In the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2012, Joseph Branch, with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .307 percent (2½ higher than the .08 percent, the legal definition of intoxication in Louisiana) and driving at a high rate of speed, struck two bicyclists, killing Nathan Crowson and severely injuring his riding companion, Daniel Morris.
Branch, who had a previous DWI conviction in 2006 and was given a six-month suspended sentence, was convicted of vehicular homicide and first degree vehicular negligent injuring and sentenced to 7½ years in prison. http://theadvocate.com/news/11878236-123/baton-rouge-man-joseph-branch
That should be that, right?
Well, no. There remained the issue of whether or not The Bulldog, a bar where Branch had been drinking with two friends just before the accident, might be legally liable for continuing to serve Branch after it was evident that he was intoxicated.
Anytime there is an alcohol-related auto accident involving a fatality, the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) investigates whether or not the driver had been served alcohol after it was obvious he was intoxicated. Such customers are supposed to be eighty-sixed, or cut off from being served more alcohol.
So, how are investigations carried out?
Meticulously. Carefully. Thoroughly.
The investigation, which would routinely require weeks upon weeks of interviews, document and video review and which normally produce written reports 30 to 40 pages in length, was unusually short in duration and produced a report of a single page.
One page that completely exonerated the bar of any violation. http://www.wbrc.com/story/16903763/bar-cleared-in-fatal-crash
Initially, two ATC agents, neither of whom now work for the agency, began the investigation by requesting a video of the night in question to determine if Branch displayed any obvious signs of intoxication. They also asked owners of The Bulldog, located on Perkins Road in Baton Rouge, for certain other documents and information, including copies of any and all receipts of alcoholic beverages purchased by Branch.
When the bar initially refused to cooperate, the agents who customarily investigate such cases, obtained a subpoena and served it on the bar.
Enter ATC Commissioner Troy Hebert.
This is the same Troy Hebert who allegedly once admonished an agent for not shooting an unarmed man. When an ATC agent attempted to question a man who appeared to be intoxicated in the Tigerland area near the LSU campus where a number of bars and clubs are located, the man dove at the agent’s feet in an attempt to take him down. He was quickly overpowered and handcuffed by agents who reported the incident to Hebert. They said Hebert asked, “Why didn’t you shoot him?”
It is also the same Troy Hebert who another Baton Rouge bar owner says set his establishment up for selling to underage customers.
In December, his bartender refused to sell alcohol to an underage patron working undercover in tandem with an ATC agent. When the bartender refused to sell alcohol to the underage customer, the female ATC agent purchased the drink and gave to the younger girl and then cited the bar for selling alcohol to underage patron.
“That server is taught that they are to remove the drink from the individual who is underage,” Hebert said.
“She slides the beer to the underage girl,” bar owner Andrew Bayard said. “She assumed possession and gives it to the underage girl. I don’t feel that is a fault of my employee.” http://www1.wbrz.com/news/bar-owner-at-odds-with-state-alcohol-agents-claims-his-employee-was-set-up
Hebert officially resigned as commissioner, effective Jan. 10, the day before the new governor, John Bel Edwards, took office. He since has announced he will seek the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. David Vitter who is not seeking re-election.
But we digress.
In an unprecedented move, Hebert, who had zero experience as an investigator, decided he would be the lead investigator of the Bulldog.
What possible motive would Hebert have in rushing through an investigation and issuing a press release on Feb. 9 absolving the bar of any responsibility? Why would he instruct the lead agent on the case to limit his report to one page?
Why would Hebert watch the video footage for only a few seconds before proclaiming he “saw nothing” there? Why not watch the entire video to see if Branch did, in fact, appear intoxicated?
Even more curious, why would Hebert instruct that same agent to return to The Bulldog and retrieve the subpoena the agent had served on the establishment for video and records, thus freeing the bar of any responsibility to turn over key records?
Is it possible that the answer to each of these questions can consist of two words?
Might those two words be Chris Young?
The New Orleans attorney represents scores of clubs and bars (and convenience stores) before the ATC and his sister, Judy Pontin, is the executive management officer for ATC’s New Orleans office, earning $71,000 per year.
John Young, the brother of Chris Young and Pontin, is the former president of Jefferson Parish and was an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in last fall’s statewide elections.
ATC insiders told LouisianaVoice that when an establishment wants to apply for an alcohol permit or whenever the business experiences problems with ATC, Pontin refers them to Chris Young for legal representation.
Chris Young was the legal counsel for The Bulldog prior to and throughout the ATC investigation.
Daniel Morris, who was severely injured in the accident, retained the representation of Lafayette attorney Patrick Daniel who issued his own subpoena to ATC for certain records to bolster his litigation against The Bulldog.
In February 2013, more than a year after the accident which left Morris disabled, Daniel sent a letter to ATC general Counsel Jessica Starns noting that ATC FAILED TO PROVIDE RECORDS TO MORRIS
“Your response is considered incomplete as it does not contain certain items referenced in the produced documents,” he said.
It was not immediately determined if the records were finally produced but it does raise the obvious question of why did ATC not comply with that subpoena in the first place, thus necessitating a follow up letter from the attorney?
Could those records have contained information that conflicted with ATC’s one-page report of Feb. 9, 2012, the report that supposedly cleared The Bulldog?
A lot of questions were left hanging out there and someone deserves some answers.
We’re guessing that would be the families of the two cyclists.
But we may never know those answers.
In June 2014, the First Circuit Court of Appeal upheld a Baton Rouge state district court in tossing Morris’s lawsuit on the basis that the responsibility for intoxication lies with the individual, not the establishment.
Thus was added insult to Morris’s considerable injuries.