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Archive for the ‘Judges’ Category

“Judge Free’s actions have harmed the integrity of and respect for the judiciary.”

—Report of the Louisiana Judiciary Commission on 18th Judicial District Court Judge Robin Free, who accepted a free flight on the private jet of a plaintiff attorney who had just won a $1.2 million settlement of a personal injury case presided over by Free. The seriousness of Free’s breach of ethics notwithstanding, the judicial commission recommended only a 30-day suspension.

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Did you ever have one of those what were you thinking moments?

We’re talking about when you do something that in hindsight simply defies all logic. You’ve seen them in stupid criminal emails and on videos.

Whenever we watch the local newscast and see a report of some incredibly stupid criminal action in which the perpetrator had to have known things wouldn’t end well, we find ourselves wishing we just sit across the table from him, just us, and ask him, “What were you thinking? How did you think this turn out?”

Usually, it’s some petty thief or someone from an uneducated background whose rash judgment overrides his ability to think things through to the obvious conclusion of terrible consequences.

Someone like the hapless bank robber in one Baton Rouge-area city several years who slipped a “This is a robbery” note in the drawer at a bank drive-through window—a bullet-proof window, no less. The teller read the note, turned it over and wrote, “I don’t see a gun” and sent the note back to the nervous driver who promptly placed his gun in the drawer and sent it in to the teller. What was he thinking?

But you wouldn’t normally associate such transgressions with a high profile individual like a district judge who took an oath to uphold the law and to protect the citizenry from the lawless, a judge who no doubt pledged to “be tough on crime” when he was running for office. Nor would you think the question would apply to the state Judiciary Commission which meted out a recommendation for a 30-day suspension for the errant judge, a mere slap on the wrist for a serious breach of judicial ethics that might well have deserved a permanent suspension.

Judge Robin Free of West Baton Rouge Parish is guilty of one of the most blatant what were you thinking? flaunting of ethics and he compounded his sin when he attempted to minimize the severity of his actions by claiming he was unfamiliar with the judicial canons governing such behavior.

And it wasn’t even Free’s first offense, which should have provoked the commission’s fury at his arrogance.

Here’s what happened. Free presided over the trial of a class action lawsuit in which a): his mother was a potential plaintiff and b): he accepted a free flight to a south Texas hunting camp—on the private jet of a plaintiff attorney only days after that attorney had won a $1.2 million settlement in Free’s court in another case.

What was he thinking? Most likely that he wouldn’t get caught.

The flight to the Casa Bonita Ranch in Goliad County south of Corpus Christi was made at the suggestion of Assistant District Attorney Tony Clayton who regularly appears in matters before Free. Both men represent the 18th Judicial District, which includes West Baton Rouge Parish. Clayton supposedly was interested in purchasing the property but ultimately did not.

But here’s the rub: The ranch is owned by Texas attorney David Rumley who, it turned out, was working with Clayton on the personal injury case and judiciary commission determined the invitation came “at or near the time of settlement negotiations” in the case.

Free described the trip as “just some friends going to look at some property together and boiling crawfish and hanging out,” according to the Baton Rouge Advocate. http://theadvocate.com/news/10518947-123/judiciary-commission-recommends-30-day-suspension

Free, in an incredulous admission, said there were “a lot of things I was not aware of in the canons.”

It’s something of a stretch for someone who has probably told a defendant or two that ignorance of the law is no excuse to attempt to plead ignorance, especially for a man who has been on the bench for 17 years—since 1997—and who has had previous dust-ups with the judiciary commission.

In 1998, only a year after taking office, Free was “cautioned” by the judiciary commission after an earlier hunting lodge relationship that resulted in accusations of a biased decision. And in 2001, Free signed what is known as a deferred recommendation of discipline agreement with the commission following his failure to recuse himself from a case in which he had previously served as the prosecutor of a defendant.

Then in 2005, he again came under criticism and was given a warning by the commission to avoid appointments which might create the appearance of impropriety after he named a political ally ex parte as a temporary liquidator in a case.

In the class action case involving Free’s mother, his attorney, Steven Scheckman, called it a misunderstanding and said his client was a “fall guy” for a mapping error that had gone unnoticed in the class action for two years.

But the special counsel for the judiciary commission said an attorney for Dow Chemical, a defendant in the matter, had informed Free of the conflict in a letter to the judge. Instead of calling a status conference involving all the parties, however, Free instead improperly called the attorney’s law partner to complain—yet another breach of judicial canons.

Scheckman said Free had not known the boundaries in the class action had been changed by a prior judgment to include his mother’s address even though it was Free who signed the judgment, all of which prompted Baton Rouge Advocate columnist James Gill to observe that Scheckman’s protestations of ignorance on the part of his client were “unlikely to wash.”

http://theadvocate.com/news/acadiana/10544318-123/james-gill-free-ride-in

Called before the Judiciary Commission, Free took a strategy that has become all too familiar whenever any high profile individual, be it an elected official or professional athlete: he publically apologized for his bad judgment.

But a judge should not be making bad judgments. And these contrite admissions, coming as they always do after the sinner is caught, are becoming a little thin and time worn—and void of any real substance.

As Gill pointed out, the opinion put forth by the Judiciary Commission that Free should have known better because of his seniority on the bench is laughable. “The sleaze here is so obvious that no judicial experience whatsoever is required to recognize it,” he wrote.

