A look at RPSO employee arrests: Candidates for sheriff weigh in

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RAPIDES PARISH, La. (KALB) - When an internal audit of the Rapides Parish Sheriff's Office state-funded 'Safe and Sober' campaign found signs of payroll fraud, an investigation by Louisiana State Police, requested by RPSO, led to the arrest last Thursday of three Rapides Parish deputies -- Matt Davis, David Billings and Jonathan Treadway -- all facing charges of public payroll fraud, injuring public records, and malfeasance.

Photo Source: RPSO / KALB

However, the investigation didn't end there. Rapides Parish Sheriff William Earl Hilton fired two more deputies on Monday.

We wanted to know why.

"For the same things that the State Police had arrested the other three officers or deputies for last week,” Sheriff Hilton said.

Two deputies, Eddie Andrus and Brian Frost, were fired for the same allegations as the deputies arrested last week.

In a follow-up question to Sheriff Hilton, we asked: They were basically stealing money from taxpayers. Is that what they were doing?

"That is correct. That's what they are accused of doing," Sheriff Hilton explained.

The question remains. Why were the first two deputies arrested, but the second two were not?

"I don't know,” Hilton said. “That's a good question for you to ask the State Police.”

The State Police might have handled the first three deputies, but for the two who were fired, that’s a different story.

"They turned two names back over to me...to be dealt with internally, and that's what I did today,” Hilton explained. “I fired those two....These officers that were arrested, let me tell you something. There is no finer law enforcement officers anywhere in the world than these people are."

We called State Police, but they declined to comment, instead, telling us it would all be in a report to the District Attorney’s office.

Still, with no clear answer, we were left with even more questions.

Did more people in the office know about these crimes than meets the eye?

"Well, sure. The people who did it knew what was going on, because they were involved in it,” Hilton said. "But, other than that, nobody knew what was going on."

A follow-up question: The people who signed off on the time cards...they didn't know about it? Or did they just like not look into it?

"Well, Matt Davis was the person who was keeping the log of the time on all of that, so he would've been the one,” Hilton responded.

Matt Davis might have signed off on those time sheets, but an official report on the 'Safe and Sober' campaign, which includes the time sheets, has to be given to the state. Chief Administrative Officer Debbie McBeth told us Matt Davis sent the report to her for approval, and finally to Mark Wood, who was the major over the uniform division, and now a candidate for sheriff and endorsed by Sheriff Hilton.

This isn't the first time RPSO employees have had run-ins with the law during Hilton’s latest term which began in June 2016. So, we did a deep dive into the past three years. According to RPSO, a total of 13 employees were arrested for crimes committed while they were performing work duties, or when they were supposed to be.

"I don't care what department, what kind of business it is,” Hilton said. “When you have that many employees, you're going to have some people who do some bad things and get accused of doing some bad things. And that's what's happened here. We have good employees”

“I'm going to stand by my department. I've always been a person whenever we have something to be dealt with, we deal with it."

So where does the sheriff believe the responsibility lies for these arrests?

We asked: Do you feel like any of the blame for these arrests ultimately falls back on you, or do you feel like that responsibility goes to other people?

"It goes to other people, and I'm disappointed, and it hurts me,” Hilton answered. “You don't know how this has eaten on me ever since this started, because these are people -- a lot of them I hired--most of them I hired."

According to Sheriff Hilton, he's done his job, and that responsibility lies anywhere but on him.

But some of the public is pushing back.

We read him some Facebook comments under KALB’s most recent post about RPSO employee arrests.

Post Comment: I'm sure if they keep looking, they'll find more.

Hilton: "I don't think so. No."

Post Comment: Most have no credentials to be in the RPSO position. It's all about who you know.

Hilton: "That is political. That's politics. Somebody posted that that didn't know what they were talking about."

Post Comment: How is this the fault of William Earl Hilton? What's next? The Russians did it?

Hilton: "I like that one. But the Russians didn't do it. We've had our issues here with the employees and I'm sure in time to come, there may be others."

Those arrests have become a major campaign issue in the race to become the next sheriff of Rapides Parish.

We reached out to all seven candidates who have publicly announced their run to get their reactions and how they would handle some of these situations. And, while they all initially said they would be up for doing an interview, Mark Wood, who has been endorsed by Sheriff Hilton, told us he would actually prefer not to.

"The sheriff's interview adequately covered the situation," Wood said in a statement to News Channel 5.

So, here are the other six.

Q: What was your reaction to the arrests last week by Louisiana State Police of three RPSO deputies accused of payroll fraud, malfeasance in office and injuring public records?

Kris Cloessner: "We are always shocked and surprised about what goes on, but you know, we have good employees at the Rapides Parish Sheriff's Office. The investigation was done by Louisiana State Police and I really don't know the circumstances of that case."

