Violations cited at Fire Dist. #1

663

By Times Staff

An investigative audit of Natchitoches Parish Fire Protection District No. 1 in Cloutierville has found several problems in past operation of the district including the following:

•Prohibited contractual agreements

•Improper disposal of surplus property

•Possible Violations of state law while contracting for services

The investigative audit was conducted by the La. Legislative Auditor and was issued Sept. 19. In an email Monday afternoon, District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington wrote, “We are currently in the review and investigative phase and don’t have a comment beyond that at the moment.” Problems in the fire district surfaced last year when residents complained at a Parish Council meeting. In July of 2017, Parish President Rick Nowlin wrote to the La. Legislative Auditor about those complaints and the audit was initiated to determine their validity. The audit focuses on the district paying $44,900 to Prothro Construction LLC for renovation of the fire station in Cloutierville. The company was then operated by brothers of the fire board chairman, Joseph Prothro. His wife, Charlotte Prothro, was the fire chief.

State law prohibits public servants from contracting with immediate family members for transactions involving their government entity. The district may have violated state law by failing to require a surety bond and a contract from the contractor. The audit reports, “According to Louisiana Secretary of State’s records, then-Board Chairman Joseph Prothro’s brothers, Charles and Terry Prothro, are officers of Prothro Construction. Charles Prothro confirmed to us that he and Terry Prothro own Prothro Construction, LLC.

Board member Charles Roge told us that the renovation was advertised in the Natchitoches Times and that Prothro Construction was the only bidder. Mr. Roge further said that he and the other Board members knew that they shouldn’t hire family members to do work for the District, but the work needed to be done so they did it. The District was unable to provide any documentation showing the project was advertised for bid. Moreover, the Natchitoches Times’ employee we spoke with told us the District did not advertise any public works projects in the Natchitoches Times during 2015, the year the work was supposedly advertised for bid.”

The audit also says that two daughters-in-law of Joseph and Charlotte Prothro, received $8,550 for grass cutting services on fire station property. “By allowing the district to contract with immediate family members and a legal entity owned by immediate family members, Mr. Prothro and Fire Chief Prothro may have violated state law.”

The audit reads that district management improperly disposed of vehicles by trading them in and or selling them to board members. State law provides for selling surplus moveable property at public auction. In addition, the audit found that the district failed to maintain an accurate inventory of its vehicles and may be paying insurance on vehicles it no longer owns. The audit states, “Records indicate that District Board members bid on and purchased at least two vehicles for less than $5,000; however, the District could not provide resolutions giving the reasons for the actions and fixing the minimum prices and terms of the sales. For example, the Board sold a Ford F-250 and a GMC pumper truck by advertising in the newspaper for “close bids” on Aug. 8, 2012.

Board members Charles Roge and Michael Sanders bid $526 and $400, respectively, for the Ford F-250, and Board member William Sanders bid $150 for the GMC pumper. Mr. Roge confirmed that he purchased the Ford F-250 and William Sanders confirmed that he purchased the GMC pumper. “Fire Chief Prothro told us that Board members and volunteer firefighters purchased District equipment on several occasions; she believes District volunteers deserve deals on equipment because they are not compensated for their work.

The current Fire District 1 chairman Ricky Sanders responded by saying that major changes have been made since being made aware of the problems in the auditor. “We have a new board, we will also have a new chief. We are putting new things in place so this does not happen again,” Sanders wrote. “The way the district is run now is the way it is supposed to be. My board is all going through the Ethics Class and we are putting in place all of the re commendations that was brought to us by the auditors.”

Excerpts from the audit:

Prohibited Contractual Agreements On Feb. 8, 2016, the Natchitoches Parish Fire Protection District No. 1 (District) paid $44,900 to Prothro Construction, LLC, a legal entity owned and operated by then-Board of Commissioners (Board) Chairman Joseph Prothro’s brothers. In addition, from April 2015 to October 2016, then-Chairman Prothro’s and District Fire Chief Charlotte Prothro’s sons and/or daughters-in-law performed monthly grass cutting services on District property for which the District paid $8,550. State law prohibits public servants from contracting and/or participating in transactions involving the governmental entity and their immediate family members.