But Gill did not limit the sleaze factor to Free; he also took the Supreme Court and the Judicial Commission to task, criticizing them for the practice of keeping judicial disciplinary matters secret until the ethics violations become so blatant as to demand public airing.

He said the Office of the Special Council recommended to the Judiciary Commission that Free be suspended for a full year but the commission reduced its recommendation to 30 days, a sentence Gill called “derisory.”

Saying Free might not have been re-elected unopposed in his last run for office had his ethical lapses been known to the public, Gill added that “Litigants have no way of knowing how many more Judge Freerides are out there” and that if Free really did not understand what he had done wrong, he is “too stupid to be a judge.”

We can certainly concur in that evaluation and for our part, we’re still waiting for a politician to apologize for some wrongdoing before he is caught. That would be a public official we could trust.

 

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As if the administration’s handling of bogus criminal accusations against former Commissioner of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control Murphy Painter wasn’t already embarrassing enough after Painter’s acquittal ended up costing the state $474,000 in reimbursement of his legal fees and expenses, a recent civil court decision has added insult to injury.

Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa/New Hampshire/Florida/Anywhere but Louisiana) thought he could make an example of Painter over the then-ATC commissioner’s refusal to bend the rules for New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, whose family and businesses have poured some $40,000 into various Jindal political campaigns.

Painter twice rejected applications by SMG (formerly Spectacor Management Group), the Mercedes-Benz Superdome management firm, for a permit to erect a large tent at Benson’s Champions Square adjacent to Benson Towers across from the Superdome. The tent was to house beer sales by Anheuser-Busch distributor Southern Eagle and approval of the permit was sought by Southern Eagle, SMG, the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED) board and a law firm representing SMG. Altogether, the Benson family, LSED board members, SMG, its law firm and Southern Eagle had combined to pour more than $203,000 into Jindal campaigns between 2003 and 2012.

When Jindal executive counsel Stephen Waguespack insisted that the permit be expedited, Painter asked that he put his concerns in writing but Waguespack refused.

Not only did Jindal fire Painter when his commissioner insisted that the permit application for the Champions Square tent be complete and proper, he even had Painter indicted on criminal charges of stalking a female employee. Present at the firing ceremony were Waguespack, State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, and another member of the governor’s legal staff.

The subsequent criminal prosecution of Painter fell apart and his acquittal carried a stipulation that the state pick up the tab for Painter’s legal fees and affiliated costs.

Now, a civil trial jury has determined unanimously that the female former employee, Kelli Suire, defamed Painter even though the Louisiana Office of Risk Management, most likely at the insistence of Jindal’s Division of Administration, settled Suire’s claims against the state in 2011 without Suire’s ever having been required to sit for a sworn deposition in the apparent hope the settlement would bolster the state’s case against Painter.

Oops.

Painter’s defamation suit against Suire was bifurcated, meaning it was to be tried in two parts. The first part, the part just completed, was to settle the question of actual liability. Had Suire been found not guilty of defamation, the second part to determine actual monetary damages would have been unnecessary.

Unfortunately for Jindal’s chances to avoid further embarrassment over the sloppy manner in which the Painter matter was handled, such was not the case and the damages part will be tried next.

Throughout the entire matter, Painter has made clear that he wanted his day in court.

The liability trial was heard in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana before Judge Shelly Dick and a seven-person jury. Following a three-day trial, the jury took about three hours.

Painter was represented at trial by attorney Al Robert, Jr., and Suire by Jill Craft.

The issues in the case first arose on Aug. 16, 2010, soon after Suire filed a complaint with the Louisiana Office of Inspector General (OID) alleging a myriad of allegations against Painter. The lead OIG investigator at the time, Shane Evans, now employed by the East Baton Rouge Coroner’s Office, testified that he met with Suire and that he personally chose to use the words “stalking” and “harassing” to describe the nature of Suire’s complaints in his application for a search warrant.

Painter also has a civil lawsuit pending against OIG which alleges the agency’s investigation, which began in August of 2010, was improperly conducted.

Robert said the jury’s verdict confirmed the finding of an outside investigator hired by the Louisiana Department of Revenue (DOR) under which ATC operates. The investigator determined that Painter’s actions did not violate DOR anti-harassment policy. Moreover, when questioned by the DOR investigator, Robert said, Suire “admitted that Painter did not make unwelcome sexual advances toward her and that he did not request sexual favors or engage in verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature toward her. Inexplicably, the Office of Inspector General ignored this investigation when it chose to move forward with its investigation of Mr. Painter,” he added.

“This has been a long, four-year ordeal to clear my name of the lies and untruths that Ms. Suire—and those working with her—used to damage my character and reputation,” Painter said.

In her instructions to the jury, Judge Dick said defamation requires proof of a false or defamatory statement made to a third person or persons. “A person who utters a defamatory statement is responsible for all republication that is the natural and probable consequence of the person’s statement,” she said.

Suire, in her defense, did not deny making the statements but said rather that her statements were subject to “privilege,” or inadmissible, Judge Dick said, acknowledging that Suire’s communications did in fact “occasion a conditional or qualified privilege.”

