Harson: Paula Scott way behind on restitution

by Leslie Turk

DA Mike Harson says Paula Scott, who claims she worked for Chris Williams on a controversial hurricane assistance program, has fallen way behind on the $46,000 in restitution she promised to make for stealing hurricane funds.

Paula Scott has a matter even more pressing than a potential grand jury appearance: she's fallen way behind on the $46,000 in restitution she promised to make after pleading guilty to stealing hurricane funds.

The Independent Weekly reported Feb. 2 that Paula Scott, one of two women who signed affidavits swearing they worked on the controversial Disaster Housing Assistance Program for former City-Parish Council man Chris Williams, has a criminal past.

In August 2009, Scott, who now works for Williams' restaurant Country Cuisine, was arrested on theft and forgery charges for stealing more than $30,000 from her employer, Acadiana Outreach. According to the arrest record, she created false documents to obtain hurricane assistance money for her family and friends. "The defendant would pull up old file[s] for Hurricane Katrina and Rita, copy and paste her families' names onto them, then submit them for approval. Once the checks were printed ... she would then mail and/or hand deliver them." When Scott, whom records show was living in Opelousas at the time, was questioned by the center's director, she confessed.

According to Fifteenth Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson, Scott pleaded guilty in May 2010 and received seven years at hard labor suspended and five years probation. "She had other conditions, but the main condition is that she agreed to make restitution of approximately $46,000 payable at about $769 a month over the 60 months of probation," Harson says. "We collect it and remit it to the Outreach center. That's how this was set up."

When he was interviewed for the early February story, Harson said Scott appeared to be current on her payments, but on Tuesday he called back to say he did not have the most recent information in front of him at the time. "She's not up to date on her payments," Harson now says. "I think she maybe paid 250 bucks."

Harson says a change in probation officers led to the delay in filing for a revocation hearing. On Thursday morning, the DA was still waiting to confirm the date of the hearing. Because non-payment is considered a "technical violation," Scott could face up to 90 days in jail, Harson says. "I assume she'll come in and beg and cry and plead. They might give her a certain number of days [to become current]." Harson says the court could require a lump-sum payment or might be willing to restructure her payments. Because this is her first revocation hearing, her probation will probably not be revoked.

The DHAP program Scott says she worked for is one of several areas under investigation by state and federal authorities, who are looking at widespread problems and possible criminal activity at the Lafayette Housing Authority. An independent audit of the housing agency raised numerous red flags about it is run, leading to the resignation of its top two officials late last year and the ongoing investigations.

Williams was a case manager on the DHAP before he was fired in August 2010. The state legislative auditor's investigation found more than 90 hours of overlap between Williams' time at UL Lafayette, where he works full-time, and his DHAP time sheets. Williams says others at this non-profit company performed the DHAP work.

Harson, who initially said he would call a grand jury in February to determine if any state laws were brokern, announced Wednesday that he's going to let the feds complete their investigation of the LHA before deciding what action he'll take. Scott was likely to be called by Harson, and should a federal grand jury eventually be convened, she's sure to be on that list as well.

Scott's attorney, Harold Register, did not return a call for comment this morning.

Harson says he's backing off temporarily as a result of a meeting he had with U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley, members of her staff and the FBI. He says the agencies jointly decided the best course of action would be to let the feds complete their investigation. "It is the anticipation of both agencies that once the federal investigation is complete that the two agencies will once again meet to determine the most feasible and expedient manner in which to proceed," Harson's office noted in a press release.