KATC Investigates

May 23, 2014 12:33 AM by Jim Hummel and Tina Macias

Corruption Accusation Over Sheriff's New Home; Sheriff Defends Purchase

A Vermilion parish woman is calling foul over the sale of her foreclosed home. It's a sale that could cause potential ethical and legal problems for one elected official in Vermilion Parish.

The Sale

"It just doesn't seem right," said Michelle McNabb, who lost her home earlier this year when she fell on hard times, financially. "My note went from $350 to $700 per month, which became impossible."

McNabb doesn't dispute the foreclosure, but instead she disputes who was able to buy her home.

The house was put up for sale in the Vermilion Parish Sheriff's Auction in February. Last assessed at $106,000. The home went for $58,000, at sheriff's auction, to Vermilion Parish Sheriff Mike Couvillon.

When asked if she'd be just as upset if someone else bought her home, McNabb responded: "I don't think so, no, I don't think it would hit (as hard) as it did y'know? Because he knew the house, he knew exactly where it was."

McNabb's old home, Sheriff Couvillon's new house--is also right next door to his brother's house.


Ethical Concerns Raised

"The sheriff gaining out of the sheriff's sale, it just doesn't seem right," said McNabb. "It should be unethical!"

We took McNabb's ethical concerns straight to Sheriff Couvillon. When asked if he thought he did anything wrong, the sheriff quickly responded: "No, sir."

The Louisiana Board of Ethics does have a code, R.S. 42:1113 A, which prohibits public servants from entering into contracts and transactions with the agencies they serve.

"This is a case of corruption," said Dr. Pearson Cross, who is the head of the Political Science Department at UL. "It seems at the face of it, to be a gross violation of the law, specifically the Code of Ethics for the state of Louisiana, that says no employee, no sheriff's employee can bid at a sheriff's sale."


Sheriff Couvillon Defends His Actions

We asked Sheriff Couvillon how his situation is different than what's spelled out in the Louisiana Code of Ethics. Couvillon responded: "I'd like you to request the opinion, or the answer from my attorney, Ike Funderburk."

Funderburk is the attorney for the sheriff's office, who was present for our interview in Couvillon's office.

"The transaction is between, in my opinion, the mortgage company and the highest bidder," said Funderburk. "The sheriff's department is merely acting as an agent."


Precedent by the Board of Ethics

Our investigative team found two state ethics board opinions, advisory opinion No. 83-154, and opinion No. 97-092, where the board ruled that sheriff's office employees violated the ethics code, by buying property at sheriff's auctions held by their departments.

"You are an elected official, you are in a position of trust and you've got to handle the people's property and business with propriety," said Dr. Cross. "You can't intrude your personal interests into the business of the state and that appears to be what the sheriff has done."

Potential Ramifications

The Louisiana Ethics Administration could not comment about the specifics of this case, a spokeswoman telling us that every case is different.

"The general provision in the code prohibits not only improprieties, but also the appearance of improprieties," said Kathleen Allen, Ethics Administrator for the department. "How does it look to someone that the public employee or the elected official was doing business with their own agency?"

If the Ethics Administration does get a complaint, they will investigate. If the board decides the code was violated, they can issue fines of up to $10,000.

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