding in the report, which was released Monday, deals with money given to the state in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon oil spill about 6 and a half years ago. At that time, the department received $18 million from BP to test the quality of seafood in the Gulf.

Between January 2011 and May 2014, more than $3 million of that went to expenses and payroll for a team in Venice, Louisiana. That includes nearly $1 million to buy three boats and more than $300,000 to purchase equipment like 225 rods for catching fish for testing.

"Some of these rods and reels were in excess of $1,000 a piece, and if you figure the number of fish they caught, which was 1,090 fish, you're talking about 4.8 fish per rod and reel," Purpera said.

However, that is not all they purchased. The audit report says they also bought scuba gear, paddleboards, and more that Purpera described as unnecessary for their task.

When all was said and done, each fish caught for testing carried a price tag of approximately $2,800.

"If BP was willing to afford this to the state to use to ensure the safety of our seafood, then that's what it should be used for. And if you go out and buy paddleboards and scuba gear that you don't need for a program, then that just takes money that's used to ensure the safety of the seafood and uses it for something else," Purpera said.

The audit also raised red flags about other purchases by the department. In 2012, for example, they bought a catamaran for $220,000. It was used only twice during the four-year period that followed.

"What you see in this program is you see a lot of expenses and purchases that did not pass muster on 'did we need the item? Did we get a good deal when we bought it?'" Purpera said.

The report shows that they also bought a plane without getting it inspected first. It was later discovered after the department had purchased the aircraft that the landing gear was damaged. Repairing the landing gear could end up costing the state up to $580,000.

"This is a failure in purchasing," Purpera said, indicating that the plane should have been inspected before the department invested money in buying the plane.

The new head of the department, who came into office after the purchases were made, said he intends to clarify policies to ensure that they are followed.

"I don't want to have a similar situation after I leave this department, so I want to make sure that whatever was done was a one-time happenstance and that it doesn't occur under my watch," said Sec. Charlie Melancon, who was appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Some of the employees identified in the BP case are still employed by the department, though Melancon said it is unclear at this time whether they will face disciplinary action.

The state Inspector General's Office is also currently investigating the department.

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