Therefore, in order for Painter to prevail, she said, he “must prove that (the) defendant abused this privilege by acting with actual malice.” Such a finding, the judge said, would require that Suire either knew the matter to be false or acted in reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity.

Suire currently resides in Florida.

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It’s seldom that I disagree publicly with members of the fourth estate. Besides preferring to focus my energy on reporting on the myriad ways state government falls short of its number one priority of protecting the interests of the state and its citizens, I generally have a deep professional respect for our peers in the media.

I worked for 30-plus years in various capacities—sports reporter, news reporter, copy editor, investigative reporter and managing editor—for several newspapers all over the state, including Monroe, Shreveport, Donaldsonville, Baton Rouge and four separate stints at the Ruston Daily Leader where I began almost 50 years ago. I kept returning at a higher position mostly because of my loyalty to my mentor, Publisher Tom Kelly. I even managed to pick up a few reporting awards along the way, including three for investigative reporting.

A news reporter will never get rich working for a newspaper; the pay just isn’t that good. Those who spend their time sitting through endless hours of city council, police jury, school board and even legislative committee meetings, mind-numbing courtroom testimony and who climb out of bed in the middle of the night to cover a shooting or a fire do so for the love of the profession.

So yes, I do maintain an abiding respect for these dedicated individuals.

But when I see facts deliberately being glossed over and key points ignored in order to protect or project a favorable image of a public official who has deliberately and blatantly attempted to use his position or to manipulate the political system to his financial advantage, I cannot in good conscience keep quiet.

The Baton Rouge Advocate editorial of Friday, Sept. 19, stands out as one of the most unabashedly transparent attempts to pin a bouquet on a state official who recently condoned one of the most underhanded attempts at abusing the legislative process in recent memory.

That attempt, of course, was the amendment by State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia) to Senate Bill 294 in the closing hours of the recent legislative session. The bill, authored by State Sen. Jean-Paul Morrell (D-New Orleans) originally addressed procedures to follow in disciplinary cases for law enforcement officers but was amended to give State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson special treatment in awarding him an unconstitutional increase in retirement income of somewhere between $30,000 and $55,000 per year.

Riser added the amendment during a conference committee meeting on the bill. Riser was one of three senators and three House members on the conference committee and on the final vote for passage, House members were told, incorrectly, the bill’s passage would create no fiscal impact.

Bobby Jindal’s executive counsel Thomas Enright, Jr., whose job it is to review bills for propriety and constitutionality, gave the bill his blessings and Jindal promptly signed it into law as Act 859.

LouisianaVoice broke the initial story about how the bill allowed Edmonson to revoke his decision years ago to enter into the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) which froze his retirement benefits at his then-pay level of $79,000 at his rank of captain. By allowing him to renege on his decision which was supposed to be irrevocable, it allowed him to retire at a rate based on his current colonel’s salary of $134,000. Because he has 30 years of service, he receives 100 percent of his salary as his retirement. Thus, the amendment gave him an instant yearly increase in retirement of something between $30,000 and $55,000.

The amendment inadvertently just happened to include one other person, Master Trooper Louis Boquet of Houma, though he was unaware of the amendment and its implications until the public outcry erupted.

A state district judge, ruling on a lawsuit brought by State Sen. Dan Claitor, said the amendment was unconstitutional on several grounds, thereby killing Edmonson’s retirement windfall.

The four-paragraph Advocate editorial on Friday noted that the matter had been “laid to rest” and noted that such furtive bills are common in the Louisiana Legislature. http://theadvocate.com/news/opinion/10299405-123/our-views-a-lesson-for

But it was a single sentence in that editorial that set me off:

“It is to the credit of Col. Mike Edmondson (sic) and Master Sgt. Louis Boquet, of Houma, that they declined to accept the raise because of irregularities in its passage.”

What?!! Besides the misspelling of Edmonson’s name, the editorial completely (and apparently purposefully) omitted key elements of this sordid story.

  • Edmonson defended the amendment and his additional retirement on Public Radio’s Jim Engster Show;
  • He admitted on that same show that “a staff member” had approached him about the possibility of increasing his retirement benefits via the amendment and he personally okayed that staff member to proceed with the legislative maneuver;
  • Neil Riser first denied any knowledge of how the amendment originated but later confessed that it was he who inserted the language into the bill;
  • The legislative fiscal notes (which detail the potential financial impact of pending bills) were not submitted until three days after the session adjourned, evidence that the entire episode took place on the down low, hidden from public view;
  • During a hearing on the amendment by the State Police Retirement System Board, it was revealed that the board’s actuary was initially approached about the amendment “a few weeks” before the close of the session, further evidence that the move was in the works long before that fateful final day of the session;
  • At that same hearing, it was also revealed that the “staff member” who initiated efforts to pass the amendment was State Police Lt. Col. Charles Dupuy, Edmonson’s chief of staff;
  • Edmonson did not reject the raise until the heat from the public and from retired state police officers became so intense that it was politically impossible for him to go through with the charade. The added threat of a lawsuit by retired state troopers and the attacks on the amendment by State Treasurer John Kennedy only served to ensure the foolhardiness of any continued attempts to claim the money;
  • The way the entire affair played out implicated everyone concerned—Jindal, Enright, Riser, Dupuy and Edmonson—in a pathetic attempt to conceal the deed from public view.

