Former La. VA Secretary sues state over stolen valor accusations
By REBEKAH ALLEN | The Advocate (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 2, 2017
Former Louisiana Veterans Affairs Secretary David LaCerte, who was accused last year by state investigators of mismanaging an agency tasked with caring for the state's veterans and embellishing his own military service credentials, is now suing his accusers for defamation.
LaCerte joined the state department in 2010 and was appointed Secretary in June 2014. He resigned from the post in October 2015, amid an investigation into his office. In February 2016, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor and the State Inspector General's Office released a scathing joint report accusing the department of misspending thousands of dollars and failing to report crimes against veterans.
"He is a veteran with military service, who served with distinction, and he was basically accused of lying about his military service" said Baton Rouge attorney Jill Craft, who is representing LaCerte. "It's caused he and his family tremendous distress. He's also a lawyer and the allegations contained in the report that he committed a crime have obviously affected not just his personal life but his professional life as well."
Craft said many of the accusations will be disproven with ease. But responding to the lawsuit, State Inspector General Stephen Street doubled down on the allegations in the report saying that he "stands behind every word of the report, with no reservations at all."
"The truth is an absolute defense to any defamation action, and the truth is what we reported," Street said of the joint investigation. "Unfortunately for Mr. LaCerte, the truth does not paint a pretty picture. We did our job and make no apologies for having done so."
In addition to investigating the Veterans Affairs spending practices, the joint report took aim at LaCerte's representation of his military career.
LaCerte’s biography on the Veterans Affairs and the Governor’s Office websites reported that LaCerte served in the Marine Corps infantry and “led over 100 combat patrols and missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan and also served as a member of interrogations teams for high-value Al Qaeda targets.”
State investigators obtained a certificate of release from active duty called a Department of Defense Form 214, which showed LaCerte served 99 days in the foreign service while at the rank of corporal. The time frame, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera previously said, casts doubt on whether he could have led 100 combat patrols.
The report also claimed LaCerte would have received a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal if he had conducted the activities listed on his resume and biography.
But the lawsuit points out the award wasn't created until one year after his overseas service ended.
Craft said her client was never directly questioned about his military service. She said state investigators could have confirmed his service record by asking him or even conducting a search online where it's been documented in news articles.
Street declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but he added, "We will aggressively defend ourselves against these meritless claims" in court.
Among the other allegations, the report said LaCerte bypassed state hiring laws to give a former law school classmate a $44,000 consulting contract and spent $27,560 in federal funds for a Ford Expedition that was designated for a veterans cemetery.
The report also said LaCerte did not report potential crimes by the agency's employees against war veterans to law enforcement, including an instance where a department employee allegedly stole money from a resident of the War Veteran Homes. The lawsuit counters that the allegations were fully investigated, and the veteran resident said he authorized the transaction by the employee that had been construed as theft.
Once LaCerte found out about the situation, "he immediately directed a full investigation, immediate suspension and removal of the employee, immediate disciplinary action, and Petitioner instructed it to be reported to the appropriate authorities immediately," the suit claims.
The lawsuit names both Street and Purpera in addition to the state of Louisiana. The case has been assigned to Judge William Morvant in the 19th Judicial District Court.
"He really wants this opportunity to clear his name," Craft said. "His whole situation was devastating for him and his family and career.
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