- Associated Press - Saturday, April 12, 2014

COVINGTON, La. (AP) - The state inspector general’s office has opened an investigation into Northshore Workforce LLC, a privately run work-release program that was shut down by St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain in March.

Inspector General Stephen Street confirmed the probe, but would not offer further comment, The New Orleans Advocate reported (https://bit.ly/1hqIv5P).

The operation had been the subject of an investigative report by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV.

Under state law, the inspector general has jurisdiction over executive-branch contracts and subcontracts, such as Northshore Workforce’s deal with Strain’s office to manage inmates in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

The inspector general sent letters to the work-release program and the Sheriff’s Office ordering them not to destroy documents.

Northshore Workforce co-owner Marlin Peachey - Strain’s longtime campaign manager - and the corporation have retained Baton Rouge lawyer Gray Sexton, the former longtime attorney for the Louisiana Ethics Administration.

The Sheriff’s Office contracted with Northshore Workforce in 2008 to run its transitional work-release program in Covington under a deal Strain awarded without competitive bidding. In 2013. Strain made a similar no-bid deal with St. Tammany Workforce Solutions LLC. That company took over operation of a work-release program in Slidell that had been run directly by the Sheriff’s Office. Its program is still in operation.

The inspector general probe follows reports in The New Orleans Advocate and on WWL examining operations at the Covington work-release program.

Among other issues, two inmates died of drug overdoses. A former inmate alleged he spent much of his time in the program sleeping off-site, in violation of state rules that require all inmates to spend the night in their work-release facilities unless they are working offshore.

Transitional work programs are designed to give state Department of Corrections inmates nearing the end of their imprisonment a chance to work and gain money and training. The programs keep 62 percent of their gross wages, or $63.50 per day, whichever is less. Northshore Workforce also was paid the bulk of the per diem payment the Sheriff’s Office received from the state for each inmate.

Strain shut down Northshore Workforce in March, the day an inmate escaped from the facility and allegedly abducted an ex-girlfriend and forced her to drive to Tangipahoa Parish.

Just before that incident, two other inmates had walked off their jobs. Strain cited the escapes as the reason for closing the facility, which had 150 inmates at the time.

The state Department of Corrections also conducted a shakedown of the facility in February, drug-testing all the inmates. That raid resulted in 19 inmates being returned to jail for infractions, mainly positive drug tests.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he viewed the IG probe as a positive development. “That’s why we have a state IG, to look into allegations of waste, mismanagement and other potential misuse of public resources,” he said.

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Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, https://www.neworleansadvocate.com

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