In short, Edmonson’s decision was anything but magnanimous. Quite simply, it was forced upon him by the glaring light of public scrutiny—the one thing he feared most.

This silly effort by the Advocate to make Edmonson’s decision seem noble and to make it appear to be anything other than the hands in the cookie jar scenario that it was is a disservice to its readers and an insult to their intelligence.

Perhaps the Advocate should stick to its previous hard-hitting editorials about how nice sunshine is and how lovely the Spanish moss-laden oak trees on the Capitol grounds are.

When John Georges purchased the Advocate from the Manship family, he went before the Baton Rouge Press Club where he made the utterly bizarre statement that he was focused on “not making people angry.”

I’m sorry Mr. Georges, but when you establish a policy of attempting to publish as little offending reporting as possible, that’s a cowardly decision and you’re simply not doing your job.

It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.”

Georges has obviously chosen the former.

And that decision has made the Advocate less of a newspaper, good only for crawfish boils and housebreaking a puppy.

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State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson did a sudden about-face, the Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) Board was unanimous in its decision to allow board member and State Treasurer John Kennedy sue the board, and before the board could adjourn, State Sen. and 6th District Congressional candidate Dan Claitor filed his own lawsuit but Kennedy said he would go forward with his litigation anyway.

Just another day in the soap opera we know as Louisiana state government.

And it could only happen in Louisiana.

The LSPRS Board was meeting to wrestle with the problem of Act 859 which started out as Senate Bill 294 by State Sen. Jean-Paul Morrell (D-New Orleans), a bill ostensibly dealing with police officer disciplinary matters but which morphed into what retired state trooper Robert Landry described as an “underhanded, unethical, unconstitutional” amendment giving Edmonson an extra $55,000 per year in retirement income.

Special legal counsel Robert Klausner, a renowned pension system authority from Florida, advised the board that it had no legal standing to file suit in an attempt to have the new law declared unconstitutional but added almost parenthetically that any citizen of Louisiana could file suit.

“Could I file?” Kennedy asked. “I’m a taxpayer.”

Klausner said that Kennedy could indeed initiate litigation and if the board failed to defend it, legal expenses would be minimal and the matter could be settled once and for all as opposed to waiting to see if the legislature would repeal the act next year and if Gov. Bobby Jindal would sign such a bill.

While the board was tossing the issue back and forth and speculating whether or not Attorney General Buddy Caldwell would take it upon himself to defend such a suit should the board refuse to, Claitor left the meeting and apparently called his attorney to instruct him to file suit on behalf of Claitor.

Earlier, Claitor had spoken to the board, saying that passage of the Edmonson Amendment was not open or transparent. “It was an unconstitutional act because it was not published in advance, and was not germane to retirement issue. “I would ask that you exercise your fiduciary duty,” he said. Apologizing for having voted for the amendment because he was told that conference committee had addressed his earlier concerns about police disciplinary matters, he said, “I’m sorry to ask you to clean up this mess.”

The “mess” occurred when State Sen. Neil Riser, a member of the conference committee composed of three members each from the House and Senate, inserted the crucial language that gave Edmonson his financial windfall.

Basically, the amendment allowed Edmonson to revoke his decision years ago to enter into the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) which froze his retirement at 100 percent of his captain’s salary of $79,000. The revocation would have allowed him to instead retire at 100 percent of his $134,000 colonel’s salary.

LSPRS actuary Charles Hall told the board that the upfront cost of fully funding the benefits at their present, or discounted, value would be a $359,000 investment to cover the increased benefits for Edmonson and a Houma trooper who also happened to qualify under language of the amendment. That amount is $59,000 more than the original $300,000 estimated cost provided three days after the amendment’s passage. Kennedy pointed out that the actual cost would be in excess of a million dollars and he asked Hall to provide him with a computation of those figures.

Hall said he received a request to “call a trooper to discuss a bill” on the Friday before the Monday, June 2 adjournment of the legislature.

He said it became clear in his conversation with the state trooper that “they wanted to introduce an amendment to enhance (Edmonson’s) benefits.”

After a few routine questions, Kennedy asked Hall if he knew the name of the trooper whom he was asked to call and to whom he subsequently talked.

“Charles Dupuy,” Hall answered.

Dupuy is Edmonson’s Chief of Staff who has benefitted from a 52 percent increase, from $80,500 to $122,200, since Edmonson’s appointment as State Police Superintendent by Gov. Bobby Jindal in January of 2008. Dupuy’s wife, Kelly Dupuy, also has received increases in salary, from $65,000 to $80,600.

It was the first time that anyone has officially identified Dupuy as the source of the Edmonson Amendment.

Dupuy, a member of the LSPRS Board, was not in attendance at Thursday’s board meeting.

Riser, who first denied any involvement with introducing the amendment during the conference committee meeting in June but later admitted his complicity but said he did not realize it would benefit only two people.

Hall, however, in speaking to the board on Thursday cast doubt on that part of Riser’s story as well when he said it was believed that the amendment would affect only one person—Edmonson.

“This act has hurt the reputation of the state,” Kennedy said. “Someone pushed hard for this law. If I sue and the attorney general decides to defend it, I will begin taking depositions. I will send out subpoenas and we will find out who was behind this.”

