Aug. 3, 2015 12:29 AM

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third story in an ongoing series The Independent hopes will help voters understand the important decision they will make in the Oct. 24 election to replace retiring Sheriff Mike Neustrom.]

As we’ve detailed in the first two parts of this series, selecting the right candidate to succeed Sheriff Mike Neustrom will prove one of the biggest decisions we make this year — one with the most lasting repercussions. That’s why knowing the candidates is so important; who they are, what they stand for and most important, what we can expect of the man elected as Neustrom’s successor.

But instead of going the typical route and sticking to the official campaign line — something you’re sure to be inundated with in news stories, televised campaign ads and in the political forums between now and election day — we’ve spent the last six months combing through the four announced candidates’ backgrounds to offer an analysis you won’t find anywhere else. This story goes below the surface to show you who we’re really dealing with. It isn’t pretty, but it’s necessary to give you your best shot at making an informed vote in October.

As we’ve stressed in the first two installments of this series, this race isn’t about where you’re from or how long you’ve worked in law enforcement or even who your daddy is. It’s about philosophy. It’s about knowing each candidate’s approach to criminal justice. Are they of the old-school deterrence mind-set? Or are they down with diversion, or as renowned criminal justice expert Anne Milgram calls it, the “moneyball” approach to crime and punishment?

Essentially, who we elect as our next sheriff should center on this question and this question alone: Will this candidate truly continue the progressive work started by Neustrom to use diversion programming as a means for reducing recidivism and ultimately, crime in our community? Or as we’ve quoted before: Will he dismantle it all in a day? Believe it or not, that, dear voters, is the reality before us.

RICK CHARGOIS: THE DEBTOR

On paper, the candidacy of Rick Chargois makes little sense. Given his poor financial history and the fact that his wife just completed a two-year prison sentence for stealing hundreds of thousands from her employer, it’s surprising that Chargois — a former longtime trooper with Louisiana State Police — even chose to put his name in the running for sheriff.

Over the last two decades, Chargois and his wife Karen Stockwell Chargois have fi led for bankruptcy at a rate most folks couldn’t accomplish in a lifetime, and that’s not including the bankruptcies Karen Chargois fi led in her previous marriage. Together, the couple have fi led for Chapter 13 bankruptcy on three occasions, twice in 2013 and again just last year. What’s strange is that in each case the bankruptcy is dismissed, typically within a few months of its fi ling. And that’s not all. Along with the bankruptcy fi lings, the couple has also been the target of a series of tax liens for owing close to $130,000 to everyone from the IRS to the state of Louisiana and IberiaBank. In all, they’ve been the target of seven tax liens since 1998, including a $3,250 tax lien fi led in 2009 against Rick Chargois’ now defunct company Defense Dynamics. The Chargois family home was also slated for foreclosure just three years ago.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of Rick Chargois’ candidacy for sheriff centers on the arrest and indictment of his wife for stealing between $316,000 and $415,000 from her place of employment at Studebakers, a truck-stop casino in Acadia Parish. Indicted on six counts of theft over $500 by an Acadia Parish grand jury in 2004, Karen Chargois would ultimately spend two years atoning behind bars. According to court documents filed in Acadia Parish, the theft occurred over a threeyear period from 2001 to 2004 when Chargois’ job with State Police was investigating the very type of crimes his wife was committing.

How can someone who can’t manage his own finances be expected to responsibly oversee a budget of more than $50 million and some 800 employees if elected? Chargois says he knew nothing of his wife’s criminal dealings — that he never noticed the influx of hundreds of thousands into his household over a three-year period.

Chargois maintains he was shocked by the discovery, but emphasizes that he stuck by her side (leaving, he says, would have been the easy route; Karen Chargois is now battling a terminal illness). The bankruptcies, Chargois explains to us, are the result of all the costs associated with her incarceration and rehabilitation, and an effort at saving the family’s home. It’s been a rocky few years, but Chargois says that as a result of it, he’s no longer of the old-school law enforcement mindset of lock ’em up and throw away the key.

“I’ve seen it first-hand how the criminal justice system can affect the family,” he says. “And I can tell you, I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it weren’t for everything that happened to my family in the last few years. I’ve gained empathy, and can see things from the other side.”

CHAD LEGER: THE BULLY

Can someone who regularly bends or breaks rules as he sees fit really be entrusted with enforcing those same rules on everybody else?

That’s the million dollar question underlying the candidacy of Scott Police Chief Chad Leger.

Leger is also grossly disadvantaged when you put this race on paper and judge by merit alone. That’s where you’ll see Leger’s big disadvantage — in education, experience, professional achievements and accolades; in diversity. This translates into a particular view of the world, one seen in his existing approach to both his job and this election. He’s done a poor job of hiding it too, evidenced by the xenophobic Facebook comments directed at Spanish speakers posted last year. Like the Facebook comment, Leger has repeatedly made the mistake of leaving tiny paper trails detailing his indiscretions. While some require more digging than others, together they reveal who this man really is: an elected officer of the law in a small community who uses his position and power for both personal and political gain.

