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Audit rips NOPD evidence storage;

Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
BYLINE: By Brendan McCarthy, Staff writer
July 14, 2009 Tuesday

New Orleans, LA

State law may have been violated, it says

New Orleans Police Department officials ran a haphazard property and evidence room from which more than $200,000 went missing, and later failed to notify the proper authorities in writing of the missing money, according to a newly released state audit.

The highly critical report from state Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot states that NOPD officials may have violated state law in failing to notify the auditor and the Orleans Parish district attorney in writing of any misappropriation of public funds. It also recommends that the city obtain an opinion from the attorney general on whether the law was broken.

Police Superintendent Warren Riley wrote in response to the audit that he didn't know state law required such written notification. Riley also disputed whether the missing evidence monies could be considered public funds. He did, however, request an attorney general's ruling on the matter.

In a telephone interview Monday night from Australia, Riley said consultants had been brought in early last year to assess the issue and that all the appropriate improvements were made.

He also said that Theriot's office is misinterpreting the state law regarding notification of missing public funds. Riley argued that the missing money was "simply evidence," and not money that had been forfeited to the police following the closure of a case. Because of this, the unaccounted for money should not be considered public funds, Riley said.

Theriot's office had never been notified before the audit that more than $200,000 was missing.

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said Monday that the NOPD had not notified his office in writing of missing funds.

"We are concerned about the evidence . . . but I can't say any prosecutions have been inhibited because of this," he said.

The state audit found "major deficiencies" within the NOPD, including an inadequate system for tracking money that was considered evidence or property. Police officials did not know how much money was being stored, and should have been depositing these funds into a secure bank account, the report states. The audit notes that handling of evidence suffered from inadequate security and staffing, sloppy organization and a lack of written policies.

"By not safeguarding these assets, adverse effects on criminal court proceedings may be experienced," the report says.

Riley acknowledged Monday night that the property division was in disarray following Hurricane Katrina.

"We had a dysfunctional, not well-managed, property room" in the wake of a natural disaster, Riley said.

But these issues, Riley said, were remedied. He noted that the evidence room had been moved to a new facility, security measures implemented and that the NOPD has started depositing money into an account monitored by the city's Finance Department.

"All of the things that need to be in place are in place," he said.

Monday night, Riley criticized the auditor's handling and release of the report. He alleged that contents of the draft report were leaked weeks ago to the media.

Riley's comment about a confidentiality breach confounded the auditor's office, which weeks ago sat down separately with Riley and City Council members to brief them on findings.

"This is a public report," said Dan Daigle, director of compliance audits for Theriot's office. "We really are confused about that statement."

--- Conference in Melbourne ---

Riley is listed in an online brochure as a keynote speaker at The Australian Police and Emergency Services Leadership Summit, slated for Monday and Tuesday at the University of Melbourne.

Riley was to discuss "his aggressive pursuit of re-vitalizing a police force amidst catastrophic circumstances, and how he is restoring law and order and public confidence in law enforcement," according to the brochure.

The state audit piggybacks on another recent assessment of the NOPD's Evidence and Property Division. That review, conducted at the NOPD's request early last year by the California-based Evidence Control Systems Inc., found numerous policy, procedural and operational weaknesses within the NOPD division and made recommendations on each issue. The findings were similar to those of the state auditor.

Evidence Control Systems also noted that in many instances, the NOPD did not follow best practice standards set by the International Association for Property and Evidence.

Since receiving the consultants' assessment, the NOPD has addressed "a number of the noted deficiencies," according to the state audit. The police force has written and implemented a procedures manual, moved into a new facility, reorganized evidence and property and initiated a new evidence-tracking system.

However, the state audit notes, the department has not taken action on several of the deficiencies, continuing to "leave property and evidence held by the NOPD susceptible to loss and/or theft."

--- Probe determines suspects ---

The few improvements left to be made, Riley argued Monday night, are reliant on additional funding. He estimated that more than 80 percent of the suggested reforms have been implemented.

Problems with the evidence room were made public last November when Riley acknowledged that about $19,000 in cash owed to a former defendant was missing from the room. He promised a thorough investigation.

Riley said Monday the criminal investigation is ongoing. Four suspects have been identified, though he declined to elaborate.The state audit shows that Riley and other NOPD leaders had long been aware that tens of thousands of dollars were unaccounted for.

The report outlines five incidents in which NOPD officials were alerted to missing money.

In December 2007, NOPD managers were notified that $10,700 was missing from the evidence room, according to the audit. They were notified again two months later that nearly $11,000 more was missing.

Following an inventory in March 2008, NOPD leaders learned that about $117,000 was missing, though nearly 10 percent of that money, or $12,000, was later recovered after it was found to be wrongly filed.

In October 2008, a local attorney went public with claims that his client's $19,050 was missing from the evidence room. And a month later, NOPD management learned that evidence bags had been tampered with and that another $85,000 was missing.

Since the first reports about cash missing from the evidence room surfaced last fall, the NOPD has declined to provide documents requested by The Times-Picayune, citing an ongoing internal investigation. The documents the NOPD has refused to provide include weekly staff reports that the newspaper believes should be provided in accordance with Louisiana's public records law.

Riley had criticized a former high-ranking officer last fall for lax security in securing evidence, saying too many people had keys to the room under Capt. Danny Lawless' watch.

But Lawless countered by showing off a collection of memos and paperwork in which he had warned supervisors of the temporary facility's security shortcomings and manpower shortages, calling them a "recipe for disaster."

Riley continued Monday night to lay blame on the previous commander, saying not one item has come up missing since he was replaced. Riley, however, declined to call Lawless a suspect in the case.

. . . . . . .
Brendan McCarthy can be reached at or 504.826.3301.

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