Fraud investigation turns fatal

Fraud of the Month: June 2011

By James Quiggle

sledge-jeansonne-small2For Rhett Jeansonne and Kim Sledge, the day’s mission seemed straight-forward enough.

The seasoned investigators for the Louisiana insurance department knocked on the office door of insurance agent John Melvin Lavergne in Ville Platte, a town of about 8,000 residents sitting squarely in the heart of Cajun country.

Jeansonne and Sledge wanted to gather information from Lavergne for a fraud investigation targeting him early that steamy afternoon of Tuesday June 7.

That knock was their last act in service of the people of Louisiana.

Lavergne shot Jeansonne and Sledge, then retreated inside his agency. Dozens of police officers, including a SWAT team, rapidly surrounded the building. Lavergne then shot himself, ending a standoff that lasted several hours.

“They truly are no less a hero than the brave, young men and women fighting for our country in Afghanistan,” His career was rapidly crumbling after nearly 40 years as an agent. The insurance department was proposing to revoke his agent license. Lavergne had stolen client insurance premiums instead of buying the coverage his clients had requested, the insurance department said. Four clients had had their policies cancelled for nonpayment.

Waited for investigators

The department also suspended Lavergne’s license in 2009. He’d provided fake proof of insurance four times to the Lafayette motor vehicle department, the insurance department charged.

Did Lavergne fatally crack under the pressure of mounting legal woes? The full story may never be known. But apparently he was waiting for the investigators. He’d sent his business partner home, and his secretary was out.

Family, friends and colleagues of Jeansonne and Sledge were left to somehow comprehend why the investigators’ lives were violently snatched by an agent gone so grievously wrong.

Jeansonne left behind his wife Bernadette, a daughter, three sons and a granddaughter. He’d worked for the insurance department since 2006. He also was a committed and caring volunteer firefighter for 22 years. The night before he died, Jeansonne had responded to a three-car crash, after which a woman was taken to the hospital.

“All I had to do was look at him, and I knew he had it under control,” fire captain Vincent Lagattuta told the Lafaytette newspaper, The Advertiser. “He stayed with her the whole time to make sure she was OK and getting the right medical care. He covered her from the rain and helped her to the ambulance. I just wish I had said goodbye to him.”

Jeansonne’s body rode on top of a firetruck to his burial spot.

Flags fly at half mast

Sledge was an 11-year employee of the insurance department. She enjoyed cowboy music, and was especially fond of animals, news reports say. Her family had four dogs, two cats, a rabbit and some fish. Sledge’s husband, daughter and two stepdaughters are left to grieve.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal had state flags fly at half mast. Lawmakers quickly voted to expand state benefits to state employees killed while investigating suspected crime. Surviving spouses will receive $250,000, and children $15,000 each. The families of Jeansonne and Sledge are included retroactively.

The murders also focused attention on the potential for insurance investigations to turn violent.

Most fraud suspects aren’t dangerous. But all investigators — for insurers and public agencies — know that violence is something to continually watch for, and plan against.

Investigators have safety procedures

Investigators routinely deal with swindlers who feel desperate and cornered. The wrongdoers face personal and financial ruin, potential jail time and loss of their job or career. Emotions can be incendiary, often barely contained. The line between a routine fraud investigation and a murder scene can be paper-thin.

In fact, another troubled agent murdered North Carolina insurance-department auditor Sallie Rohrbach in his Charlotte office in 2008. She’d come to probe his agency books because he was suspected of stealing client premiums.

State investigators commonly have safety procedures when working in potentially threatening situations. They might work in pairs when visiting a suspect’s isolated rural home. Or they might have the suspect come to the investigators’ office instead of going to the person’s home or office. Investigators in some states are authorized to carry sidearms and have the power to arrest suspects.

Louisiana insurance commissioner Jim Donelon is reviewing his department’s own safety procedures to reduce future threats to his fraud investigators.

Jeansonne and Sledge died knowing they could stare into the angry eyes of violence whenever they went pursued an insurance-fraud case. They chose a life of public service despite the risks.

“They truly are no less a hero than the brave, young men and women fighting for our country in Afghanistan,” Donelon said of his two slain colleagues. “They paid the ultimate price doing their job that they loved very much.”

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