- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

COVINGTON, La. (AP) - Former Pearl River Mayor James Lavigne has pleaded guilty to theft and malfeasance charges, but avoided any jail time.

Appearing Monday before state District Judge Raymond Childress in Covington, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reports (https://bit.ly/1MYFISa ) Lavigne, 75, pleaded guilty to five of seven counts against him.

Childress sentenced Lavigne to five years’ probation but said he faced up to 11½ years in prison if his probation terms aren’t met.

In October 2014, Lavigne was indicted on four counts of malfeasance in office, two counts of unauthorized use of a movable over $500 and one count of theft over $500.

The indictment followed a scathing 2014 legislative audit that among other things accused Lavigne and town clerk Diane Bennett Hollie of using public money for personal gain between 2011 and 2013.

The audit also said the town government improperly handed out nearly $30,000 in Christmas bonuses over a three-year period and falsely recorded them as clothing allowances in financial statements.

The audit found that between Feb. 17, 2012, and Aug. 27, 2012, Lavigne used the town’s credit card to purchase a 10-foot fishing boat. Lavigne also spent $3,679 on the same credit card to buy a gas-powered residential generator, ostensibly for use at a sewage lift station. But the generator was not compatible for that use and was delivered to his home. Lavigne learned the generator also was incompatible there, and in July 2013 it was moved to Hollie’s home. Hollie had not paid for it by the time of the November 2013 audit, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

The audit also found that both Lavigne and Hollie made personal purchases on their town credit cards to avoid paying sales taxes.

Lavigne had said he was innocent and maintained the charges against him were politically motivated. Last year, he acknowledged that using the town’s sales tax exemption number to purchase personal items was a mistake. The mayor took responsibility for the lapse in record keeping but said there was no wrongdoing. And although Lavigne maintained that the town was well-managed under his watch and that the audit was “purely political,” he and the Board of Aldermen initiated changes in response to the auditor’s recommendations.

Despite facing charges, Lavigne continued his re-election campaign last fall but finished third in the Nov. 4 primary. He had been the town’s mayor since 1990 and served on the board of aldermen for 12 years prior to that.

Lavigne’s attorney, Kevin McNary, said his client’s political career is behind him and he’s ready to go on with his life and deal with his health issues. He appeared in court Monday with a portable oxygen tank.

“Politics was different when James Lavigne first took office,” McNary said. “I don’t think he ever intended to do anything but what was good for the town.”

Also indicted last year was Hollie, who faced two counts of unauthorized use of a movable over $500, one count of theft over $1,500 and one count of malfeasance in office. Hollie, 54, pleaded guilty last month.

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, https://www.nola.com

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