Bayou Cane records missing
Published: Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 10:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 10:57 p.m.
Hundreds of emails have disappeared from the Bayou Cane fire chief’s account, leaving the department unable to satisfy public-information requests, a potential violation of state law.
Charles Long, the embattled chief of the Bayou Cane Fire Department, resigned Monday following months of public criticism over his competence and leadership style. His last day on the job will be Feb. 24, his resignation letter says.
The Bayou Cane Fire Department protects more than 27,000 people in one of the fastest-growing commercial districts in Terrebonne Parish.
Contacted Thursday, Long would neither confirm nor deny that he deleted the emails. On Friday, after receiving legal advice, he said he did not delete the emails and suggested someone else may be to blame.
The department was initially able to satisfy the newspapers’ request for Long’s email correspondence from November through January. But a subsequent request filed Tuesday for emails spanning a longer period could not be fulfilled because someone had since deleted all the emails in Long’s account, officials said.
The Courier and Daily Comet requested the records in its search for insight into the recent discord within the department. Long has been criticized for his management style, was absent on sick leave for weeks without little explanation and multiple members of the agency’s board resigned.
The state’s public-records law requires government agencies to retain public records, including email correspondence, for at least three years. The law also prohibits officials from destroying or erasing the emails.
State law says the “intentional removal, mutilation, destruction, alteration, falsification or concealment” of any public record is a felony that carries fines of up to $5,000 fine and prison time of up to five years.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN?
Destruction of records erodes public trust in institutions charged with protecting life and property, good-government advocates said.
“If a situation arises in which it is proven that public records disappeared or were destroyed, this would be cause for serious concern and would represent a breach of the public trust,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a nonpartisan government-watchdog group. “Those who hinder inspection of public documents or conspire to violate the open-records law should be held accountable.”
“We checked out the computer, and all email was removed from the system,” said Jason Bergeron, co-owner of Technology Professionals, a Houma-based company that provides information-technology services to Bayou Cane.
“There is no guarantee that files like this can be recovered,” his written statement says, adding that it could take as much as $2,000 to attempt to recover the lost files.
Ken Himel, a Bayou Cane fire inspector and the department’s public-information officer, said the department does not have its own written policy for retaining public records. Instead it has long followed state law, which requires the emails be kept for three years.
Fire District Board Chairman Jeff Teuton said he is unaware that public records had been destroyed. He said the board would not investigate the incident “unless it is blatantly criminal or fraudulent.”
Terrebonne Assistant District Attorney Mark Rhodes said prosecutors would step in if law-enforcement determines a criminal charge is warranted.
Terrebonne sheriff’s Capt. Dawn Foret said an investigation won’t be launched unless a complaint is filed.
“We have to have someone come forward with the crime,” she said.
‘LIKE A BAD DREAM’
Long, 49, who has been chief since October 2008, has endured criticism since he took the job. He immediately butted heads with his predecessor, Jerry Gautreaux, who had been with the department for more than three decades.
Gautreaux accused Long, who moved from Florida to take the chief’s job, of running up massive overtime bills. Gautreaux, who stayed on as on adviser to the new chief, also said Long failed to communicate with him.
Gautreaux died in 2010 from brain cancer, but his family and friends continue to wage a public battle with Long. They say Long is a vindictive boss with a closed-door policy who overspends department money.
Critics also took issue with his choice to lay off longtime secretary Kay Hebert, a decision that was later overturned by the department’s civil service board.
Long defended his management style and alleges that the misspending began under Gautreaux. He asked federal authorities to investigate his predecessor and the board members who approved his spending.
The internal strife within the department hit a high point during a contentious board meeting in December. Dozens of residents and firefighters at that meeting shouted at board members and fire officials.
Three board members resigned in the aftermath; the Terrebonne Parish Council has since appointed five new members.
Though Long said his resignation is unrelated to the internal strife, emails obtained by The Courier and Daily Comet make it clear Long was uncomfortable in the role.
“It’s funny how you can do everything by the book and stand for what is right and just and still be attacked by the community and members within the fire department. … They have completely ruined the fire service for me,” Long says in a December email sent to former fire board Chairman Bobby Cockerham.
In a Friday interview, Long said he has avoided returning to the office and admits tensions remain high.
“The whole thing is like a bad dream to me,” he said. “Weird stuff has been happening. I must have struck a nerve.
Staff Writer Eric Heisig can be reached at 857-2202 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff Writer Nate Monroe can be reached at 448-7639 or at email@example.com.