You’d never know there was a budgetary crisis from tracking Fire Marshal’s purchases of trinkets

Graft, Lies & Politics: A Monument to Corruption.

August 7, 2017 by: Tom Aswell (Louisiana Voice)

Word from inside the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal (LOSFM) is that state auditors have come calling and are taking a close look at agency expenditures.

Without being privy to any specific findings by the Legislative Auditor’s Office, it’s a pretty safe bet that the bean counters are going to find that the LOSFM likes to worm its way around the rules by making multiple purchases in amounts that fly—barely—under the radar, as it were, of minimum amounts for which quotes are required.

Other expenditures that might be questioned by auditors include meals at Mike Anderson’s Restaurant, purchases from a grocery store, a seafood market, a deli, a cookware outlet, association memberships and convention fees,

The  LOUISIANA PROCUREMENT CODE (LPC: that would be R.S. 39:1551-1755 for whoever is wearing military medals at LOSFM these days] does not require competitive bidding for purchases that are $5,000 or less. Purchases that are greater than $5,000, and up to $15,000, require quotes from at least three vendors by telephone, fax or other means. (emphasis ours.)

LouisianaVoice recently spent the better part of a week poring over and scanning stack upon stack of purchasing records by the fire marshal’s office. Several years’ worth of receipts, no less.

If LOSFM is an indication, the so-called state budgetary crisis is largely a myth and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, erstwhile State Treasurer, was correct when he said the state didn’t have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem. (Kennedy, alas, not knowing when to call it a day, would go on to talk about drinking weed killer and quoting a mysterious Louisiana adage known only to him about how we should love one another but should also carry a handgun).

State Fire Marshal Butch Browning apparently makes a lot of photocopies and prints volumes of documents, judging from the toner purchases made by his office. But those notwithstanding, it became fairly obvious from our findings that Browning, his second in command, Brant Thompson, and other top honchos like to split their purchases so that they fall just under that magical mystical $5,000 amount.

We even stumbled across one purchase of $4,999.99 on September 6, 2016, from Broad Base of Harvey for the purchase of 10 washers and 10 dryers for the agency’s laundry trailer. Apparently, they learned well from the Jindal administration which would issue state contracts for $49,999 so as to avoid the laborious approval of the old Office of Contractual Review, a requirement that kicked in at $50,000 and above.

LOSFM also liked a well-dressed agent. In 2015, it spent $33,490 with Guidry Uniforms of Lafayette, with at least three of those purchases being in increments of $5,000 and another for $5,000.01 (oops).

On April 7, 2015, the fire marshal’s office spent $2,558.59 with Guidry’s and immediate recorded another purchase that same day for $685.83. Six days later, on April 13, another $5,000 was spent with Guidry’s, all apparently without benefit of the required three quotes as there were no such quotes provided along with the receipts.

In 2014, records were found for expenditures with Guidry’s of $4,531.53 (September 15) and $5,000 (November 14). Another $17,600 was spent at Guidry’s in 2016, including individual purchases of $1,069 on March 31 and payments on outstanding invoices of $4,932.67 in April 12 and $2,517.61 in April 20.

“Agencies should maintain documentation of each quote received,” the state law says. “Procurement amounts may not be artificially divided in order to circumvent the LPC.” (emphasis ours) Quotes may be taken by telephone, facsimile or other means. The quotes must, however, be in writing if the price exceeds $5,000. Awards shall be made to the lowest responsive quotation.

Other apparent split purchases made without obtaining the required three quotations:

