Editor’s note: Just when you think good, old-fashioned investigative reporting has gone the way of LINOTYPE MACHINES and hot lead typesetting, the Baton Rouge Advocate conducts a thorough probe of operations at the Louisiana State Penitentiary that has resulted in a wave of resignations if no indictments.
And then there is a twice-weekly publication up in West Monroe called The Ouachita Citizen headed by Publisher Sam Hanna, Jr. His paper’s ongoing investigation into the Fourth Judicial District Court is making a lot of people very uncomfortable and with good reason. So uncomfortable, in fact, that several judges in the 4th JDC actually filed a lawsuit against Hanna and The Citizen to prevent the publication from seeking public records to which they were legally entitled. Such action by the judges is unprecedented and appears frighteningly Nixonesque in its brazen attempt to thwart legitimate efforts to inform the citizens of Ouachita Parish. It’s the kind of action that should send chills down the spine of the electorate. Hanna has vowed to refuse to pay court costs assessed in that litigation. He has lost advertising revenue as a result of his coverage of the court.
Following is a lengthy story by Citizen reporters Zach Parker and Johnny Gunter published yesterday (Thursday, May 26) by the paper. One major point raised is the apparent conflict of interest in the Attorney General’s office conducting an investigation of the 4th JDC while at the same time defending four of the judges in a lawsuit brought against them by a fifth judge.
By Zach Parker and Johnny Gunter
Inquiries by The Ouachita Citizen into Fourth Judicial District Attorney Jerry Jones’ involvement in an investigation of Fourth Judicial District Court show the district attorney offered a false account of his communications with investigators, filed misleading court documents and did not refer this newspaper’s criminal complaint to authorities involved in the investigation.
Those activities formed part of Jones’ efforts to downplay the investigation into possible wrongdoing at the court as well as his involvement in the probe.
The investigation concerned allegations that law clerk Allyson Campbell committed payroll fraud and destroyed or concealed court records. Those accusations also are the focus of separate lawsuits, one filed in district court by Monroe businessman Stanley R. Palowsky III and the other in federal court by Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Sharon Marchman.
Jerry Jones restricts probe’s scope
In July 2015, Jerry Jones called on the Office of State Inspector General and Louisiana State Police to investigate public corruption. At that time, he was tight-lipped about the scope of the investigation, at first refusing to comment though he later clarified the investigation concerned Fourth Judicial District Court.
As revealed in comments to The Ouachita Citizen as well as to other media outlets, Jerry Jones restricted the scope of the investigation to an audit of the court’s finances released March 2, 2015 by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office. That audit said some court employees may have earned pay for hours not worked. As first reported by The Ouachita Citizen and later confirmed in open court, Campbell was the subject of auditors’ comments.
However, there were other allegations concerning Campbell that Jerry Jones sidestepped during interviews, repeatedly claiming the probe concerned the audit only. During interviews, he downplayed any outcome of an investigation into payroll fraud since Campbell was a salaried employee, not hourly, in spite of the allegations concerning falsified time sheets approved by court judges.
In March 2015, Ouachita Citizen reporter Johnny Gunter submitted a criminal complaint to Jones’ office, asking the district attorney to investigate not only allegations that Campbell had committed payroll fraud but also accusations by Palowsky and Monroe attorney Cody Rials that Campbell had destroyed or concealed documents they had filed with the court in their separate legal matters.
Little more than a week before the Inspector General and State Police launched their joint investigation, The Ouachita Citizen learned Jones had not begun an investigation, requested any documents or information from court officials in response to the newspaper’s criminal complaint.
Through The Ouachita Citizen‘s inquiries and reports, more details emerged concerning the scope of the court investigation. In a June 30, 2015 interview, retired Judge Ben Jones, who is the court’s administrator, informed The Ouachita Citizen that he had discussed the newspaper’s criminal complaint with Jerry Jones.
“He (Jerry Jones) indicated to us (the court) that he would respond to your criminal complaint and take appropriate action at such time that he thought appropriate,” Ben Jones said. “We are prepared, should he act on that criminal complaint, we are prepared to cooperate, and that’s what we’ll do. But at this point, he has not asked us for any information, any documents, or initiated any investigation.”