Dennis Dezendorf: "It came as a bit of a surprise. I know all three of them. I've worked with at least two of them. Right now they have the presumption of innocence. The story hasn't come out. I don't know what happened."

Tommy Carnline: "I've worked with these guys most of my career. I can say it pains me."

Chuck Wagner: "It's troubling. As a candidate, you are not privy to the facts of the case. So, it would kind of be irresponsible for me to comment on the specifics of the case. But, what will be interesting is, as the facts unfold, it will be interesting to see what they reveal."

Clay Brister: "Well, I don't really know all the particulars of it. So, I'm not really at liberty to say one way or the other as far as who is guilty and who is not guilty. That is why we have the court system and we'll let the courts decide once they get all the information."

Ronnie Sellers: "The arrests, I didn't know anything about until it was already done. So, I realize they've got problems up there in the sheriff's office. I don't know what they all are other than leadership."

Q: We have been able to track down a number of arrests of RPSO employees during Sheriff Hilton's most recent term for crimes or alleged crimes while on duty. Is that number excessive? Does it concern you?

Dennis Dezendorf: "Oh absolutely it concerns me. Now, as I recall, and I may be wrong, a number of those arrests came out of the jail. A number of them had to deal with excessive force. That's a training issue."

Tommy Carnline: "There are 600 employees at the sheriff's office. Fourteen employees doing anything to be arrested or accused of is unacceptable. We are held to a higher standard. The public expects us to be held to a higher standard. To answer the question why these infractions occurred, I can't answer that question."

Ronnie Sellers: "I think it is. Most definitely. I was there for 35 years and we never did have that kind of stuff going on. Internal affairs is staying real busy it seems like."

Clay Brister: "It does sound excessive to me. I think we need integrity and leadership brought back to our department in a bad way."

Chuck Wagner: "Absolutely. It's very troubling and it will be interesting to see what is going on internally there that is causing this problem."

Kris Cloessner: "It seems kind of high, but we do have a lot of employees. Some people make bad decisions. But, we stand behind our deputies and make sure they are held accountable just like myself be held accountable."

In a follow-up question to Kris Cloessner: Two of the three were under metro narcotics. So, you would have been their boss. Did you have any idea what was going on then?

Kris Cloessner: "Right. Well, they worked for me on 40 hours. But, they were doing extra duty details and that extra duty detail was run by the line division so I never scheduled or wrote or signed off on any of their paperwork."

Q: On Monday, Sheriff Hilton announced the firing of two more deputies and publicly alleged that they committed the same crimes as the three who were arrested by Louisiana State Police last week, but he didn't arrest them. Should these two be arrested as well?

Ronnie Sellers: "I don't know one thing about the investigation. I don't have any idea. I do know, was it three who were charged? I don't know anything about the other two other than what the sheriff said over the television."

Clay Brister: "As sheriff, I would have actually looked into the whole situation. I know in the past not everybody has been treated equally or fairly. I think that's one thing we're lacking. We need to bring back our integrity. We need to treat everyone equally and fairly depending on what they've done.

In a follow-up question to Clay Brister: Should those two be charged with a crime?

Clay Brister: "If they broke the law? Absolutely."

Chuck Wagner: "I don't know why they didn't or why they did. Obviously, there wasn't enough evidence to arrest them or they would have. I can't see why they would have arrested three and not arrested the other two. That would have to be a question you would have to ask them."

In a follow-up question to Chuck Wagner: As sheriff, if you know of a crime, is it your responsibility if that case is handed back to you, is it your responsibility to arrest them then?

Chuck Wagner: "Absolutely. If there's probable cause to do so."

Tommy Carnline: "Yes. Here's the deal, and I just had this analogy put to me earlier. If a person goes into a grocery store and robs them of $40 in the cash register or if you have a crew that went to a bank and rob a million dollars, it's theft. It's armed robbery."

Kris Cloessner: "I think the investigation was with the Louisiana State Police and I don't know the circumstances of the reason why he did or didn't charge. So, I really can't answer that question."

In a follow-up question to Kris Cloessner: If you were in that situation and you know of a crime that has occurred by an officer of yours, is it your responsibility to do that?

Kris Cloessner: "I think we need to let the investigation complete and let the State Police come up with what they have and then go from there."

Dennis Dezendorf's interview with News Channel 5 happened right before Sheriff Hilton made the announcement about firing deputies Eddie Andrus and Brian Frost. We reached back out to him to see if he believes they should have been charged with a crime, and gave him the opportunity to re-shoot that question on camera if he wished, he told us over the phone that he would have to look at the police report and he doesn't want to second guess State Police's investigation.

Meanwhile, we asked the six candidates too if they believe the sheriff's office is corrupt. They all said no.

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