Fourth Judicial District Attorney Steve Tew’s office says it was working to resolve a felony prosecution of former Sterlington Mayor Vern Breland for malfeasance in office, though the district attorney has not reached out to some potential witnesses.
Breland was indicted on the charge last year, stemming from unidentified offenses between 2017 and 2018.
During Breland’s tenure as mayor of Sterlington, the town accumulated some $20 million in debt and spent some $3 million on unlawful expenditures, skirted public bid law on projects as large as $2 million and falsified documents sent to the state so the town could incur bonded indebtedness, audit reports show.
In March, Breland pleaded not guilty to the felony charge.
No trial has been set in Breland’s criminal case, though Tew’s office recently revealed a “resolution in this matter” is underway.
Neither prosecutors in Tew’s office nor his investigators tasked with gathering evidence have spoken with Mayor Caesar Velasquez, the current mayor of Sterlington, or the town’s fiscal administrator, I.M. “Junior” Shelton Jr.
Velasquez served as a member of the Sterlington Town Council under Breland, and the state appointed Shelton as the town’s fiscal administrator in 2019 to correct the town’s finances and ensure Sterlington made all debt service payments.
“People keep asking me what is happening with the case, but I have no idea,” Velasquez said. “Nobody from the DA’s office has spoken to me.”
Though Tew’s office has not reached out to Sterlington Town Hall as part of its prosecution of Breland, other investigating agencies looked into past Sterlington operations, Velasquez and Shelton say.
“We’re still turning over information, and we had the FBI agent here,” said Velasquez, referring to the Federal Bureau of Information.
Shelton, the town’s fiscal administrator, also indicated the possibility of investigations by other agencies.
“I can tell you there are some investigations going on—or there were—by different agencies, but nobody has talked to me at all,” Shelton said.
In an interview with this newspaper on Tuesday, Shelton identified a handful of questionable practices he unearthed during his time as the sole person calling the shots on all financial matters. Questions about certain incidents during Breland’s time as mayor never arose because no investigators spoke to him, according to Shelton.
“I was never interviewed by anybody or contacted by anybody,” Shelton said.
Nearly five months ago, Tew’s office collected the evidence it planned to use against Breland and provided those documents to Breland’s defense attorney, according to documents on file at Fourth Judicial District Court.
“Copies of all discoverable documents are attached hereto,” stated the district attorney’s March 5 answer to defendant’s motion for discovery and inspection. “The State of Louisiana has physical evidence intended for use at trial and will make same available for inspection, copying, or review, etc., in the presence of the Assistant District Attorney handling the case, upon receipt from the defendant of a five-day written notice suggesting a mutually convenient time and date to be agreed upon by the parties.”
Assistant District Attorney Shirley Davis is handling the prosecution on behalf of Tew’s office.
Tew told The Ouachita Citizen earlier this month that the district attorney’s office employed five investigators whose job entailed helping his assistant district attorneys prepare for trial.
“That can mean anything from making copies of videos or running down witnesses, serving subpoenas to get people to trial,” Tew said.
When asked why Tew’s investigators had not spoken with Shelton or Velasquez, Tew said, “We just started trying jury trials again.”
Louisiana courts paused trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tew explained there was no reason for the district attorney’s office to speak with Shelton or Velasquez at this time.
“Whoever is going to try the case will do that,” Tew said. “The case is tight.”
The Ouachita Citizen’s review of documents in the court record in State of Louisiana v. Vern Breland suggested Tew’s office was entertaining a plea agreement with Breland.
“Movers show that they remain in the process of reviewing extensive discovery and are working towards a resolution of this matter,” stated the April 1 joint motion for continuance signed by legal counsel for the prosecutor and defendant.
During an interview with this newspaper, Shelton outlined his experience examining Sterlington’s finances and expenditures and what he found during the nearly two years of work as fiscal administrator.
Shelton noted he was not present as Sterlington’s fiscal administrator during the time when Breland’s alleged malfeasance occurred.
“I was investigating how to correct things, and I had my own thoughts about what took place,” Shelton said.
“I had no certainty about what took place. I can tell you that while I do not think things were handled in a proper manner as far as running government, but I cannot give you any specifics.”
According to Shelton, he did not find evidence of theft.
“But there’s no doubt there was what I’ll call shenanigans going on,” Shelton said. “You don’t have that much money go through a city and wind up with so many people not being paid.”
For example, Sterlington incurred some $2 million in bonded indebtedness to complete the Sterlington Sports Complex, specifically building a parking lot and a concession stand. Sterlington also received hundreds of thousands of dollars to build the parking lot and concession stand. When Shelton arrived, however, the contractor had not been paid.
“I don’t remember what the total amount was for the concession stand, but I believe the contractor was shorted by about $80,000,” Shelton said. “Now, we got him paid. I talked to the gentleman and we were able to pay him off over time, at $10,000 a month until it was done.”
According to Shelton, the saddest discoveries he made were local businesses that performed work for Sterlington but never received payment.
In 2016, Sterlington hired Tim Brandon, with the West Monroe architectural firm TBA Studios, to draw up plans for a new Sterlington Town Hall.
“The architect for the town hall—and I could not believe the town was contemplating building a town hall in the middle of this—had done some preliminary work, like the site plan and maybe some renderings,” Shelton said. “There was $40,000 owed to him or something like that. When I left, we were still paying a little of that and there was still some $15,000 left.”
Donna Cathey, with TBA Studios, confirmed Sterlington was paying the firm $5,000 a month to settle the debt.
“They’ve made a lot of progress,” said Cathey, who estimated the balance was about $10,000 to $15,000.
In one instance, Sterlington hired a private contractor to dig a water well on private property. Improving private property with taxpayer dollars is against the law.
“The most troubling thing I found was a well that was built on private property,” Shelton said. “I’m sorry, but there’s absolutely no excuse for that. I felt really, really bad about that, because a local contractor had built that.”
According to Shelton, the contractor had not been fully paid for the work.
“Unfortunately, state law would not allow me to pay him off over time for work on private property,” Shelton said. “That whole scenario was very troubling. You don’t begin a project that big without knowing whose property you’re digging a well on.”
Many of the allegations against Breland came to light in reporting by The Ouachita Citizen as well as the state Legislative Auditor’s Office.
Alexandria attorney Michael Brewer, who represents Breland, claimed there was “significant evidence and documentation” that showed Breland made decisions based on guidance from attorneys and experts. Nothing Breland did was criminal, his attorney said.
Breland was elected mayor in 2006. He resigned from office in late 2018.
Earlier this month, Velasquez said Heard, McElroy & Vestal, a certified public accountant firm in Monroe, was performing an audit of the town’s finances for the 2018 fiscal year.
“Once they’re done with 2018, they’ll turn right around and do our audits for 2019 and 2020, too,” said town clerk Marilyn Dilmore.