By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

The New Orleans Police Department cancelled the use of seized state drug money to purchase reward coins for police officers two hours after our partners at FOX 8 News questioned Superintendent Ronal Serpas about the legality of the transaction.

“It was a snafu,” Serpas said. “It would have come to our attention eventually through a state audit but I’m glad it came to our attention and we’ve fixed it.”

Serpas cancelled the purchase of the coins with state money after an interview with FOX 8 News Tuesday.

On Feb. 9, the city’s purchasing department scheduled a transfer of $11,322  in state assets recovered from criminal activities to purchase 2,000 “challenge coins” that Serpas could give to officers as part of a reward program.

The New Orleans Police Department received the coins four weeks ago, said spokeswoman Remi Braden.

In an email, Braden wrote that Serpas planned to give the coins to officers to “recognize exceptional professionalism, or simply because they helped out a New Orleanian by doing a good deed, like volunteering to assist a local charity with an event, or even fixing a tire for a driver who was stranded on the road.”

The problem? State law says that asset forfeiture funds must be used for drug law enforcement, not to reward an officer for fixing a tire.

An Attorney General’s opinion from 2006 states that while reward programs may be an appropriate use of the state’s Special Asset Forfeiture funds, the money “must be used for drug law enforcement.”

More coverage on this story from our partners.

FOX 8 News reporter Meg Gatto on Tuesday morning asked Serpas about the coins.

Serpas described them as “my challenge coin, the superintendent’s challenge coin,” adding,  “they’re an opportunity to recognize good work, reward behavior; they build morale.”

He said he ordered a bulk purchase of 2,000 coins so that the department “won’t have to buy them again for many years.”

The chief’s coin. Photos by Matt Davis.

Asked about the legality of using asset forfeiture funds to buy the coins, Serpas said he would need to research the matter but that he believed the law specifically allows “the use of asset forfeiture funds to purchase rewards or awards, so we followed the rules to buy them.”

Two hours later, an administrator at the police department emailed City Purchasing Officer Nat Celestine, asking him to cancel the purchase order. Celestine canceled the purchase four minutes later, according to an email exchange supplied by Braden to The Lens.

Braden said use of state funds to purchase the coins was an “administrative error,” and that federal asset forfeiture funds would be used instead.

The federal Department of Justice, which oversees the distribution of federal asset forfeiture funds, responded to an inquiry as to whether these funds can be used for reward programs by referring The Lens to a document on its website.

The document says the funds can be used to pay for “the cost of award plaques and certificates for law enforcement personnel, provided that the plaque or certificate is in recognition of a law enforcement achievement, activity, or the completion of law enforcement training, and the cost does not create the appearance of extravagance or impropriety.”