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Money missing from NOPD evidence room is subject of FBI investigation

New Orleans Net,
BYLINE: Brendan McCarthy, The Times-Picayune
Link to Article

New Orleans, LA

2011-01-14_INT_Money missing from NOPD_In November 2008, Warren Riley, then superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, pledged an investigation of the disappearance of money from the evidence room, but the probe never resulted in any charges or sanctions. Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune

The FBI has opened a public corruption investigation into the case of money missing from the New Orleans Police Department's evidence room, according to sources with knowledge of the probe.

The investigation centers on the disappearance in recent years of more than $200,000 in cash from the NOPD's property and evidence room. The NOPD had previously opened internal investigations into the matter, but those probes never resulted in any charges or sanctions.

Special Agent Sheila Thorne, spokeswoman for the FBI's New Orleans office, declined to comment on the matter.

The bureau last year confirmed that it had nine open civil-rights probes into alleged abuses by NOPD officers. One of those, the investigation into the shooting death and incineration of Henry Glover in the days after Hurricane Katrina, recently concluded with a trial, at which three current or former officers were convicted and two were acquitted.

Through a spokesperson, NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas issued a statement Friday acknowledging the probe.

"Early in my tenure, I met with federal officials and we agreed to work this investigation jointly, therefore I cannot make a comment," Serpas said.

It is unclear how NOPD investigators are involved in the federal probe. It also remains unclear why the initial internal NOPD investigations was closed, as well as what findings resulted from those inquiries.

In the years following Katrina, the NOPD kept about $2 million in steel trailers outside an old brake-tag station in Mid-City.

Ranking NOPD officials first learned that more than $19,000 was missing in December 2007. An audit done months later determined that $117,000 could not be accounted for. In April 2008, a contractor pinpointed deficiencies in the NOPD's handling of evidence. Months later, an additional $104,000 was reported missing.

In November 2008, then-Superintendent Warren Riley pledged a full investigation into the matter and publicly criticized the leadership of former Capt. Danny Lawless, who ran the evidence room.

Lawless fired back, releasing memos showing he repeatedly warned Riley and other top officials about the state of the facility, the lack of security and staffing shortages. In one such "staff report," Lawless warned: "Not only is this dangerous, but we surely will look foolish if anything happens to this money."

The NOPD's probe was initially handled by the Public Integrity Bureau, the internal affairs unit that investigates the agency's own officers. That probe eventually petered out and then-Superintendent Warren Riley put the investigation early last year into the hands of two detectives from the NOPD's homicide unit. The move appears to run counter to the NOPD's guidelines for internal investigations.

At the time, top officials said the Public Integrity probe had concluded and that the two homicide detectives would also look at possible wrongdoing.

The evidence room moved in 2008 from the trailers on Jefferson Davis Parkway to a new facility on Magnolia Street.

The NOPD was lambasted in a July 2009 report by the state's legislative auditor, who noted that police officials did not know how much money was being stored in the evidence room and that they did not deposit funds into a secure bank account.

The police department said at the time that a majority of the problems cited in the audit had since been remedied in the move to the more secure Magnolia Street facility.

An NOPD spokeswoman did not respond Friday to questions about improvements to the NOPD's evidence room.

Brendan McCarthy can be reached at or 504.826.3301.

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