Kennedy said he would foot the cost of the litigation which he said would be minimal provided the attorney general does not opt to defend the law.

The board, which had been seen as heavily stacked with Edmonson and Jindal loyalists, had been expected to display reluctance to go against the two. Instead, board members were unanimous in authorizing Kennedy to proceed with personal litigation in his “individual capacity.”

But even as Kennedy was making his offer, Claitor was already setting in motion his own litigation which he obviously had instructed Baton Rouge attorney Jack Whitehead to prepare and to stand by to file with the 19th JDC clerk’s office.

In fact, Whitehead even prepared a press release to accompany Claitor’s lawsuit, making it obvious that Claitor had planned the move well in advance of the board meeting.

Claitor, in his petition, asked the court to find Act 859 unconstitutional on four grounds:

  • Act 859 failed to meet the “one object” requirement of the Louisiana State Constitution;
  • The act did not meet the germaneness requirement of the state constitution;
  • No public notice was provided as required by the constitution for retirement-related legislation and the bill itself never indicated proper notice was given, also in violation of the constitution;
  • The source of funding for the increased benefit is the LSPRS “Employment Experience Account,” which is reserved as the source of future cost of living benefits and payments toward the system’s unfunded accrued liability.

To read the full text of Claitor’s litigation, click here: Press Release Letter & Petition

Baton Rouge Judge Janice Clark issued a temporary restraining order until she can hold a hearing on Sept. 16. To read her order, click here: CLAITOR VS LSP

The real kicker came when a two-page letter from Edmonson to the board was read. In that letter, Edmonson said he fully supports assertions “from legislators and others that the bill should be repealed.”

Then, addressing board Chairman Frank Besson, Edmonson said, “Despite the special counsel’s (Klausner) recommendation, I would strongly urge that as chairman, you ask the board to authorize the system attorneys to file the necessary documents to obtain a final declaratory judgment on this amendment. That judgment will provide the necessary finality to this matter.”

That represents a complete 180 from Edmonson’s earlier admission that a “staffer” had originally approached him about the prospects of the amendment’s benefitting him and his instructions to proceed.

It was a move of necessity brought on by a groundswell of sentiment against the amendment by retired state troopers which forced Edmonson to have a change of heart in an effort to save face and to avoid further embarrassment to his boss, Gov. Jindal. Because make no mistake, he wanted that money and Dupuy, no matter what anyone says to the contrary, did not take this upon himself as a solo act. It’s pretty obvious that Dupuy initiated the amendment at the direction of his boss who in turn had the blessings from the Fourth Floor and Riser was simply the instrument by which the amendment was inserted. That makes Jindal, Riser, Edmonson and Dupuy all complicit in a devious little scheme to reward Edmonson at the expense of every other state employee, including state troopers and retirees across the board.

That’s the way this governor and his band of sycophants work.

To read Edmonson’s letter, click here: EDMONSON LETTER

Kennedy, when told after the meeting adjourned of Claitor’s lawsuit, said, “That’s great. I’m glad. But I’m still moving forward with my own lawsuit. This is a bad law and it must be addressed.”

 

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To fully understand the lengths to which those in the upper echelons of the Jindal administration will go to punish those—especially subordinates—who dare to cross them, you need look no further than the case the Louisiana State Police hierarchy attempted to build against one of its own.

On Feb. 6, 2010, senior trooper Chris Anderson, assisted by 11-year veteran state trooper Jason LaMarca and two other troopers, Patrick Dunn, and Tim Mannino, stopped a flatbed 18-wheeler on I-12 in Tangipahoa Parish being driven by Alejandro Soliz.

LaMarca, with Anderson’s mobile video recorder (MVR) activated and recording every word and move, patted down Soliz. Finding no weapons on the driver, LaMarca then conducted a search of the truck cab and discovered “several kilos of cocaine,” according to court records.

LaMarca pulled his taser from its holster and he and Dunn approached Soliz, ordering him to get down, according to court records and testimony provided by the State Police Commission. After Soliz, who spoke English, refused to comply with several commands of “Get down,” LaMarca attempted unsuccessfully to re-holster his taser as he continued to approach Soliz.

Transferring the taser to his right hand, he cupped his left hand behind Soliz’s head and pulled him to the ground, according to testimony by LaMarca and the other three troopers, testimony supported by the video recording.

No one was injured, no shots were fired, and there were no complaints, then or later, by Soliz of excessive force.

U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon, however, reviewed the video and thought he saw LaMarca strike Soliz in the back of the head “with what appears to be a flashlight or similar item.” Judge Fallon added that the recording showed “three other troopers laughing at this act.”

State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson (aka “Precious”), upon receiving a letter from the judge, immediately ordered an investigation into the incident—as he should have.

But what occurred next went beyond the pale of disciplinary action by Edmonson and his actions have been attributed by those familiar with the case to an act of retaliation for an earlier confrontation between LaMarca and Edmonson’s Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Charles Dupuy.

Edmonson notified LaMarca on Nov. 18 that he was “suspended for 12 hours without pay and allowances” as a result of his actions. The cause of his suspension was based, Edmonson said, on the following violations of Louisiana State Police Policy and Procedure:

  • The use of force policy;
  • The use of force reporting policy;
  • Conduct unbecoming an officer.

