This news organization knows from experience that you just never know what you’ll get when deposing Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope.
Still, imagine our surprise when, in a deposition Tuesday — this one related to his defaulting on a $21,000 promissory note — it was revealed that Pope pocketed more than $220,000 in compensation from the marshal’s office in 2016.
As it turns out, the bulk of that money, $120,000 in civil fees and garnishment fees from city court that are paid directly to the marshal himself, may have been paid to him illegally.
Pope was elected to a six-year term in December 2014; his predecessor, Nickey Picard, also personally collected those fees, according to the most recent independent audit of the office's operations that was available on the legislative auditor's website.
That practice, however, is questionable based on a 2011 opinion from the Louisiana attorney general's office concluding that Lafayette and Shreveport are excepted from a state law allowing other marshals to personally collect the fees. Shreveport, unlike Lafayette, has been abiding by the opinion, Assistant Chief Deputy Carl Richard tells The IND. In Shreveport, Richard says, the court fees are funneled into the office's discretionary fund and largely support its overall operations.
The city of Shreveport pays Marshal Charlie Caldwell’s annual salary of $110,000, which was just increased last year from the $83,000 he was paid for the past seven years, but the office gets no additional funding from the city government. “We’re self-funded,” Richard says. The office has 30 full-time employees and operates on an annual budget of approximately $2 million.
The Lafayette marshal’s office, which acts a component unit of Lafayette Consolidated Government, has 23 full-time employees and a $1.7 million budget funded by Lafayette Consolidated Government. LCG owns, operates and maintains the marshal's administrative office and covers the payroll and benefits for all of the marshal's full-time employees. The audit shows that the office also annually takes in more than a half-million dollars in "fees and commissions," presumably most of that coming from city court.
The audit report prepared by CPA firm Kolder, Champagne shows that from January 2015 to October 2015, Pope personally took in a total of $82,400 in city court fees (for serving citations, eviction notices, subpoenas, etc.) and garnishment fees (the office collects 6 percent on garnishments, an amount Pope says he shares with the employee in his office who handles the garnishment paperwork). That amount only represents 10 months of fee collection, roughly $8,200 per month. Broken down, however, his 2016 compensation averages $10,000 per month, creating even more questions about how and why the amounts appear to be increasing.
This latest revelation could spell even more legal trouble for Pope, who already is facing seven felony counts of malfeasance and perjury, all stemming from the public records lawsuit The IND filed against him in late 2015. At the time, the paper was seeking to prove that Pope and his office colluded with the Chad Leger campaign for sheriff to discredit the candidacy of attorney Mark Garber, who ultimately won the election in a runoff with Leger.
In January of this year, The IND and Pope settled the suit for $205,467, with the paper receiving a check for $184,170 from SureTec Insurance Co. out of Houston, the surety bond company the marshal turned to after District Judge Jules Edwards ruled against him a year earlier, saying Pope’s response to the paper’s public records requests were “woefully inadequate,” “arbitrary” and “unreasonable.” Edwards awarded The IND attorneys fees, court costs and penalties.
That $184,170, most of which was owed to our attorney, Gary McGoffin, is public money from the marshal's office. Pope was nonchalant in answering McGoffin's questions this week about how (or if) he plans to reimburse the office, given his limited personal resources. "I would like to make that right," he said, adding, "I mean I don't have to pay that back."
Pushed on his position by McGoffin, Pope said the expenditure was within the scope of his duties as marshal. He's also used his office to pay tens of thousands of dollars for his defense in the public records case.
For more on this developing story, check out KATC's breaking Thursday report (the station did not have access to the 2016 W-2 and 1099s The IND was able to obtain from the deposition, hence the lower compensation figure it used from 2015.) And, as the station noted in this 2014 story, published before Pope was elected, this isn't the first time his attempts to boost his salary have come under scrutiny.
As part of the January settlement, Pope signed a personal promissory note for the $21,297 balance, pledging to pay The IND from personal funds within a 90-day period commencing Jan. 17.
Not surprisingly, he failed to make the April payment, thus the Tuesday deposition (or judgment debtor exam), in which Pope was forced to provide a wide range of financial documents showing that despite his hefty take-home pay, he has no real assets (save for a time share in Cabo San Lucas). He owns no property and has no savings account; he rents his River Ranch home, the marshal’s office pays the $960 lease on his SUV (you can add that and other perks like his health club membership to his total compensation package), and his wife leases her Land Rover for $780 a month.
Worth noting about the most recent audit of Pope's office is the CPA firm's recommendation that the marshal seek clarification from the AG on the practice of collecting the garnishment fee (the letter does not address the other court fees). That letter is dated April 2016, more than a year ago.
Pope failed to immediately act on the recommendation and did not seek clarification from the AG until March 28 of this year, likely after he realized his pay would be scrutinized due to the impending default on the promissory note (not to mention that he now has competent counsel in attorney Joy Rabalais, as his former attorney, Chuck Middleton, is also under criminal indictment on a charge of perjury related to his actions in the public records suit).
HOW THE MONEY IS SPENT. Click here to see what LCG budgets annually for the marshal's office.
Pope oversees a small office of 23 employees, whose primary duty is to execute orders and mandates of the Lafayette City Court. So for some perspective on his salary, consider this: Sheriff Garber (830 employees) makes $159,000 a year. Mayor Joel Robideaux (2,100 employees) makes $117,000. On a quick search, we could only find only one public official, LUS Director Terry Huval, who makes more than Marshal Pope, thanks to a big boost in his salary shortly before Joey Durel left office. Huval now makes $256,000.
[Editor's Note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version stating that Picard collected less than Pope in city court and garnishment fees. We are still trying to determine how much Picard was paid. The story was also adjusted to reflect that the most recent audit of the marshal's office shows Pope is now making more than $220,000.]