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Audit finds Louisiana public defender gave himself two unauthorized pay hikes

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(The Center Square) — The former head of the 13th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office paid himself $66,194 more than his board-approved salary, and he’s refusing to give the money back.

An investigative audit released by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor last week centers on complaints about former District Defender Alex Chapman, Jr., and his salary between 2016 and 2020.

A review of contracts between Chapman and the Louisiana Public Defender Board for fiscal years 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 found the board set his salary at $56,500 per year, with “the sole authority, but not obligation, to increase the salary and/or other compensation payable to the District Defender.”

The contracts further stated the “District Defender shall not use funds from any other source to supplement his or her Board-approved salary.”

Auditors confirmed Chapman was not awarded any board-approved raises. Still, a review of the district’s payroll records showed Chapman’s salary increased on two occasions without the required approval, once to $6,070 per month in October 2016, and again to $7,578 monthly in August 2018. Those figures equate to annual salaries of roughly $72,840 and $90,936, respectively.

“As a result of these increases, Mr. Chapman was paid $66,194 in excess of his Board approved salary from October 2016 through March 2020,” auditors wrote.

Chapman defended the pay raises in an email to the LLA on Dec. 21.

He claimed to have signed two contracts with the board that “did not contain any language whatsoever about maximum amounts which a District Defender could pay himself,” and a third he did not closely read.

“I have been told, by other District Defenders, that this Third Year Contract from the Board contained a two-sentence revision regarding the language about the issue herein – capping the money which a District Defender could pay himself and requiring board approval to deviate,” Chapman wrote. “I was totally unaware of this two-sentence revision to the Third 21-page Contract. Two other District Defenders who I’ve spoken to were also totally unaware of this change to their contract with the LPBD Board until I raised it with them.”

Chapman confirmed he awarded himself raises and explained the reason why.

“I increased my compensation when the contact attorney, Gilbert J. Aucoin, who was handling Indigent Defender duties in Ville Platte City Court Misdemeanor Docket as well as Juvenile Matters and also CINC matters in 13th JDC District Court suddenly resigned,” he wrote. “I took over performing those duties and began paying myself the compensation which he had been receiving for performing those duties.”

Chapman said the second raise was “for performing District Defender Duties based on projected budget forecast.

“Both of these actions were done without Board approval because I was totally unaware of the provision in the revised contract,” he wrote. “Based on the totality of this whole scenario I will not pay back, voluntarily, anything to anyone for money which I received for work which I have done.”

Trisha Ward, the current district defender, wrote in a letter to the LLA on Dec. 29 that she’s complying with auditor recommendations to work to recoup the money, and implement stronger internal controls to prevent similar instances.

“I have been actively working to implement controls and have continually adjusted processes as needed,” Ward wrote. “Additionally, I have sought legal counsel on the matter of recovering funds that were not properly disbursed before my tenure as District Defender, and I will follow the advice of that attorney.”