During that interview, Ben Jones repeatedly said Jerry Jones would conduct an investigation into the matters raised by The Ouachita Citizen‘s criminal complaint “with integrity” and would show court officials no special privileges.
Ben Jones was one of five district court judges named defendants along with Campbell in Palowsky’s lawsuit. In his lawsuit, Palowsky accused Ben Jones and judges Carl Sharp, Wilson Rambo, Fred Amman and Stephens Winters of covering up Campbell’s activities, a claim reiterated in Marchman’s lawsuit in U.S. District Court.
In the district attorney’s interviews with the press, Jerry Jones said the investigation into the court did not involve any judges.
Jerry Jones gives false account of communications with investigators
The Ouachita Citizen learned Jerry Jones concealed his communications with investigators as well as offered the newspaper conflicting accounts of a report on the investigation’s findings.
When asked in an April 25 interview whether he had engaged in any communications with the Inspector General or the State Police concerning the investigation, he said, “No. None at all.”
The District Attorney further distanced himself from the investigation at that time and said, “I haven’t had any communication with them other than having my assistant ask (Inspector General) Stephen Street about the status of the report,” referring to whether a report had been prepared on any findings in the court investigation.
He made that statement to the newspaper in spite of the fact that his office had received a letter from Street 10 days before, a letter which represented a report on the investigation’s findings. Street’s April 15 letter claimed there was no “sufficient cause” to file criminal charges against Campbell on the accusations of payroll fraud or document destruction was first reported by The Ouachita Citizen. According to that letter, Street was concluding his office’s investigation into the matter.
“Because the available facts do not provide sufficient cause for the arrest of Ms. Campbell for any criminal offense, we are closing our file and taking no further action on this matter,” Street wrote. “Ms. Campbell was interviewed and denied destroying or hiding any court records or pleadings. She stated that her work schedule was approved by her supervisor and that she worked the hours for which she was paid. Judge Carl Sharp supported her claim that all court documents were always available to him. He also confirmed that Ms. Campbell was a salaried employee whose hours were sometimes irregular.”
In a May 11 interview, The Ouachita Citizen asked Jerry Jones why he had misinformed the newspaper by saying he’d had no communications with investigators though he’d received the April 15 letter from Street. In response to that query, he again denied he had engaged in any communications with investigators.
The Ouachita Citizen then asked Jerry Jones about his written correspondence with Street: He declined to comment, saying he couldn’t answer that question and had referred his office’s investigation to the Attorney General’s office.
The Ouachita Citizen then informed him that the newspaper had obtained a copy of the April 15 letter revealing correspondence between Street and Jerry Jones on the investigation, at which point the district attorney paused and then said, “Okay, I made a mistake. You’re not getting another word out of me.”
Throughout the investigation Jerry Jones sought to distance himself from the court probe though the Inspector General’s letter as well as The Ouachita Citizen‘s inquiries to State Police all referred to the district attorney’s involvement. According to the newspaper’s inquiries, he was calling the shots in the investigation though he said he wasn’t investigating and didn’t have the manpower in his office to conduct such an investigation.
“We keep it separate,” he said in the April 25 interview. “I’m not investigating.”
Following The Ouachita Citizen‘s May 11 interview, Jerry Jones informed the newspaper that State Police had completed a written report that contradicted the findings revealed in Street’s April 15 letter. He said he would ensure the newspaper was provided with a copy of the State Police report he claimed existed.
The Ouachita Citizen submitted an inquiry and a public records request to State Police about the purported report, asking to obtain a copy. However, State Police authorities informed the newspaper that Jerry Jones had told them the investigation should be considered open, a status that would bar the release of documents pertaining to the investigation, including the unseen State Police report.
According to a May 11 statement from State Police spokesman Maj. Doug Cain, State Police investigators were awaiting clearance from Jones to release the investigative report.
Later that day, State Police informed The Ouachita Citizen that record would not be released, per instructions from Jerry Jones.
“The district attorney for the 4th JDC is awaiting additional information and the matter is considered still open at this time,” wrote Michele M. Giroir, State Police attorney supervisor in a May 11 email. “Therefore, pursuant to R.S. 44:3(A)(1), the records are exempt from disclosure at this time.”
