By Caroline Grueskin The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.
FRENCH SETTLEMENT, La. — When the wife of French Settlement’s chief of police was seen driving his patrol car in the village’s annual Christmas parade last month, it raised eyebrows in some quarters.
It’s not the first time she’s been spotted behind the wheel, according to the mayor and some members of the village Board of Aldermen. They say it poses worrisome liability issues because she’s not on the village’s insurance.
Police Chief Harry Brignac concedes that his wife, Tammy, has driven the police vehicle on what he described as a couple occasions, including the parade. But he contends he has the authority to allow it. And, he said, complaints about it are part of an effort by political enemies to drive him from office.
Questions about the practice bubbled up as a public issue recently when the Board of Aldermen voted to ask the state attorney general if the village could stop the elected police chief’s wife from using the vehicle on the grounds she is not insured.
“We just want to make sure if there’s an accident that the town is covered,” Mayor Toni Guitrau said. “Otherwise, it could hit us financially where we couldn’t possibly recover depending how bad it is.”
Guitrau and Mayor Pro Tem Teresa Miller said they’ve both seen Tammy Brignac driving the patrol car around the village since 2014, including to jobs she has held at Dollar General and as a school crossing guard. Alderman Danette Carrier said she also saw the chief’s wife driving the patrol car on La. 16 during the snow storm in December.
Miller said that in requesting an opinion from the attorney general, the village’s leadership is trying to get both ethical and legal guidance.
“The mayor and the board have addressed these incidences and the outcry from residents, while trying to show respect for the chief’s years of service and protect the village assets,” Miller said in a statement.
The immediate problem for the village boils down to Tammy Brignac’s refusal to supply her driver’s license number, so she could be added to the insurance policy.
The mayor asked the chief in three letters from 2015 to have her provide the number. Tammy Brignac said in an interview that she has refused because she does not trust the village officials with her personal information.
“Years ago, I had identify theft,” Tammy Brignac said by way of explanation. “I went through a lot to get my stuff back to where I was at.”
A letter from Alderman Rhonda Lobell, who works in the insurance industry, said the town would be responsible for the cost of replacing the car should Tammy Brignac be in a crash. The town would still be protected from liability but would be in an awkward situation with the insurer, the letter said.
“Bottom line is we must protect the village,” Lobell wrote.
Guitrau said the village of 1,200 people potentially stands to lose a car worth $50,000 and $10,000 worth of equipment inside.
Harry Brignac said in an interview that the resolution is a veiled effort to remove him from office.
The chief was forced to retire from his long-held position in 2016 after he failed to pay fines associated with not filing his personal financial disclosures. After paying the fines he owed, he won his job back by 14 votes in April.
He said it is within his rights as chief to put whoever he wants in the police cars.
“I can put anybody in that unit I want,” he said.
But he denies that his wife drives the car to work or that she did so during the recent snow day.
“She doesn’t drive the unit everyday. She doesn’t drive it at all, except when I need her to bring it (the car) for me,” he said.
Tammy Brignac said she drove the patrol car during the 2016 floods. But she said she doesn’t drive the car anymore.
“I have in the past, and that’s been in the past. During the floods we had here, yes I have. Here lately, I have not,” she said.
She said the reason the issue is coming up now is because of a contentious recommendation the chief made last month to the Board of Aldermen.
Brignac suggested saving money by no longer allowing French Settlement’s two police officers to take their cars home.
The board of aldermen opposed that move, saying it is part of the men’s hiring agreements and that it could improve response time in an emergency, according to meeting minutes.
Guitrau said the village requested an opinion from the attorney general on whether it would be an adverse action against the officers to take away the cars.
If Tammy Brignac was using the patrol car as a personal vehicle, it could run afoul of state laws regarding prohibited donations and using public funds for personal uses, leaders of the Louisiana Municipal Association said. They said it also could pose liability issues for the town if she is not insured.
The association leaders acknowledged elected police chiefs have wide discretion to use their cars as they see fit, including bringing the vehicles home because they are always on call.
But Karen White, executive counsel for LMA, said the attorney general opinions that give police chiefs that authority don’t extend it to their families, although an emergency or a parade might be OK if the insurer were on board.
“I’ve never heard of a car being used possibly as a family vehicle,” said John Gallagher, executive director of LMA. “That’s kind of a new one.”
©2018 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.