Ameba duo claim innocence

Published 11:45 pm Friday, October 24, 2014

By Monique Roth

LAPLACE — Through their attorneys, the two parish employees charged in the St. John the Baptist Parish ameba-infiltration case say they have been scapegoated to cover up the negligence of officials higher in the administration.

In an indictment filed with the St. John Parish Clerk of Court’s Office 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.

Both turned themselves into authorities Tuesday. Branch is free after posting a $40,000 bond, and Roussel is free after posting a $30,000 bond.

Nghana Lewis Gauff and David Belfield III, legal counsel for Branch and Roussel respectively, released a joint-statement in which they said the “case evidences the most egregious form of politics: honest, hardworking parish employees at the lowest level of the totem pole have been scapegoated and blamed, because those sitting at the top of the totem pole failed to provide proper training and education on policies and procedures.”

Parish President Natalie Robottom said Branch and Roussel are employed by the parish but are not being paid at this time.

Gauff and Belfield said, in contrast, “the officials at the top of the totem pole … continue to work, continue to draw their paychecks, and continue to be able to provide for their families, while Mr. Branch and Ms. Roussel are deprived of these basic rights, despite not being found guilty of any wrongdoing.”

The lawyers said Branch and Roussel will “vigorously defend against the charges that the State of Louisiana has lodged against them” and “trust that the judicial process will work to demonstrate their innocence and vindicate their good names and reputations with members of St. John the Baptist Parish community.”

Nghana Gauff, legal counsel for Branch, is the wife of Lucien Gauff III, a St. John Parish councilman.

Lucien said Nghana has represented members of the Branch family for years in different capacities.

“More than likely, I would take myself out of the vote” if Council members were asked to decide on a matter that would affect Branch’s case, Lucien said.

“My wife has a profession and she serves the community in that way,” Lucien said, adding when he found out Nghana would be representing Branch he brought it to the Council’s legal team.

The Council’s legal counsel consulted the Attorney General’s Office, Lucien said, who said there was no conflict.

According to Laura Gerdes, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, Branch and Roussel were tasked with collecting water samples 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.

At a Tuesday press conference, Robottom said the GPS devices were placed on parish vehicles before her administration and not monitored daily, but rather have alert indicators. She said training was previously provided to all management staff on use of GPS systems in their departments. 

“A refresher training on monitoring practices, accessing GPS data and setting alerts in the system has been scheduled for next week with managers, directors and upper management,” Robottom said.

“All parish vehicles have GPS devices, and new vehicles are not assigned or driven until the GPS is installed.”

According to the Branch and Roussel indictments, the charges say they failed to perform a duty lawfully required of a public employee in completing necessary water testing and falsified information on water testing logs they were required to maintain.

“This investigation remains ongoing as additional information comes to light,” Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said.

The 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.

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.”

Robottom said she remained committed to “taking all actions necessary to make sure our water is safe and to prevent this from happening again.” 

Gerdes said the Attorney General’s Office will handle the prosecution of the case going forward. Arraignment dates for Branch and Roussel have not yet been scheduled.