  • Tri-Parish Communications of Baton Rouge: March 10, 2015 ($1,870.75), March 16 ($1,876 and $382.80), March 18 ($107.80 and $148.30), March 19 ($232.85) and March 24 ($274.85 and $359.85) for a total of $5,253.20.
  • Louisiana Office Solutions of Baton Rouge: January 14, 2016 ($269.32), January 21 ($2,668), and January 22 ($2,828) for a total of $5,765.32.
  • Preferred Data Voice Networks of Baton Rouge: April 5, 2016 ($1,873.60), April 12 ($3,248.80), April 19 ($4,970.80) for a total of $10,093.20 with all three purchases precisely one week apart (clever).
  • Quality Lapel Pins of Littleton, Colorado (we’ll have more on them later): February 21, 2016 ($3,569), March 9 ($3,569—yep, identical amounts in two separate purchases barely two weeks apart), and March 30 ($1,040) for a total of $8,178 over a span of five weeks.
  • Quality Lapel Pins: June 27 ($4,862), July 13 ($921.02), and July 18 ($1,828.20) for a total of $7,611.22 purchased over a period of three weeks.
  • Goodyear Commercial Tire of Baton Rouge: March 26, 2015 ($3,484.17) and March 30 ($2,677.43), a total of $6,161.60.
  • Ferrara Fire Apparatus of Holden: December 11, 2014 ($4,985), December 12 ($2,747.52), and December 22 ($2,190.14), a total of $9,922.66.
  • Ferrara Fire Apparatus: April 2, 2015 ($3,784.38) and April 8 ($1,712.16), a total of $5,496.54.
  • Ferrara Fire Apparatus: March 18, 2016 ($4,828), April 14 ($3,196 and $1,164), and April 26 ($4,342), a total of $8,702 (grand total of split purchases: $24,121.20). Additionally, LOSFM had individual purchases from Ferrara of another $10,321 in the years 2014-2016, including one purchase of $4,985, just $15 below the amount requiring quotations.
  • Teeco Safety of Shreveport: November 6, 2014 ($4,731.50) and November 14 ($4,994.50), a total of $9,726.
  • Teeco Safety: December 5, 2014 ($3,979.30) and December 11 ($3,248.32), a total of $7,227.62.
  • Teeco Safety: February 13, 2015 ($3,525, $564.30, and $711.76) and February 19 ($546), a total of $5,347.06.
  • Teeco Safety: November 6, 2015 ($2,763), November 12 ($4,763.14), and November 16 ($1,413.96), a total of $8,940.10.
  • Teeco Safety: December 18, 2015 ($3,606.79 and $179.76) and December 22 ($2,601.31), a total of $6,387.86.
  • Teeco Safety: September 9, 2016 ($4,587.96), September 14 ($3,433.92), and September 30 ($1,919.76), a total of $9,941.64. LOSFM also made individual purchases of $4,941.98 on October 30, 2014, and $4,777.80 on April 8, 2015, and had three purchases totaling $4,804 in December 2016.

Documents provided by LOSFM indicated that an occasional quotation was obtained from Teeco prior to purchases, but there were no quotes from other vendors.

Besides the four purchases of $5,000 each from Guidry’s and the $4,999.99 from Broad Base, the fire marshal’s office also chalked up at least a dozen one-time purchases that fell just below the $5,000 amount requiring quotations. Those purchases ranged from $4,000 to $4,900, $4,990 and $4,999—all without benefit of quotations.

That $4,900 expenditure was for a deposit to LR3 Consulting for creation of the “Louisiana Firefighter Proud” website. The State of Louisiana has IT personnel to perform such tasks.

Over a relative short span, from May 9 to September 22, 2016, LOSFM spent $9,600 at Best Buy on such items as juice boxes, computer and video cable, and other computer-related equipment.

Another $8,754 was spent on association memberships and sponsorship fees for conventions, records show. Those included:

  • $1,300 for 2015 memberships in the Merchant International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI);
  • $1,875 for 2016 memberships in the Louisiana IAAI;
  • $1,175 for 2017 IAAI membership;
  • $1,404 for 2015 membership in the Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA);
  • $700 for sponsorship of the Louisiana Municipal Association (LMA) 2015 convention;
  • $750 for sponsorship of the LMA 2016 convention;
  • $800 for sponsorship of the LMA 2017 convention;
  • $750 for sponsorship of the Louisiana Police Jury Association (LPJA) 2017 convention;

On December 3, 2015, LOSFM employees were treated to a Christmas meal at Mike Anderson’s Seafood Restaurant at a cost of $2,195. Another $1,014 was spent at LeBlanc’s Food Stores and $126.62 was dropped at Tony’s Seafood Market & Deli in January 2016, and $479.85 was spent at Jason’s Deli in April 2016.

On January 21, 2015, $895 was spent at Krazy Kajun Cookware for the purchase of a 30-gallon roll-around combo set, including the pot and accompanying paddles—apparently to compliment the purchase later that year (May 18) of a special service trailer for “emergency field food service” to support USAR events/emergencies. (A quick Google search of USAR came up with U.S. Army Reserve and Urban Search and Rescue.)

But that pales in comparison to more than $62,000 spent by the Louisiana Fire Marshal’s Office between May 2014 and September 2016 on such things as badges, ribbons, plaques, coins, medallions, stadium cups, lapel pins, and decals—all without benefit of obtaining quotations. A couple of those nudged right up against that $5,000 limit:

  • $5,000 with Quality Lapels and Pins in February 2016, $7,138 in two purchases of identical $3,569 on February 21, 2016 and again 16 days later, on March 9, and $4,862 on June 27;
  • $4,617 from Rebel Graphics of Baton Rouge in June 2016, and
  • $4,997 with Action Flags of Baton Rouge (no invoice date).

There was no indication if any of those purchases were for military medals to be worn by Browning.

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