How would a public official, say a parish president, manage to skirt the Louisiana public records laws and ignore votes of the parish council and get away with it?
Well, if you’re Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, and if you had 18 writs of mandamus pending against you for non-compliance, you would simply ride out the storm until your newly-elected, hand-picked council takes office and have a friendly council member move to rescind any pending adverse action.
That’s precisely what Nungesser did in late 2010. He blatantly ignored the law and waited out his adversaries. And it apparently worked.
No wonder he thought he could do an end run around Gov. John Bel Edwards by conspiring with State Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere in that completely embarrassing Iraqiscam-super tanker-proposal-to-cure-Louisiana-of-its-fiscal-problems that left him—and Villere—with a little something more disgusting than egg all over their faces.
With ample evidence of his contempt for the law prior to becoming lieutenant governor and his willing violation of protocol since becoming the second-highest elected official in the state, can there be any reasonable expectation of significant change in his conspiring makeup during the rest of what is almost certain to be a single term.
Probably not. He is what he is: an underhanded politician fully capable of any action, legal or otherwise, that will enhance the career and burnish the public image of William Harold “Billy” Nungesser.
He is Bobby Jindal without the charm. He is Chris Christie without the finesse. He is Scott Walker, Rick Scott, and Sam Brownback rolled into one, but without their compassion. In short, he is Billy Nungesser, yet another electoral accident visited upon unsuspecting—or uncaring—Louisiana voters, a man worthy of the scorn of Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell before it was cool to be scornful of the man. But that’s a story for another day and it will have to wait.
Right now there is his record as Plaquemines Parish President—a job he won by a large majority, by the way—that begs closer examination as a clue into what we expect of him as lieutenant governor, a peek already provided by that ridiculous Iraqi oil tanker scam blunder.
Actually, Nungesser’s defiance of the parish council began way back on July 23, 2009, when the council voted to direct the council attorney to enforce a parish ordinance by “shutting down the operations of all unpermitted borrow pits located within the parish.” That was followed on Dec. 10, 2009, by a council resolution to authorize and direct the council attorney “to take any and all legal action, including but not limited to the filing for injunctive relief and/or mandamus” to obtain and examine “all transactions (including but not limited to any and all construction contracts, capital projects, professional contracts, cooperative endeavor agreements and intergovernmental agreements) entered into by and all expenditures incurred by the parish through the office of the Parish Presidents (or any of its departments or agencies) since January 1, 2007.”
A writ of mandamus is Latin for “we order” and is defined as a writ which “orders a public agency or governmental body to perform an act required by law when it has neglected or refused to do so.” http://dictionary.law.com/Default.aspx?selected=1203
Each of the 16 subsequent similar actions by the council were taken in 2010 in the months leading up and immediately following the October 2, 2010, elections for parish council and parish president.
Seven of the 18 resolutions passed by the council were for the purpose of forcing Nungesser to comply with public records requests.
Besides the 2009 resolutions cited above, subsequent resolutions passed by the Plaquemines Parish Council during 2010 directing:
May 27—Nungesser to turn over copies of any “and all contracts, cooperative endeavor agreements or memos of understanding…from April 15, 2010, related to the effects of the Deep Water Horizon Incident, through the effective date of the resolution…” and a second calling for Nungesser to submit to the council copies of “any and all contracts, financial records, cooperative endeavor agreements or memos of understanding…from January 1, 2007 through the date of the resolution.
July 8—Nungesser to sign all revenue bonds approved by the council on Feb. 11, 2010, in the amount of $18 million. Res 10-251 Directing Pres to sign $18M bond documents or Mandamus filed
July 22—Nungesser to produce documents “previously requested by the…council Audit Committee and the parish council pursuant to” one of the May 27 resolutions “to compel him to produce any and all documents pertaining to all of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) expenditures.