LaMarca, who had a spotless record in his 11 years, promptly filed an appeal with the State Police Commission, primarily to expunge the suspension from his record. The commission heard testimony from all four officers and reviewed the video recording of the arrest and put down of Soliz before issuing its ruling on Aug. 1, 2011.

In its ruling exonerating LaMarca, the commission noted:

  • Appellant (LaMarca) had nothing in the hand he used to “put the driver on the ground.” Likewise, we do not perceive appellant’s actions, in doing so, to be the use of excessive force. While the driver had been cooperative until the drugs were found, he became uncooperative thereafter and refused numerous orders to get on the ground.
  • While the maneuver used by appellant to take the driver to the ground may not be the one “taught” at the academy, it was effective and did not appear to be the use of “excessive” force.
  • We likewise do not perceive the other troopers to be “laughing” at appellant’s action.
  • As we do not find that appellant violated the “use of force” policy order, he likewise did not violate the “use of force reporting.”

That normally would have ended the matter. No weapons were used, no one was injured, no one complained of excessive force, and the commission found no violations by LaMarca.

But remember, LaMarca had earlier committed that unpardonable sin of arguing vehemently with Dupuy, Edmonson’s second in command.

And though Dupuy’s name never surfaces in the initial disciplinary action, the commission hearing and its subsequent decision, or court records, Edmonson was dutifully carrying the water for him and he made sure the issue was far from dead as he displayed unprecedented zeal in his attempt to punish LaMarca on behalf of his chief of staff.

Determined to exact revenge for LaMarca’s impudence, Edmonson took the matter up the line to the First Circuit Court of Appeal.

That’s right, he appealed the decision of the state commission charged with the responsibility of promoting effective personnel management practices for the Office of State Police and to protect the fundamental rights of the troopers under Edmonson’s command.

Much like the courtroom experiences of his boss Gov. Bobby Jindal, Edmonson went down in flames. At least the administration is consistent in that respect.

The First Circuit’s ruling of May 2, 2012:

  • On review of the video and testimonial evidence concerning the surrounding circumstances at the scene of the rest, we find no error in the commission’s finding that the force and manner used by trooper LaMarca to secure the suspect and “affect the arrest” was not more than was reasonably necessary under the circumstances and hence did not violate procedure.
  • On review, we find the verbiage used by the commission in concluding that the force used by LaMarca was not “excessive,” was simply synonymous with the commission’s ultimate finding that there was no violation of the “use of force” procedure order, i.e., that the use of force by trooper LaMarca was reasonably necessary under the circumstances.
  • We find the decision of the commission thoroughly and sufficiently reviewed the evidence and testimony produced at the hearing and addressed the procedure order violations lodged against trooper LaMarca in the suspension letter issued by Col. Edmonson.
  • After thorough review of the testimonial and video evidence herein…we find the decision of the commission is supported by substantial evidence.

http://statecasefiles.justia.com/documents/louisiana/first-circuit-court-of-appeal/2011ca1667-4.pdf?ts=1387486081

Well, that certainly laid the matter to rest, right?

No, not if you’ve had a confrontation with Dupuy.

Edmonson promptly applied for writs (appealed) to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

And what became of that?

The State Supreme Court simply declined to even consider the matter.

Now it’s over.

Until, that is, it’s determined by Edmonson or Dupuy that LaMarca makes another misstep.

But with the publication of this post and the decisions of the State Police Commission and the First Circuit Court of Appeal now on the record, any similar attempts in the future would come dangerously close to harassment.

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Editor’s note: The following is a guest column by a Baton Rouge attorney who represents plaintiffs in civil litigation and who chooses to use the nom de plume of Edward Livingston, considered one of the fathers of Louisiana law. 

By Edward Livingston

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) has issued a “fact sheet” about “Louisiana’s Judicial Climate.” http://labi.org/assets/media/documents/JudicialClimateFactSheet_Reduced.pdf

It should not surprise you that big business, and particularly the oil and gas industry, are as much in denial about changes in Louisiana’s judicial climate as they are about changes in the earth’s climate.

The juridical, or artificial, “persons” http://www.legis.state.la.us/lss/lss.asp?doc=109467 who constitute Corporate America hate, hate, hate the civil justice system. When you compare the three branches of government, it’s easy to see why. Through lobbying, donations and favors, they easily influence the legislative branch. As an example, note that after the worst oil spill in history, which caused billions of dollars in personal, economic, and environmental damages, the oil and gas industry was able to derail congressional proposals to raise the meager $75 million damage cap under the Oil Pollution Act. They have similar influence on the executive branch through regulatory capture. Look no further than the Federal Communications Commission, purportedly established to protect consumers, but even under a Democratic president, it is run by a former (and likely future) telecom lobbyist. Is it any wonder that the FCC is working to do away with net neutrality? And of course, our own commissioner of insurance spends our money to run ads and buy billboards accusing us all of committing insurance fraud.

But the judiciary is another kettle of fish. The civil justice system is the one area where common, everyday natural persons have a chance to stand almost as equals to corporate behemoths. Because procedural rules are designed to ensure a fair trial, because ethical rules prevent ex parte lobbying of judges, and because corporate litigants do not know the identity of nor can they attempt to influence individual jurors, it is much more difficult for them to create the lopsided playing field that they are used to in their other dealings with government entities.