By allowing the District to contract with immediate family members and a legal entity owned by immediate family members, Mr. Prothro and Fire Chief Prothro may have violated state law.1,2 Prothro Construction, LLC Records indicate the District paid Prothro Construction, LLC $44,900 on February 8, 2016, for renovating Fire Station 1 in Cloutierville. According to Louisiana Secretary of State’s records, then-Board Chairman Joseph Prothro’s brothers, Charles and Terry Prothro, are officers of Prothro Construction. Charles Prothro confirmed to us that he and Terry Prothro own Prothro Construction, LLC. Board member Charles Roge told us that the renovation was advertised in the Natchitoches Times and that Prothro Construction was the only bidder. Mr. Roge further said that he and the other Board members knew that they shouldn’t hire family members to do work for the District, but the work needed to be done so they did it. The District was unable to provide any documentation showing the project was advertised for bid. Moreover, the Natchitoches Times’ employee we spoke with told us the District did not advertise any public works projects in the Natchitoches Times during 2015, the year the work was supposedly advertised for bid.

Louisiana Revised Statute (La. R.S.) 42:1113(B)1 provides that no appointed member of any board or commission, member of his immediate family, or legal entity in which he has a substantial economic interest, shall bid on or enter into or be in any way interested in any contract, subcontract, or other transaction which is under the supervision or jurisdiction of the agency of such appointed member. Because Prothro Construction, LLC was owned and operated by Chairman Prothro’s brothers, Chairman Prothro may have violated La. R.S. 42:1113(B). A La. R.S. 42:1102(13) states that, “‘Immediate family’ as the term relates to a public servant means his children, the spouses of his children, his brothers and their spouses, his sisters and their spouses, his parents, his spouse, and the parents of his spouse.” Natchitoches Parish Fire Protection District No. 1 Findings and Recommendations Payments to Chairman Prothro and Fire Chief Charlotte Prothro’s Daughters-in-Law From April 2015 to November 2016, the District paid $8,550 to Chairman Prothro’s and Fire Chief Charlotte Prothro’s daughters-in-law for monthly grass cutting services on District property.

Using their maiden names, Rachel Broome received 11 payments totaling $4,600, and Paige O’Quinn received 16 payments totaling $3,950. Fire Chief Prothro and a Board member signed most of these checks. The District only provided two invoices (one in Ms. Broome’s name and the other in Ms. O’Quinn’s name) for the month of October 2016. These pre-numbered invoices were in sequential order (#252796 and #252797) and appear to have been completed in the same handwriting. Chairman Prothro and Fire Chief Charlotte Prothro are married and have two sons, Travis and Alex Prothro. According to minutes of a District meeting dated September 10, 2014, the Prothros’ son Alex was going to cut grass on District property. Fire Chief Prothro told us that both Travis and Alex cut grass for the District, but payment was made to her sons’ wives in their maiden names (Ms. Broome and Ms. O’Quinn). Fire Chief Prothro stated that she issued the checks in this fashion at her daughters-in-law’s request. Ms. O’Quinn and her husband, Travis Prothro, told us they cut grass at the District together.

Ms. O’Quinn stated that she submitted invoices to the District for the work she and her husband performed. Ms. Broome and her husband, Alex Prothro, also said they cut grass for the District together. Alex Prothro told us it was his decision to issue checks in his wife’s name and that he may have done this because it might look bad if his mother issued the checks payable to him. La. R.S. 42:1113(B) provides that no appointed member of any board or commission, member of his immediate family, or legal entity in which he has a substantial economic interest, shall bid on or enter into or be in any way interested in any contract, subcontract, or other transaction which is under the supervision or jurisdiction of the agency of such appointed member. Because the District issued payments to Chairman Prothro’s immediate family members, Chairman Prothro may have violated La. R.S. 42:1113(B). In addition, La. R.S. 42:1112(B) prohibits public servants from participating in transactions involving the governmental entity, in which an immediate family member has a substantial economic interest.

