ST. FRANCISVILLE- Freshly cut grass and nicely manicured parking lots are things you'd expect on public property. But, you don't expect your tax dollars to pay to maintain private property. Our cameras captured that happening in the quaint town of St. Francisville.
It has been going on for decades according to one town worker who talked to us. Despite the problem, when we questioned the long-time Mayor about it, he denied any wrongdoing even though state auditors called the activities illegal.
It's an investigation that's spanned more than a year. The WBRZ Investigative Unit documented a disturbing situation in some scenic sections of St. Francisville.
Around 10 a.m. on one week day, we found a town worker in a town truck outside the St. Francisville painting the parking lot of a church. We wanted to know what he was doing, but the worker wouldn't stop to answer any questions.
The paint was still wet after the worker zoomed off. He bolted in such a hurry that he left his stencil behind.
Over the past year, the WBRZ Investigative Unit found town equipment like a tractor on private property. Also, a zero turn lawnmower cutting private property. The man on that zero turn mower is Ike Snowden. Snowden has worked for the town for nearly three decades. When we asked him if the zero-turn mower belonged to the town, Snowden said yes.
"I've been cutting it right at 25 years," Snowden said. "I cut what I told to cut."
Snowden also admits that he never asks questions.
"Don't ask no questions," Snowden said.
According to the Parish Tax Assessor, the property where Snowden was seen cutting is registered to a "D & L Chad Inc." The property was not registered to the Town. More pictures we obtained, show a town worker outside the Main Street Wash House. That property is registered to Arthur Duncan, according to the tax assessor. Also, a town tractor on an empty lot in front of a grocery store across from the Whitney Bank. Tax records also show that the area is not town property.
The findings of our investigation are deeply troubling to state investigators.
"In general, if there's no public purpose, you can't use public funds for it," Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said.
According to Purpera, there are some rare circumstances where government agencies can perform work on private properties, but there are strict guidelines that must be followed.
"In the normal situation, there needs to be a cooperative endeavor agreement where the town has entered into an agreement with a private party saying we will use town labor or money in some way on your property," Purpera said. "But, there has to be a public purpose involved, and it has to be a commensurate value that comes back to the town."
So we sent a public records request to the Town of St. Francisville asking for any invoices that the Town sent to private landowners for grass cutting. The response we got said there were no records. Mayor Billy D'Aquilla did say there are two town employees who own a private lawn care business on their own personal time with their own personally owned equipment. That contradicts what town worker Ike Snowden told us.
"That (zero turn) belongs to the town," Snowden said.
Mayor D'Aquilla agreed to sit down with us.
"We don't maintain private properties," D'Aquilla said.
After showing him numerous examples from our investigation, he realized there was a problem.
"I don't condone it, and I didn't order it to be done," D'Aquilla said. "I'm not guilty of anything, and this town is not guilty of anything illegal. If we cut some private property from time to time for beautification...that's public safety and health reason, we're guilty of that, but we don't do it on a regular basis."
But, Snowden told us it has been going on for a regular basis to the tune of two plus decades.
"I didn't tell him to cut that," D'Aquilla said. "I'm going to put an end to it. I didn't know he was doing it."
When we confronted D'Aquilla about that and told him that Snowden said he was cutting the properties at the direction of his boss, D'Aquilla responded, "I'm the Mayor. I have 30 employees. I don't know who his boss is."
Tonight, the Legislative Auditor is now looking into these questionable actions. As the State opens an investigation into what they called illegal activities, the Mayor plans to put an end to it.
"Try to rectify this is all I can do," D'Aquilla said. "Find out who's doing it and stop doing it."
Since this has gone on for decades, according to Snowden there's no guesstimate as to how much money St. Francisville taxpayers have spent maintaining private properties.
In a similar situation, last month, St. James Parish President and two others were indicted on public corruption charges for allegedly using parish equipment on private property. That case is pending with the local district attorney.
But in this case, the mayor is the father of the district attorney in St. Francisville. So, any investigation would have to be looked into by an independent prosecutor.