August 12—The council’s legal department to initiate legal proceedings if necessary in order to obtain a copy of the agreement for council fiscal agent from June 1, 2008, through May 31, 2010 pursuant to the council’s first request for the document made on June 29, 2010. Res 10-294 Fiscal Agent PRR
October 28—The council’s legal department to initiate legal action to compel Nungesser “to enter into and execute a purchase agreement with two realty companies for six acres to be used for a recreation park, athletic fields, walking track and picnic area pursuant to the council’s approval of the purchase on June 26, 2008. Res 10-463 Resol mandamus to execute purchase agree with White Oak
November 11—The council’s legal department to initiate legal action to compel Nungesser “to assist with and finalize all plans for design and engineering as needed for the raising of an East Bank levee; the council’s legal department to initiate legal proceedings to compel Nungesser to honor a contract with a New Orleans law firm and to issue payment for services rendered by firm attorney Robert Barnett; the council’s legal department to take legal action to force Nungesser to transfer $3 million in funds to a parish levee project; Nungesser to provide “any and all documents, pleadings, emails, facsimiles, correspondence, letters, memorandums, interoffice documentation and intra-office documentation generated by Stephen Braud” as an attorney for the parish from Jan. 1, 2010, to date of the resolution.
December 9—Nungesser to provide “any and all project worksheets, contracts, agreements, memoranda of understanding, etc., relative to FEMA funding executed by Nungesser” from Jan. 1, 2007, to the date of the resolution; Nungesser to provide a copy of “any and all professional services contracts” between the parish and All South Consulting Engineers from Jan. 1, 2007, to the date of the resolution; the parish legal counsel to initiate against Nungesser in order to force him to begin a resurfacing/striping project on LA. 15; the council legal department to initiate legal proceedings to compel Nungesser to remove “all movables” from the Ft. Jackson Port. Res 10-512 directing pres to submit all documents for FEMA funding from 1-1-07
December 31—Nungesser to enter into a contract with Deep South Associates; Nungesser to sign “any and all documents” with Fenstermaker & Associates for the engineering and the hiring of a surveyor to identify parish right of way and levee footprint for a levee lift in the parish.
Failure by Nungesser to comply with council actions regarding infrastructure work and contracts, provided such action was legal, could conceivably have been construed as malfeasance.
But the question of what is and what is not considered public record is clearly defined in L.S. 44:1 et seq. LOUISIANA PUBLIC RECORDS ACT
So what did Nungesser do?
Nothing, absolutely nothing—except perhaps to conspire with allies on the council to let the clock run until new members on the council would give him a majority to do as he pleased, including having the 18 resolutions rescinded.
And that’s precisely what happened.
Consider an email from Stuart Guey, Jr., a council member firmly entrenched in Nungesser’s camp. The email, written on April 8, 2011, was written to Assistant Parish Attorney Michael Mullin and copied to other council members, including Nungesser, said:
“I received a letter from (retired Baton Rouge State District Judge) Frank Foil regarding his appointment as ad hoc judge on the remaining Mandamus suits. It would be wonderful if the suits all can be resolved. I asked that resolutions be prepared for introduction to dismiss all writs but all Council members will have to know that the requested information has been compiled and where to view the information before it would be voted upon. I understand all the requested information may be on a disc that can be sent to everyone. If the information, in any format, is not provided to all Council members in a timely manner we will have to solicit legal counsel and proceed with the litigation. I hope this can be prevented. Please let me know what can be done.”
And, of course, once the resolutions to dismiss were put to a council vote, the writs conveniently went away.
Such is the type of ruthless control Nungesser exercised in Plaquemines Parish—somewhat reminiscent to the way old Leander Perez once reigned supreme in Plaquemines.
But such tactics aren’t going to fly in Baton Rouge.
LouisianaVoice currently has public records requests pending with Nungesser’s office and we aren’t going to wait much longer for a response. We requested—and received—his appointment calendar since taking office but we have yet to receive a response of any description on our requests for emails and other correspondence.
Nungesser may think that he’s omnipotent and that a little ol’ pissant writer out in Denham Springs doesn’t have a chance against the clout of the lieutenant governor’s and the Louisiana Attorney General’s offices, should the latter be called in to defend him.
But we have taken the state to court on three occasions over the non-production of public records and we will not hesitate to do so again. That’s because we have that one very important thing on our side: the Louisiana Constitution and we aren’t afraid to smack Nungesser upside the head with it.
And if we do, there won’t be a Plaquemines Parish Council to bail him out.