The state legislative auditor took a closer look at the spending habits of St. Joseph's mayor after receiving several tips that something was amiss. Indeed, the auditor found several instances of spending that "may have violated state laws," according to the 83-page report.
Among the allegations: Mayor Edward Brown received $19,491 in monies he shouldn't have received, including overpayments, double payments and payments for personal travel or travel he did not go on.
Perhaps more upsetting, considering the town's aging water infrastructure problems, the audit also found Brown had sole control over construction contracts and awarded contracts to his cousin, Bobby Conner, amounting to $127,058 over five years.
More than half of those payments made to Conner are missing invoices, the audit states. When asked about the invoices that did get filed, the mayor's cousin was unable to explain all the work he performed
"For example, when asked about the $20,000 payment he received in January 2013, Mr. Conner could not recall or describe any of the work he performed in exchange for the money," the audit states.
Brown, who was elected in 2000 and is serving his fourth term, has denied any allegations of intentional wrongdoing.
In a letter to Daryl Purpera, the legislative auditor who prepared the report, Brown claimed the auditors didn't ask for all the information or clarification needed while making the report. The mayor did admit to a few instances of "oversight" and "error" on his part but said he has paid the town back in those cases.
The mayor's office declined to comment for this story. Attempts to reach Conner, the mayor's cousin, were unsuccessful.
For years, St. Joseph's residents have grappled with frequent boil-water advisories and yellow or brown water flowing from their faucets. No one has reported getting sick directly from the water, but then no one interviewed in St. Joseph said they dared to drink the tap water or to brush their teeth with it.
And many have wondered why no one has solved the problem.
Last year, the state committed $6 million to help fix the town's roughly 90-year-old water infrastructure. But the town can't access that money because the mayor still hasn't turned in his annual town audit, which was due December 31.
Such audits, which are separate from the state's investigative audit, are usually performed by certified public accountants and examine a city's revenue, expenses and compliance with other laws, Purpera said.
As residents wait for the mayor to turn in his paperwork, some say they're not shocked by the results of the state's investigation.
"Anytime someone is as secretive with their dealings ... it doesn't surprise me something like this would come up," resident Garrett Boyte said. "I'm not shocked. I'm disappointed."
Boyte said he's now afraid the findings will hurt the chances of the town getting a grant they're waiting on to help fix their water system. He said he fears the legislature "will never give money to someone with an audit like this on their record."
Of the roughly 2,200 audits performed by his office each year, Purpera said his office completes about 50 investigative audits that are then flagged for possible further investigation by a district attorney.
Purpera said he has turned in his findings to the St. Joseph district attorney's office. The district attorney will decide if or how to proceed.
St. Joseph is in northeastern Louisiana, near the Mississippi River and about a 215-mile drive from New Orleans.