Lee Zurik Investigation: Breaking down the Hingle-Bennett case - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Lee Zurik Investigation: Breaking down the Hingle-Bennett case

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New Orleans, La. -- Federal prosecutors have filed criminal charges against a long-time Louisiana sheriff and a powerful government contractor.

An FBI investigation lead prosecutors to charge Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle with one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and bribery. Hingle resigned from his post Wednesday, shortly before he was formally charged.

The charge involves Hingle's relationship with businessman Aaron Bennett, who owns the company Benetech. Bennett was also charged Wednesday with one count of bribery and one count of conspiracy.

Charges for each man were announced in bills of information, an apparent sign that the two are now cooperating with investigators.

Hingle's bill of information charges him with taking two $10,000 cash payments from Bennett. Federal prosecutors allege that Hingle approved Benetech's invoices and issued checks for the firm's work on the Plaquemines Parish Prison and, within weeks, was given the cash payments.

The FBI and federal prosecutors answered questions we've been trying to get Hingle to address for months.

The investigation that FOX 8 began in May showed how the Sheriff's Office reimbursed Hingle for credit card charges, even as the sheriff claimed those same charges on his campaign finance report. That lead us to ask if Hingle was raiding his campaign war chest, falsifying documents.

The FBI investigation showed that Hingle "falsely listed over $100,000 in expenditures as campaign-related when,in fact, they were for personal use."

For example, our investigation showed that, in 2008, the Sheriff's Office spent about $30,000 with WDSU-TV for Partnership for Drug-Free America commercials. Documentation shows the payment was charged to Hingle's personal credit card, and that the Sheriff's Office reimbursed Hingle for that expense.

A separate document shows the payment logged through his re-election campaign, for the same amount of money to WDSU-TV for an anti-drug TV spot.

As for Bennett, our investigation revealed Benetech may have over billed for work on the parish prison. One example involves Joddie Crenshaw, a construction manager who worked for Bennett and Benetech.

"How many hours do you think you put in on the Plaquemines sheriff job?" we asked Crenshaw during our investigation.

"I would say all totaled, maybe, at best, 40-50 hours," Crenshaw told FOX 8.

But Benetech invoices show the company billed the sheriff for 1,189 hours for that employee.

"They billed the sheriff and FEMA for almost 1200 hours of work they said you did on the sheriff-prison job?" we asked Crenshaw.

He told us, "I would say, I am not sure I worked 1200 hours for them the whole time I worked for them."

When we tried to get answers from Aaron Bennett at Armstrong International Airport recently, he stayed silent.

"Can you tell us about your relationship with Sheriff Hingle? Did that help you get paid by the Sheriff's Office?"

Bennett quietly ignored our question then, but federal prosecutors appeared to answer it Wednesday.

They say Bennett gave Hingle three cash payments of $10,000 each in order for Hingle to approve and make payments on invoices. The third of those payments likely took place while Hingle was cooperating with authorities in August.

You may recall that FOX 8 obtained a copy of Benetech's check register.  Our story over the summer asked why Bennett was making large cash withdrawals.
Wednesday's action is the latest in a long line of public corruption charges by the FBI and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.

Hingle's case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance. Bennett's case is assigned to U.S. District
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