This horror at the notion of being subjected to actual justice gave rise to the so-called “tort reform” industry. This industry does two things: It attempts to convince the public, and lawmakers, that the judicial system is inherently unfair, and it tries to sell the notion that the civil justice system is somehow bad for the economy. These attempts, in turn, serve two goals: They seek to poison the minds of potential jurors by creating a bias in favor of defendants in civil cases, and, more importantly, they want to change the substantive rules of law and procedure to decrease corporate liability for wrongdoing.

Tort reformers’ arguments are rife with references to “frivolous lawsuits,” but that’s just a smokescreen. They know that frivolous lawsuits are both vanishingly rare (what in the world is the incentive for a contingent fee lawyer to spend her own money pursuing a lawsuit she probably can’t win?) and rapidly dismissed, usually with sanctions http://www.legis.state.la.us/lss/lss.asp?doc=112283 for the lawyer who filed them. What they’re really concerned about are the lawsuits that have merit, because those are the ones that cost them serious money to repair the damage they’ve done. Whether it’s a person rendered quadriplegic in crash with an 18-wheeler being driven by a drunken driver or a worker burned beyond recognition in an industrial explosion, those are the kinds of cases that the purported “reformers” are really trying to limit.

With that background in mind, let’s turn to LABI’s description of our judicial climate. Its fact sheet focuses on three issues that it contends are harming Louisiana. First, LABI is concerned about legacy lawsuits, that is, lawsuits brought by landowners against oil and gas producers for damage to their land caused by the oil and gas production. They are worried that these lawsuits hurt the oil and gas industry, and by extension the economy, by discouraging production companies from drilling in the state, or by discouraging them from entering the state in the first place. Second, LABI is also worried about the lawsuit brought against ninety-seven oil and gas producers by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. Again, the concern seems to be that the oil and gas industry, and thus the state’s economy, will be harmed by the mere attempt to hold these companies liable for their alleged wrongdoing. Finally, LABI is appalled that defendants cannot request jury trials unless there is more than $50,000 at issue in the case. This deprivation of access to jury trials, due to a threshold that is much greater than that in other states, is said to lead to excessive litigation. The implication is that the judges who try these small cases are giving claimants too much money.

LABI’s fact sheet is full of footnotes and citations, but that should be taken with a grain of salt. While it cites a number of public bodies for raw numbers on suit filings, trials, judges and the like, the raw meat on the effects of these numbers comes almost exclusively from professional tort reform institutions. The primary, if not exclusive, purpose of these organizations – groups like the American Tort Reform Association, American Tort Reform Federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, its Institute for Legal Reform, and Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch – is to complain that the civil justice system hurts the economy and is unfair to corporate defendants. It would be shocking if their work product didn’t support those positions. But if you believe them, I’m sure BP would like to share with you their studies showing how inconsequential the Deepwater Horizon disaster was.

If you’ve made it this far, it probably won’t surprise you to find that LABI’s three big concerns are each, to use a technical legal term, baloney. Let’s start with legacy litigation. In these cases, landowners complain that their oil company lessees acted unreasonably and damaged their land. The underlying problem here – the fact that oil companies have polluted a lot of land in Louisiana – is hardly new (the Louisiana Supreme Court held oil companies liable for land damage as early as 1907), and it resulted from two things: weak rules, and even weaker enforcement of those rules. There’s a marvelous timeline of oil company documents dating back to the 1930s showing that the oil companies knew very well that they were breaking the law and could someday be held accountable for it. http://jonesswanson.com/slfpaecase/timeline/

But the Department of Natural Resources did not promulgate strong rules, and they didn’t even enforce the weak rules they had. The difference? Courts are now actually enforcing both the leases and the regulations, requiring the land to be cleaned up, and that’s costing oil companies a lot of money. Some oil companies are getting popped with huge damage awards to clean up the tremendous messes they made. If you’re a really big landowner in these cases (like former governor Mike Foster), you’ve got some leverage, and the producers will settle with you. If you’re a little guy, not so much.

According to the oil and gas industry, these cases are a huge problem, hampering new oil and gas exploration and putting the state’s economy at risk. Their proposed solution to the problem won’t surprise you – they’ve gone to the legislature and sought repeatedly, and successfully, to take the decision-making on cleanups out of the courts and put it back in the hands of their old pal, the Department of Natural Resources. The legislature has gone along with this, especially this last session when the big landowners (whose cases have already been settled) gave their go-ahead on it.

So, to put it in context, the oil and gas companies are basically like the college kids who trash your rental house during the semester, and then whine when you keep their deposit and otherwise seek to hold them accountable for the damage they’ve done. The difference is the legislature actually listens to these deadbeats.

