Covering Louisiana

Jun 20, 2012 12:08 PM by AP

Bienville sheriff investigating town of Gibsland

GIBSLAND, La. (AP) - Bienville Parish Sheriff John Ballance says he's investigating allegations of misappropriation and misuse of public money in the town of Gibsland.

Subpoenas delivered Monday to Town Hall seek bank records, official meeting minutes and assorted other financial information and documents, he told The Times on Tuesday. He says he thinks he'll know fairly quickly if the investigation will lead to criminal charges.

In May, three Gibsland aldermen alleged questionable spending and other problems in interviews with The Times. Other allegations about Mayor Odell Key included disappearing records, refusal to answer public records requests, hiring and firing of employees without board approval, and failure to follow through with board votes.

An auditor could not complete a thorough examination of the town's finances this year and issued a rare "disclaimer".

The mayor has no comment, his assistant, Trisherica Webb, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Alderman Marketris Jones said more questions have surfaced since May. He told The Times that aldermen have learned that the town has five Walmart credit cards but can't find out who carries them, and groceries were among items charged to the town.

"We questioned him about the grocery items and he said we were lying. We don't know who had the cards. We only knew of one card," said Jones, adding that he only learned about the existence of the others during a call to Walmart to get a detailed listing of charged purchases. "We have suspended all of the cards."

Key, who returned to office in January 2011 after a four-year absence, did not return a message left Tuesday at Town Hall.

Jones also says Key paid $5,000 for legal advice from former attorney Hersey Jones, who was disbarred in 2007.

Aldermen have not seen a copy of a contract or invoice describing what type of service Hersey Jones is supposed to be providing the town through his company.

Key "won't show us anything," Marketris Jones said. "We voted to suspend any and all payments and services related to Hersey Jones."

Aldermen also are concerned that the water superintendent Key hired is not certified. Key fired the previous one, who was certified, Marketris Jones said.

Bienville District Attorney Jonathan Stewart said his office is not actively involved in the sheriff's investigation.

If the sheriff finds likely reason to prosecute, Stewart said, his office will probably have to step aside because he and his father were the town's attorney for decades. He said he would ask the state attorney general's office or another district attorney to handle it.

"We don't mind subpoenaing these records. But after it's all over and done with, there may not be any evidence of criminal wrongdoing. But if it does, then I would recuse myself."

Gibsland is on the state's non-compliance list because the town lacks an approved audit, resulting in all state funds being cut off. The Louisiana legislative auditor's office also is monitoring Gibsland.

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