By Robert Burns (Special to LouisianaVoice)
Last May, a political firestorm surfaced on the EBR Parish Metro Council over then-Parish Attorney Mary Roper. Some council members asked Baton Rouge attorney Jack Whitehead to gather evidence. Later, in early September 2014, the Metro Council called a special meeting to discuss Ms. Roper’s termination. That meeting exposed what some leaders described as the complete dysfunction within the parish attorney’s office.
After the council’s special counsel, Murphy Foster, presented the case for Roper’s termination and Roper’s attorney, Wade Shows (Roper’s predecessor as Parish Attorney), presented her defense, EBRP Mayor Pro-Tem Chandler Loupe provided a laundry list of alleged wrongdoing by Roper. In the preceding video link, Loupe goes into great detail. A few of Loupe’s allegations against Roper include:
- Often working no or very minimal hours even though she was paid as a full-time employee;
- Failing to ensure that basic functions of the office were being performed, resulting in thousands of DWIs being dismissed and adjudicated properties experiencing a huge backlog;
- Improperly providing an internally-developed software code to her husband, an information technology expert.
Another employee with the EBR Department of Public Works, Kyle Jones, subsequently attempted to sell the Parish its own software back to it for $500,000 which led to the discovery of Roper’s husband’s actions.
After Loupe made his presentation, a hostile and bitter exchange took place between Loupe and Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel, with two of Banks-Daniel’s colleagues, Donna Collins-Lewis and C. Denise Marcell, becoming so furious with her over remarks she directed at Loupe that they exited the meeting. The council ultimately voted 8-3 to terminate Roper’s employment. Roper’s first lieutenant, Lee Anne Batson, assumed the position on an interim basis.
Several sources have expressed their concerns to LouisianaVoice that the selection process for the council naming Roper’s replacement is a sham. They claim the “fix has been in from day one” for Batson to obtain the position on a permanent basis. These sources have indicated that the process will become “Mary Roper, Chapter Two,” and they say morale within the parish attorney’s office is worse under Batson than it was under Roper. Further, these sources have said that the few dedicated attorneys serving in the office are frustrated that Batson has even worse supervisory skills than Roper and permits the majority of attorneys who work under her to “goof off most of the days on their iPHONEs and iPADs looking at new cooking recipes and other mindless activities.” These attorneys also have private practices and spend their time between “two masters,” thus placing the public in an inherent conflict.
It was that very office management style that permitted the huge backlog of DWIs to pile up which went unprosecuted and which had to be dismissed. Loupe, in the video clip, said one of the things that frustrated him most was for Shows, with whom he used to practice, to assert that no harm was done by Roper’s managerial style. Loupe countered that, beyond the stockpile of DWIs and adjudicated properties, in one instance which was particularly galling, the City of Baton Rouge was sued. The parish attorney’s office never provided a defense for the suit, refused a $20,000 settlement offer, and the result was a $550,000 judgment. Several attorneys said they felt that even a token defense would have resulted in the City not having been found liable. The attorney responsible for that case, Rick Nevels, recently retired.
Another indication of inadequate oversight occurred when Assistant Parish Attorney James Hilburn, failed to file an answer in Federal Court. Federal Court Judge Brian Jackson, who presided over the case, was livid at Hilburn’s failure and Hilburn was also reprimanded by the Louisiana State Supreme Court for filing a lawsuit for defamation against a party who had filed a complaint against him with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
The private-practice attorneys with whom LouisianaVoice has consulted for this article agree that, of the Parish Attorney’s $7.37 million budget, around $800,000 – $1 million of taxpayer funds could be saved simply by insisting that attorneys in the office perform their jobs. One source familiar with the Parish Attorney’s operations said, “The problem is most of them simply want free money with health insurance and a lucrative retirement as they engage in their private practice. They want the check, but they don’t want to work for it. Taxpayers have a right to expect that people are paid to perform a job and not to let things fall through the cracks while cookbook recipes are discussed all day.”
Loupe’s investigation revealed that one attorney was paid $89,000 for a year yet worked only eight files during that year. Another was found to be part-time yet paid $127,000 for working 23 active files. Additionally, Batson is permitting her sister-in-law, Gwen Brown to collect $85,000 as a full-time Assistant Parish Attorney while simultaneously earing $96,000 a year as a supervising attorney for another public agency, the Louisiana Appellate Project, which represents indigent criminal defendants who file appeals to the Louisiana Courts of Appeal and Louisiana Supreme Court. Roper never raised any concern because Roper, who supervised Brown, also earned $56,000 annually as a brief writer for the Louisiana Appellate Project. Similarly, Batson is not expected to interfere with her sister-in-law’s collecting $181,000 a year from the two positions, plus retirement benefits and health insurance. Moreover, all inquiries of whether these setups entail dual office holding have been summarily brushed aside.
It’s not as if these arrangements haven’t been reported. In this July, 2014 Advocate article, Assistant Parish Attorney Tedrick Kinghtshead is cited as maintaining a demanding criminal defense practice, while working full-time with the parish attorney’s office. These arrangements have raised the obvious question of potential conflicts of interest.
Each private-practice attorney consulted for this article said that maintaining an accurate tabulation of hours worked on a given client’s casefile is critical and that it would be unthinkable for any attorney to practice and not maintain such an accurate log. Nevertheless, there appears to be zero accounting for time on cases within the Parish Attorney’s Office. One private attorney described the present operations of the office as being nothing short of “irresponsible and a slap in the face to the taxpayers.” Another said that the parish attorney’s office should maintain a bank of briefs, but no such bank is maintained by the office.
Several sources have predicted that the process for choosing Roper’s successor is a mere formality and that Batson has the position locked up and that Batson has fired attorneys on her staff and replaced them with friends of members of the selection committee (the composition of which is outlined in these minutes of their April 6, 2015 meeting) who have indicated their quid pro quo support of Batson.
Roper and Hilburn, meanwhile, seemed to have landed on their feet. Both are now employed by Shows’ office. Shows serves as Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s campaign treasurer for this fall’s AG race. Further, in a report by WWL in New Orleans, Shows was identified as a huge beneficiary of Caldwell’s propensity to award lucrative multi-million-dollar contracts to his close friends and associates. LouisianaVoice readers may also recall Shows Cali attorneys, including Shows himself, came within an inch of receiving sanctions in the Angola prisoner lawsuit for a “lack of candor” (a polite phrase for lying) to Federal Judge Brian Jackson.
The EBR Parish Council is set to discuss the status of the selection of Roper’s replacement at Wednesday’s (April 22) meeting; however, if LouisianaVoice sources are accurate, the two other finalists, Lon Norris and Michael Adams, are only in the mix for public consumption purposes. Further, the selection committee deemed “unqualified” two private-practice attorneys, Jack Whitehead and Jerry Pepper, who received the highest possible rating (AV) from Martindale-Hubble, an attorney peer review rating agency. Whitehead and Pepper’s piers have placed their legal ability in the top ½ of 1% of attorneys in the United States. The votes are reportedly in and accounted for to anoint Batson as the new Parish Attorney and thereby continue the time-honored style of “good ol’ boy” politics that got the office in the position in which it finds itself today.