Records dispute DA’s claim he transferred case to AG
Since early last year, Jerry Jones has repeatedly told The Ouachita Citizen he was not investigating but had referred that responsibility to the Attorney General’s office.
“You people keep saying I’m investigating, but I’m not,” he said. “I sent that to the AG’s office.”
At that time, Buddy Caldwell was Attorney General and had appointed a taxpayer-paid defense for Campbell in spite of questions raised by The Ouachita Citizen about the legality of that appointment. Caldwell’s involvement in the defense of Campbell later was cited as grounds for naming him a defendant in Marchman’s lawsuit.
In support of his claim he had transferred the responsibility of investigating to the Attorney General, Jerry Jones produced last year a motion to recuse he had filed at the Ouachita Parish Clerk of Court’s office in the court record for Stanley R. Palowsky III v. W. Brandon Cork and others, the lawsuit in which the allegations against Campbell first surfaced.
His Dec. 5, 2014, Motion to Recuse said, “Now into this Honorable Court comes Jerry L. Jones, Fourth Judicial District Attorney, who, with respect, represents: The District Attorney recuses himself and his office in the above captioned case and moves that same be sent to the Attorney General’s Office.”
However, Jerry Jones’ motion to recuse has laid untouched in the court record and was never sent to the Attorney General’s office, according to Ouachita Parish Clerk of Court Louise Bond.
Earlier this week, The Ouachita Citizen asked to review the court record for Palowsky v. Cork, which is secured in Bond’s office since, she said, it’s a “high profile case” and she did not want any parties claiming their documents had gone missing from it, referring to accusations from Palowsky that Campbell had either destroyed or concealed documents he filed in that same case.
After a review of the record by Bond and The Ouachita Citizen, there was no indication that Jerry Jones’ motion to recuse had ever been sent to the Attorney General’s office.
“I don’t see anything that shows we sent anything, but there’s nothing on there that shows where it should be sent,” she said.
Bond confirmed with her deputy clerks that the DA’s document had not been sent there. It hadn’t been sent because Jerry Jones’ document didn’t indicate who or where the motion should be sent, though it asked the Clerk of Court’s office to handle the matter.
“I checked and nothing was sent,” Bond said. “But there’s nothing on here showing us who at the Attorney General’s office should receive it or where even to send it.”
Bond told The Ouachita Citizen that the deputy clerk, B.J. Graham, who accepted Jerry Jones’ filing no longer worked at the Clerk of Court’s office. Graham had quit, according to Bond.
According to Bond, normally a mover in a legal matter will either indicate they have sent copies of the filing to other parties in the matter. If the filing does not bear the name, address or contact information of the person it should be sent to, like the DA’s filing, then the mover will attach a cover sheet with instructions, Bond said.
“Most of the time they say please serve to so-and-so, or it shows that they’ve already sent copies, but there are no instructions, either on a cover sheet or on the motion itself,” Bond said.
Jones’ motion to recuse was later signed as a judicial order by Judge Carl Sharp: “It is ordered that the Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s Office is recused from the above captioned case and same be sent to the Attorney General’s Office.”
Sharp is a defendant in both Palowsky’s and Marchman’s lawsuits. He is accused of covering up Campbell’s activities. Sharp also is one of the judges for whom Campbell clerks. Additionally, Sharp defended Campbell against the payroll fraud allegations during an interview with Inspector General investigators, according to Street’s letter.
Jerry Jones’ motion to recuse and Sharp’s order are available for viewing at www.ouachitacitizen.com
The Ouachita Citizen contacted the Attorney General’s office on numerous occasions, through telephone and email, to ask whether they had received any correspondence from Jerry Jones, including his recusal. Attorney General spokesperson Ruth Wisher suddenly ceased all communications with The Ouachita Citizen last week in spite of earlier pledging to answer the newspaper’s questions by Thursday, May 19. Attorney General Jeff Landry and Assistant Attorney General Shannon Dirmann also did not respond to communications from The Ouachita Citizen.
Two days after the Attorney General office’s last communication with The Ouachita Citizen concerning its questions, Landry’s office filed a pleading in Marchman’s federal lawsuit on behalf of Caldwell, the former Attorney General and defendant in the judge’s lawsuit.
