2 St. John employees accused of lying in ameba investigation

Published 2:40 pm Monday, October 20, 2014

By Monique Roth

Update: Kevin Branch is free after posting a $40,000 bond for filing or maintaining false public records and malfeasance in office. Danielle Roussel is free after posting a $30,000 bond for filing or maintaining false public records and malfeasance in office.

LAPLACE — The plot to the ongoing drinking water saga in St. John the Baptist Parish thickened this week as two parish employees were indicted for their role in failing to properly collect and record August water samples from sites later testing positive for the potentially deadly Naegleria fowleri ameba.

In an indictment filed with the St. John Parish Clerk of Court’s Office at 1:40 p.m. Monday, Kevin Branch, 54, of LaPlace and Danielle Roussel, 43, of Paulina, were each charged by a St. John Parish Grand Jury with malfeasance in office and filing or maintaining false public records from Aug. 1-27.

According to the indictment, the charges stem from allegations Branch and Roussel not only failed to perform a duty lawfully required of a public employee in completing necessary water testing, but they also falsified information on water testing logs they were required to maintain.

The Louisiana Attorney General Office’s investigation that led to the indictments resulted from the Aug. 27 announcement that water taken in a sample two weeks earlier from St. John the Baptist Parish Water District 1 tested positive for Naegleria fowleri ameba, commonly known as the “brain-eating” ameba.

The ameba-impacted water district serves six parish schools and more than 12,500 people in Reserve, Garyville, Mt. Airy and a small portion of LaPlace on West 5th Street from Acorn Street to Apricot Street.

On Oct. 2 the Attorney General’s Office took over the investigation for prosecution, initiated Sept. 2 by Louisiana State Police.

According to Laura Gerdes, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, what was found was that Branch and Roussel did not do their job and falsified paperwork to make it seem like they did.

Gerdes said Branch and Roussel were tasked with collecting water samples from at least two locations, including the Lions Water Treatment Plant in Reserve and an additional site in Mt. Airy, to ensure the public water met specific quantities of residual chlorine as required by Louisiana law.

“The employees were to truthfully record those findings on a daily log, which was to be filed with the Department of Health and Hospitals each month,” Gerdes said in a press release. 

According to the indictment, the LSP investigation unearthed inconsistencies in reports by Branch and Roussel and data from global positioning systems that were permanently attached to the parish vehicles the two employees drove.

The GPS systems indicated Branch and Roussel did not collect the samples they attested to, with data showing on numerous days the employees alleged to have tested water samples when they were not near the site of testing.

St. John Parish Communication Director Paige Falgoust said while “the two employees are inspectors … during the early stage of the investigation they were reassigned to other duties.

As of Tuesday morning, Falgoust said the Branch and Roussel “are still employed by the parish, but are not being paid at this time.”

DHH issued an Emergency Order in August requiring St. John Water District 1 to perform a 60-day free-chlorine burn to kill the ameba within the water system. The process is expected to be completed by mid-November.

“The concern is when water goes deep into your nasal passage,” Parish President Natalie Robottom said in August of the detected ameba, adding any potential threats associated with the ameba could occur only when the water enters deep enough into the nasal passage to cause a burning sensation.

Robottom and DHH officials said the water remains safe to drink, cook with and bathe in during this time.

When the indictment was handed down Monday, Branch and Roussel were given 24 hours to surrender to the St. John the Baptist Parish Jail. As of press time, neither had surrendered.

“(Monday) I received information from the Attorney General’s Office that the Grand Jury returned indictments on two of our employees in the Utilities Department,” Robottom said, adding when additional information was provided it would be reviewed with legal counsel. “While I am disappointed in the events associated with the Emergency Order, I remain committed to taking all actions necessary to make sure our water is safe and to prevent this from happening again.” 

Gerdes said the state’s Attorney General’s Office will handle the prosecution of the case going forward.

The ameba-detection announcement and many administrative actions resulting from it have garnered the ire of parish residents and St. John Parish Council members.

“We’ve had three administrative orders in the last three years because of the chlorine issue and the last one resulted in a deadly (ameba),” Michael P. Wright, St. John Parish Council vice-chairman and District 5 representative, said Monday. “I think that’s what is most concerning for me moving forward. Not just having these two employees held accountable, but now we need to look at administration, even the Utilities Department, to see where accountability needs to be held.”

Councilwoman at Large for Division B Jaclyn Hotard agreed.

“While the latest findings concerning the possibility of criminal activity regarding St. John’s water sampling are very troubling, what is even more troubling is the lack of oversight and accountability in the water department,” Hotard said. “Just this year in March, the parish administration was put on notice about low chlorine levels in the water system by DHH … undoubtedly that should have raised a flag that there was a problem.”

Hotard said had accountability measures been put into place at that time by those in charge, the lives of almost 13,000 parish residents “would not have been jeopardized by a potentially deadly brain eating ameba in the water system.”

Arraignment dates for Branch and Roussel have not yet been scheduled in the 40th Judicial District Court.

“In addition to the State Police investigation findings, the St. John the Baptist Parish government has been very cooperative in sharing information from their own internal investigation,” Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said. “This investigation remains ongoing as additional information comes to light.”