Perhaps the final irony on legacy cases involves Don Briggs, the head of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA), a big-time tort reformer who for years has been telling anyone who would listen that legacy litigation was killing the oil and gas industry. That was working great for him until he actually filed a lawsuit, and he got put under oath, subject to the penalties for perjury. At that point, as one news outlet put it, “Briggs was forced to admit that he knows of no oil companies that have left or will be leaving Louisiana because of its legal climate. He also has no proof companies even consider the legal climate and was unable to cite any data to back up his long-held claims.” http://www.acadianabusiness.com/business-news-sp-416426703/oil-a-gas/16586-read-briggs-depo-here

If you’re curious about what a tort reform advocate has to say about the legal climate when they’re placed under an oath to tell the truth, you can read his entire deposition here. http://www.theind.com/extras/Official-Transcript-Briggs-Depo.pdf

LOGA’s lawsuit brings us to LABI’s second worry – the SLFPA-E suit. Sometimes, those rowdy college kids didn’t just trash the place; sometimes, on the coast, they destroyed it altogether.   LOGA filed that suit to have the levee board suit declared illegal – LOGA lost. The same operative facts apply, and this suit was opposed by largely the same cast of characters, with the notable addition of Governor Bobby Jindal and his former head of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (and now congressional candidate) Garret Graves. They both leapt to the defense of the poor, beleaguered oil industry against the terrible, greedy levee board that was trying to find some way to raise funds for a $50 billion dollar coastal restoration plan. Unfortunately, Graves has a problematic penchant for telling the truth. First, he admitted that the lawsuit isn’t frivolous at all, but that it has merit, stating, “I will be the first to admit there’s liability there.” [http://www.cleanwaterlandcoast.com/james-gill-graves-shows-lawsuit-needed-2/] Then he pulled the whole “reform” fig leaf off the operation, predicting, “I don’t see any scenario where this levee district doesn’t get gutted – or, say, ‘reformed’ – in the next legislative session.”   http://thelensnola.org/2013/08/22/levee-district-jindal-administration-remain-at-odds-over-lawsuit-a-week-after-hints-of-reconciliation/

Despite all this, the legislature did everything it could do to reform gut the levee board lawsuit; we’ll see if it was successful in giving away the state’s chance to recover billions of dollars to pay for coastal restoration.

Finally, there is that horrible $50,000 jury trial threshold. A little background, and some inside baseball: As many know, Louisiana private law is based on Roman, or civil, law, as received through France and Spain. Unlike the English common law that prevails in the other forty-nine states, Louisiana has no tradition of civil juries. As a result, Louisiana is the only state without a constitutional right to a civil jury trial; Louisiana’s constitution is the only one that requires appellate courts to review both legal and factual findings (like amounts of damages) of trial courts in civil cases; and in Louisiana the litigants, rather than the state or local governments, have to front the money to pay for a civil jury trial.

Over the years, particularly since the adoption of the Code of Civil Procedure in 1960, civil jury trials became more common. Then, in the late 80s and early 90s, a certain insurance company decided that “good hands” required it to refuse to settle any small auto cases, no matter the facts, and to force claimants with such small cases into trial by jury. This had several effects: It made those small cases less economical to litigate, since they were more expensive, and, more importantly, it clogged the courts’ trial calendars with cases, because every case had to set for jury trial. After several years of this foolishness, the district court judges convinced the legislature that jury trials should be limited to relatively large cases; the $50,000 figure that was chosen was the threshold for federal diversity jurisdiction at the time. For truly big (and even not-so-big) cases, everyone still has a statutory right to a jury trial.

So why is this a concern for LABI? Because they don’t like the availability of relatively inexpensive and rapid dispute resolution. It drastically decreases the leverage of insurers, who want to force claimants into accepting lowball settlements. More importantly, by clearing the trial court dockets of small cases, it allows truly large and significant cases to get to trial much sooner, reducing the leverage of defendants in those cases by reducing the systemic delay in resolution of the cases.

How do we know that these are LABI’s concerns, rather than a reverence for the sanctity of the right to a jury trial? Easy. They have never proposed to change the state constitution to provide for a constitutional right to civil jury trials or to prohibit appellate review of facts. If those things were done by the legislature, those rights could be used to overturn things like damage caps, which are nothing more than pre-litigation (and usually pre-accident) findings of fact by the legislature. If they really believed that jury trials were a sacrosanct method of finding facts in a civil trial, they’d be talking about those issues.

So, what is the true judicial climate in Louisiana? Well, if you’re an injured person, a landowner, or a taxpayer, for the last forty years, it’s been changing for the worse. Examples:

 

I could go on; these are just the “greatest hits” of Louisiana tort reform. Every year, tort reformers try, usually with at least some success, to chip away at the rights of citizens and governmental entities to seek redress for corporate wrongdoing. For instance, this year, since the attorney general recovered several hundred million dollars for the Medicaid program from pharmaceutical companies, Big Pharma convinced the legislature to take away his power to hire outside lawyers without the legislature’s approval. http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=915585&n=HB799%20Act%20796

If the legislator’s will bow to Big Pharma’s will on this, what are the odds they’ll let the attorney general ever hire outside lawyers? And every year, proposals to restore some of the historic rights of Louisiana citizens fall on deaf ears at the capitol.

Louisiana is a conservative state. Its conservative voters elect fairly conservative judges, and they make up fairly conservative juries. If one of those judges or juries should run amuck, there are multi-parish appellate courts, and a state-wide supreme court, acting as backstops for Corporate America.

But that’s never enough. Corporate America still wants to take away your rights. Ironically, these corporations are the true socialists. The only thing they want privatized is profit. They want the costs and risks of production to be borne by society at large: their victims and, ultimately, the taxpayers.

 

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