The Investigators: Former La. Veterans Affairs Secretary calls audit 'garbage'
BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A joint audit between the Louisiana Legislative Auditor and Louisiana Inspector General's offices was released Monday.
For the first time since he resigned as the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary last October, David LaCerte broke his silence.
"I can't be happier with the State of Louisiana Veterans Affairs as I've left it," said LaCerte. "I think the audit as a whole is garbage. I'm definitely considering my legal options. I think it's defamatory, and I think it's a personal attack."
LaCerte resigned Oct. 8, 2015 after allegations surfaced that records at the veterans home in Jackson, La. were shredded and the department LaCerte oversaw allegedly tried to cover it up.
The latest audit goes into greater detail and puts LaCerte, himself, in the crosshairs. According to the report, the department paid out $44,128 for a contract with some of LaCerte's classmates.
"In this case, there was no written contract, no clear deliverables and to date, we have little or no documentation of what was accomplished with the $44,000," said Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.
Purpera said the department received $400,000 in federal gr ants for a Louisiana Veterans Cemetery in Slidell.
As part of that, Inspector General Stephen Street said LaCerte's department bought a Ford Expedition for $27,560, specifically for use in Slidell, but it never made it there.
"Those funds were to provide a vehicle for transportation for veterans who were going to visit that cemetery and instead it was kept here in Baton Rouge and used by Mr. LaCerte and his staff," said Street.
"Once we've spent the funds and used the funds improperly, the federal government has the option to come back and ask the state for those funds," said Purpera.
"For them to print just blindly that this SUV was purchased on an improper basis is just patently ridiculous," said LaCerte.
LaCerte said that vehicle was part of a vehicle pool, meaning it could go anywhere in the state.
"I think purchasing vehicles for a fleet is a routine expenditure. A lot of times those vehicles are moved around," said LaCerte.
The report went on to say there were 11 trips that were not properly documented or LaCerte was reimbursed for when he should not have been, totaling $14,431. One example investigators used was a trip LaCerte and his internal auditor took to Destin in June 2015.
"That trip was actually denied by his supervisor at the Department of Administration, and yet he still went on it and that's what we're talking about when you don't get the proper authorization to do the job," said Purpera.
"We're talking about a form to be certain. It's not like we're talking about authorized travel which is not going to benefit the state. It's not like we're talking about travel which doesn't have state purpose. We're talking about a form being signed, a piece of paper being signed," said LaCerte.
"A lot of times, pieces of paper are important," responded Purpera.
Other allegations include medical records of veterans being destroyed and no one notifying law enforcement about other possible crimes, such as employees stealing from a veteran's fund, nurses falsifying documents after a veteran died, and deleting 116 medical reports.
The deleted reports include what the Investigators highlighted last October where a nursing director, under LaCerte's command, allegedly told the Jackson Veterans home to stop the investigation into how a veteran fell out of his bed.
"I don't think there's any evidence that anyone at headquarters knew that was going on, especially didn't know that there was any sort of deletion of medical records," said LaCerte.
The allegations go on to say LaCerte used questionable hiring and pay practices while in office, in one case, hiring someone who was a classmate and interviewing only him.
"I have a general practice of interviewing the top candidate for a position and if the top candidate with the top qualifications fits the bill, there's no need to continue to waste the state and candidate's time in the process," said LaCerte.
"That's interesting if you know who the top candidate is before you start, but I would think that when you open an advertisement for a position and have various people apply, it's not going to be quite clear who the top candidate is unless you've already made that decision in your mind," said Purpera.
LaCerte called the audit a personal attack including investigators questioning his military service and combat patrols.
"I think anyone doing a de minimis amount of research, as to my unit which was published in that report, would easily see the accomplishments we had in Afghanistan and Pakistan shortly after 9/11," said LaCerte.
"We definitely want to say we respect his service and want to honor his service, but also want to make sure when we put it out on a public website, that we're only putting the facts and the truth," said Purpera.
LaCerte said he did nothing wrong in his five years at the veterans affairs and resigned only because the former governor's chief of staff forced him to do so. LaCerte said if he could say anything specifically to Purpera and Street, "I'm really disappointed in the way they've conducted themselves."
"I understand why he may say that and why he might not agree with the report. If I was on his side of the equation, I'd probably be embarrassed by this report," said Purpera.
"It's definitely not personal. We gather the facts and go where they take us and that's what we did in this case and we stand by 100 percent of every word of the report," said Street.
Governor John Bel Edwards issued a statement in response to the findings of the audit.
"I will not tolerate the kind of mismanagement that the previous leadership provided at the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs. It is a new day for veterans in Louisiana. These heroes deserve our lifelong respect and gratitude for their selfless service and the sacrifice they and their families made for our country. Secretary Strickland is already well underway implementing the service improvements that our veterans deserve and that I will demand. Under my administration, Louisiana veterans can rest assured that veterans matter personally to me."
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