Lee Zurik Investigation: Public official ducks questions, but card receipts speak volumes

Published: Nov. 26, 2013 at 11:10 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 10, 2013 at 7:54 PM CST
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Steve Dicharry departs the LCDA meeting room as we arrive with questions about his public...
Steve Dicharry departs the LCDA meeting room as we arrive with questions about his public credit card expenditures

We found Steve Dicharry, executive director of the Louisiana Community Development Authority, just as an LCDA board meeting was coming to a close.

We introduced ourselves, and told him we had some questions for him. When he didn't respond, didn't say anything, we followed this public official out of the meeting room, down the hall, through the door and out to his car. He still wouldn't answer any of our questions.

What Dicharry has done makes at least one law enforcement official furious.

"It makes me sick," says Lynn Austin, marshal of Bossier City and a vice-president of the LCDA. "It's illegal."

Dicharry is a public employee, the executive director of a public agency. Based in Baton Rouge, the LCDA acts as a broker for local governments looking for infrastructure improvements. The money generated for the office belongs to you, the taxpayer.

Dicharry spent much of that public money, tens of thousands of dollars of charges for restaurants, condos, clothing and dental work, on his public credit card. He even withdrew cash.

"If I was a district attorney, I'd call a grand jury," says Austin. "Public money… I mean, there's too much of it."

Dicharry is a well-paid public employee. His annual salary is about $148,000 a year.

We reviewed four and a half years of his credit card statements. Those records show Dicharry apparently has a history of putting personal charges on his public credit card.

Expenditure treemap

Dicharry bought a lot of booze. For example, one Saturday night in September 2012, at Portico Restaurant and Bar in Baton Rouge, Dicharry charged five Coors Lights and 13 Miller Lites. On a Saturday night in March 2011, he charged six Jim Beam and Cokes, six Johnny Walker Reds and one Miller Lite.

He made frequent stops at Sam's Club, spending a total of $3,500. Receipts show the public paid for Bounty, Charmin, Kleenex, a Hanes v-neck t-shirt, jeans, strawberries and chicken.

In four years, the public paid $2,600 dollars at Benny's Car Wash and $1,800 at the Baton Rouge newsstand City News.

Dicharry charged about $3,100 for air travel for a Patricia Simmons - she doesn't work for him. Austin says he believes Simmons is Dicharry's girlfriend.

Dicharry used his public credit card on nine different occasions to get a cash advance. Most of the time he took out $300 - all totaled, $2,200 in cash advances. That would be like you going to an ATM, putting in your credit card, taking out $300 in cash and letting the public pay the bill.

Dicharry charged $2,000 for limousines in New York City.

He charged a total of $9,100 at Sullivan's Steakhouse in Baton Rouge, $1,000 at Publix in Alabama, and almost $14,000 for condos in Sandestin.

Dicharry paid $17,000 in charges to AT&T - records show he charged the public for two different cell phones and a data card.

Over four years, Dicharry charged almost $16,000 for gas. He filled up his public car, on average, once or twice a week.

He also charged $323 for dental work at Juban's Dental Care.

And all this time, Dicharry wasn't even paying many of his bills on time. In four years, the public paid about $6,000 in finance charges for late payments.

Expenditures by category

Dicharry's executive assistant, Linda Martin, also had thousands of dollars of questionable charges on her public credit card.

They include a total of $5,600 at Gerry Lane Hummer-Saab - she charged the public for several repairs to her personal car. At Skid Marks Tire and Auto, she charged for a tire repair, an oil change, and eventually a new set of tires.

She also charged the public for almost $4,000 in gas, much of it at gas stations near Lafayette and in Texas.

Martin submitted her resignation to LCDA last week.

"I'm totally upset with the whole damn thing," says Austin. "That's not the way I operate my business. I don't operate the Marshal's Office that way. And being a board member, it reflects back on me, and I take some of that responsibility as a board member, that I should have been more diligent."

Austin wouldn't go into details about why Dicharry still has a job at the LCDA. But he hinted that may change, once he takes over as board president.

"Come January, I'll be the president," Austin tells us, "and I'm not going to get into the details of the personnel actions that I'm going to take, in his defense. But not I'm not through with the investigation."

When we ask Austin if law enforcement should investigate Dicharry for criminal wrongdoing, he tells us, "Not at this time," but possibly in the future.

"I'm not going to go into the personnel issue part of it," Austin says, "but there's a lot of possibilities, if's, and's or but's. But I think that part of the ball in his court."

We began examining the agency after stumbling on the yearly audit. In a cursory look, we noticed the agency spent more than $30,000 a year on "member relations" - we wanted to know what that means, so we requested credit card statements.

"Thanks to your investigation is how we uncovered it," Austin acknowledges. "We had no idea."

It just so happens, that audit we looked at showed no significant findings or problems with the agency. Austin says he fired the auditor because they failed to notice the unusual expenditures."

After we started our investigation, the board took away all the public credit cards. They also forced Dicharry to pay back about $15,000 - but Austin says Dicharry likely owes more.

Austin says our findings reveal a lot about a man who spent decades in charge of a state agency, overseeing public money.

"The true test of character is when you have control of the assets and what you do with them," Austin says. "And when people have control of the assets and they abuse them, then that's a lack of character.