Charged St. John employees pleaded not guilty

Published 6:37 pm Monday, December 8, 2014

By Monique Roth

LAPLACE — Two St. John the Baptist Parish utilities employees, indicted in October for failing to properly collect and record August water samples from sites later testing positive for the potentially deadly Naegleria fowleri ameba, pleaded not guilty in LaPlace Monday before Judge Madeline Jasmine to charges of malfeasance in office and filing or maintaining false public records.

Kevin Branch, 54, of LaPlace and Danielle Roussel, 43, of Paulina were each charged by a St. John Parish Grand Jury in October with malfeasance in office and filing or maintaining false public records from Aug. 1-27.

A trial is scheduled April 14 in 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard.

According to the indictment, the charges stem from allegations Branch and Roussel failed to perform a duty lawfully required of a public employee in completing necessary water testing and 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 an August announcement that water taken in a sample 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.

According to Laura Gerdes, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, 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 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.

Through their attorneys, Branch and Roussel said they were being scapegoated to cover up the negligence of officials higher in the administration.

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.”