Absence of investigation a key point in public records dispute
The Ouachita Citizen recently learned Jones did not refer the newspaper’s criminal complaint to some authorities investigating the court. Inspector General Stephen Street said state law protecting Inspector General records meant he could not reveal whether Jerry Jones had sent his office the newspaper’s criminal complaint or not.
“Due to OIG (Office of Inspector General) statutory confidentiality, I am unable to confirm or deny the receipt of the complaint to which you refer,” Street wrote in an email.
However, State Police did not receive the newspaper’s criminal complaint, according to Cain, the State Police spokesman.
“We are unaware of any complaint from The Ouachita Citizen through the DA’s office,” Cain said.
The Attorney General’s office did not respond to questions from The Ouachita Citizen about whether Jerry Jones had sent them this newspaper’s criminal complaint.
The Ouachita Citizen‘s criminal complaint was prompted by the district court’s refusal to produce public records from Campbell’s personnel file that could shed light on the allegations of payroll fraud and document destruction. The day after The Ouachita Citizen submitted its criminal complaint, the court sued the newspaper, asking for an ad hoc judge to determine whether Campbell’s right to privacy outweighed the public’s right to know.
In spite of The Ouachita Citizen submitting its criminal complaint with Jones in March 2015, there was no investigation called to target the court until after an ad hoc judge had ruled against this newspaper, declaring Campbell’s personnel file off-limits to public records requests.
During a court hearing before the ad hoc judge, The Ouachita Citizen argued the public should be granted access to Campbell’s personnel file since its public records requests – stemming from the allegations of payroll fraud – concerned public tax dollars (referred below as the “public fisc”). In response, the court argued there was no need for judicial intervention to make Campbell’s personnel file available to the public since the district attorney could exert his office’s authority to investigate if there were any reasonable grounds present in the newspaper’s criminal complaint.
Delivering the court’s argument was Monroe attorney Jon Guice, who also represented the five district court judges in Palowsky’s lawsuit and is a defendant in Marchman’s lawsuit.
“The response to his argument about the protection of the public fisc is it is handled by the law and you need not intervene in that,” Guice continued during the May 19, 2015 hearing on the public records requests. “His client (The Ouachita Citizen) is well aware that the legislative auditor sent a copy of its findings to the district attorney.
“They have also asked the district attorney to avail himself of that report and to do his duties to investigate, and if there is an issue there for him to address it. So, this court need not feel as though it has a duty of protection of the public fisc when there is an expressed officer, i.e., the district attorney who the legislative auditor has provided its findings and whom the paper has asked to honor his obligation. So if there is something there then that’s the way that is to be handled.”
After the ad hoc judge ruled against The Ouachita Citizen, details in Palowsky’s and Marchman’s lawsuits have suggested Guice, Ben Jones, the court administrator, and other court officials manipulated the documents present in Campbell’s personnel file before the ad hoc judge reviewed it to determine whether it was subject to The Ouachita Citizen‘s public records requests.
Jerry Jones later told The Ouachita Citizen he had agreed with Ben Jones to postpone acting on The Ouachita Citizen‘s criminal complaint until after the ad hoc judge had ruled in the court’s case against the newspaper.
When Ben Jones was asked about that arrangement during a June 30, 2015 interview, he said, “I am not prepared to say I had any agreement with Jerry Jones to wait until after the final judgment but he has elected, obviously, to delay any action until, I mean, to my knowledge, no action has been taken so far.”
“I have no idea when any action might be taken, but I take him at his word that he will respond to the complaint, and he has indicated that he would honor his obligation to respond to the complaint,” Ben Jones continued. “That’s all I can tell you about that. I have talked to him, but I’m not at liberty to say everything about that conversation.
“But I will say this to you. I know Jerry Jones and I am convinced that any investigation that he initiates will be one done with integrity. I absolutely believe that to be the case. He will go wherever the findings take him. That’s how he is, and that’s a good thing. It is our expectation that he will show us no special privileges or special deference. I expect him to respond to the request that he investigate with integrity, and I don’t fear that at all.”