He’s also proven himself a bully with a short fuse. Just ask the several elderly Scott residents who have reached out to The Independent in recent months with stories of his bullying tactics — like his telling one elderly woman that having a political sign of a competitor could translate into a lack of response from the local PD in the event of an emergency. There’s more than one person this has happened to. And then there’s his time with the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. According to a source within the department, along with once being cited for insubordination, Leger was never able to pass the necessary examination for promotion, which essentially gave way to his running for the chief’s position in Scott.

Leger’s also shown a disregard for state laws, especially as they concern the use of public property for campaign-related purposes. Cell phone evidence obtained by The Independent shows that Leger used his landline phone with the Scott Police Department at least once to make a call asking for support for his candidacy for sheriff and another time to scold an elderly resident for supporting another candidate. “Yes, he called me and asked if we’d support his campaign,” says a Lafayette Parish business owner. “A lot of our good friends are supporting Chad, so I guess he thought we’d support him too. But honestly, we’re voting for the most qualified candidate, and we don’t believe Chad’s that candidate.” State law is clear on this one: Public property, which his police department phone line would be considered, is not to be used for purposes of political campaigning. It’s a misuse of public funds. And that’s not all. There’s also the Boudin Festival incident, when photographs were taken of Leger’s campaign team using the Scott Police Department as a de facto campaign headquarters. Another violation of state law.

Leger’s closet is filled with even more skeletons — like the police-issued vehicle belonging to the department’s assistant chief that was sold to a local auto dealership and then purchased by the chief’s son the very next day. And then there’s the conversation in which one elected official who asked to remain anonymous overheard Leger quipping that if elected he’d dismantle all the diversion programs put into place under Neustrom’s watch — a move that would potentially set our parish back decades.

In interviews with The Independent, Leger denies the allegation of abusing his office and misusing public funds, yet the paper trail doesn’t lie.

JOHN ROGERS: THE NICE GUY

It’s hard not to like John Rogers. Just one conversation and you’ll see it: He’s a really nice guy. He’s also got a closet free of skeletons. He’s been with the sheriff’s office for the past 15 years and is now a member of Neustrom’s administration, working as a litigation specialist.

He expresses support for Neustrom’s diversion programs (though some within the sheriff’s office question whether his heart is really in them). And he loves animals. In fact, so far the only real dirt thrown in this candidate’s direction over the last months has centered on that love for animals. According to Rogers, it started with a recent phone call from Wildlife and Fisheries over a tip they’d received that he was harboring an illegal wild animal — a baby raccoon he discovered in his yard, separated from its family. Rogers did what many would do: He took it in and started taking care of it. A Facebook post later, Wildlife agents started calling, letting him know he needed to turn this wild beast over to the proper authorities. Rogers, like the law abiding citizen he strives to be, complied immediately, meeting with agents and turning his new pet over to the proper authorities.

Maybe that’s why Rogers seems to be something of a breath of fresh air in this race.

In terms of support from Lafayette Parish’s big money donors, however, Rogers is trailing the pack. His campaign, he says, is of a grass-roots nature. Essentially, Rogers isn’t worried with the big money. His concern: getting the word out, whether by word of mouth or by hitting the streets and meeting as many voters as possible, telling them who he is and what he’ll stand for if elected. While his platform largely focuses on bringing a public servant approach to the sheriff’s office and giving more support to victims of crime — both nice gestures — his chances of making the runoff appear slim at best.

MARK GARBER: THE OVERACHIEVER

Of all the candidates running to replace Neustrom, Mark Garber has the most diverse background and the most qualifications for the job. He can come off as arrogant, but he’s got a résumé to back it up.

Garber, in fact, has done a lot. He spent time working as both a small town and big city patrol officer; he was an interrogator for the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations in Iraq, where he received a Bronze Star; he’s worked for the U.S. Secret Service; and he’s an attorney who previously worked as a prosecutor for the 15th Judicial District.

And based on a series of one-on-one conversations, he’s also the candidate most likely to continue the diversion programming put into place under Neustrom. And we’re not alone in our thinking on that matter.

As we’ve repeatedly stated, this race is about ensuring the survival of everything accomplished in the last 16 years since Neustrom took office. Essentially, it’s about the continuation of the diversion programs. And despite the evolution in recent months in the pro-diversion rhetoric coming from all four candidates, voters should not be fooled: These data-proven programs are very much in jeopardy depending on who we elect.

Garber’s all-out support of LPSO’s diversion programs can be traced back to the beginning of his campaign.

While Garber’s competition in this race has certainly gone after him — recall the whole military veterans brouhaha kick-started by a Daily Advertiser article questioning Garber’s Bronze Star that turned out to be just two disgruntled vets with ties to another campaign — Garber has seemingly emerged from the controversies even stronger.

When one campaign spread claims that the Bronze Star he received was fake, Garber’s camp responded by requesting documented proof from the Air Force, proving the Bronze Star is real.

Then there’s the claims of Garber’s troubles with the Arlington Police Department. Again, Garber immediately issued an in-depth explanation of what happened for The Independent’s mid-April story, “Chad Leger, supporters show their true colors.” (Find his statement online at theind.com.)

The race is far from over, and it’s a safe bet there will be mud.

Mark Garber, who at this juncture in the campaign appears to be a lock for a runoff spot, seems ready for whatever comes his way.