By signing District checks payable her immediate family members, Fire Chief Prothro may have violated La. R.S. 42:1112(B). Ten of these payments were issued to Rachel Broome (maiden name) and one payment was issued to Rachel Prothro. Two checks were signed by Chief Prothro without the signature of a Board member. Improper Disposal of Surplus Property District management improperly disposed of vehicles by trading them in at a heavy truck and equipment vendor and/or selling them to Board members. State law provides that political subdivisions may sell surplus movable property at public auction, through an Internet computer auction, or at a private auction if the property to be sold is appraised at less than $5,000. By improperly disposing of surplus vehicles, District management may have violated state law. Further, board members who purchased vehicles from the District may have violated the state’s ethics laws.

In addition, we found that the District failed to maintain an accurate inventory of its vehicles and may be paying insurance on vehicles the District no longer owns. During our audit, we found that the District has no written policies and/or procedures regarding the disposal of surplus movable property. According to Board member Charles Roge, the District has disposed of at least one surplus vehicle by trading it in to David Cook Trucks & Equipment, a heavy truck and equipment vendor in Florien. David Cook, owner of David Cook Trucks & Equipment, confirmed that the District has purchased equipment from his business and, in some cases, traded in old equipment for a credit toward the purchase of new equipment. Because the District failed to provide any documentation to support these transactions, we could not determine if the District received equivalent value for its surplus equipment. Louisiana Attorney General Opinion 12-0150 states that, “…political subdivisions of the state may sell their surplus movable property at a public auction conducted pursuant to La. Rev. Stat. 49:125, through an Internet computer auction pursuant to La. Rev. Stat. 33:4711.1, or at a [private] sale under La. Rev. Stat. 33:4712 if the property to be sold is appraised at less than $5,000.”

Additionally, Louisiana State Constitution Article VII, Sect. 14 also allows for a political subdivision to dispose of surplus property by donating or selling it to another political subdivision or law enforcement entity. Based on Attorney General opinion and state law, it appears the District does not have the authority to dispose of surplus vehicles by trading them for credit towards the purchase of another one. Natchitoches Parish Fire Protection District No. 1 Findings and Recommendations In addition to trading in vehicles, we were informed that the District disposed of some vehicles by advertising them for bid in the local newspaper. Based on Attorney General opinion and state law, it appears the District does not have the authority to dispose of surplus vehicles by simply advertising them in the local newspaper. According to La. R.S. 33:4712, if the property to be sold is appraised at less than $5,000, a resolution giving the reasons for the action on the part of the governing authority and fixing the minimum price and terms of the sale shall be adopted. Further, notice of the resolution and proposed sale shall be published once at least 15 days prior to the sale.

Records indicate that District Board members bid on and purchased at least two vehicles for less than $5,000; however, the District could not provide resolutions giving the reasons for the actions and fixing the minimum prices and terms of the sales. For example, the Board sold a Ford F-250 and a GMC pumper truck by advertising in the newspaper for “close bids” on Aug. 8, 2012. Board members Charles Roge and Michael Sanders bid $526 and $400, respectively, for the Ford F-250, and Board member William Sanders bid $150 for the GMC pumper. Mr. Roge confirmed that he purchased the Ford F-250 and William Sanders confirmed that he purchased the GMC pumper.

Fire Chief Prothro told us that Board members and volunteer firefighters purchased District equipment on several occasions; she believes District volunteers deserve deals on equipment because they are not compensated for their work. La. R.S. 42:1112 further prohibits board members from participating in a transaction in which the board member has a personal substantial economic interest of which he may be aware involving the governmental entity. By bidding on and/or purchasing surplus vehicles from the District, Mr. Roge, Michael Sanders,