Louisiana Launches Probes of Former State Fire Marshal

By MARY FOSTER | April 20, 2012

Louisiana State Police reported that two investigations are under way of former State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning. While authorities were tightlipped about the allegations, a watchdog group said the complaints involved possible fraud or mismanagement of funds.

Browning, who held the fire marshal post since 2008, announced his resignation Tuesday, saying he would accept a private-sector job. Messages left on Browning’s cell phone were not immediately returned.

Capt. Doug Cain, a state police spokesman, said authorities were checking to see if Department of Public Safety regulations were violated. Inspector General Stephen Street also said his agency was investigating. Neither would comment further.

The complaints originated with the watchdog group the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans, said Rafael Goyeneche, the commission’s executive director.

“We were contacted by a number of people who felt they had nowhere to turn,” Goyeneche said. “It’s just kept growing since then.”

The information was passed onto the IG’s office in September, Goyeneche said.

“We investigated, but we have no subpoena power, so we can’t require sworn testimony or force people to talk to us,” he said.

The complaints that Goyeneche received include:

  • Claims that Browning paid for members of his office to attend a National State Fire Marshal’s conference in New Orleans to serve as drivers and security for attendees.
  • Accusations that Browning’s employees went to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in May 2011 to assist with recovery after a series of tornadoes there and were allegedly told to bill the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 18-hour work days. The allegations said they did, despite not working those hours and even taking two days off to attend LSU-Alabama baseball games. Goyeneche’s investigation indicated that FEMA did not pay the firefighters, but the state did.

FEMA was unable to confirm whether they had paid the firefighters or if they had rejected it.

  • Another charge is that the fire marshal’s office, which is responsible for inspection of carnivals and issuing permits before they open, issued a certificate for a ride at a carnival in Greensburg, La., where two teenagers were later injured on one of the rides. The allegation said that a follow-up inspection by another member of Browning’s office found that the certificate should not have been issued, but Browning suppressed that finding and said the accident was caused by operator error.

In addition, Browning is shown in numerous pictures wearing a number of medals and ribbons from the armed services, including a Korean Service Ribbon, National Defense Ribbon, Kosovo Campaign Ribbon, and an Army-Navy Occupation Ribbon, which was issued to military service personnel in Germany after World War II.

“We have been unable to confirm that he served in any branch of the military that would be eligible for these awards,” said Anthony “Tony” Radosti of the crime commission.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten would not comment on the specifics of Browning’s display of the medals on his uniform. But he said it is a federal misdemeanor to wear military awards not earned by the wearer. He said it was punishable by up to one year in prison.

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