This is a story with no readily apparent good guys.
It’s a story about charges of theft of heavy equipment.
It’s a story about thousands of dollars floating around unaccounted for by public officials.
It’s the story of the attorney general’s office abruptly halting a confrontational deposition.
It’s a story about a Baton Rouge judge having the decency and courage to impose (finally) a stiff financial penalty against a state agency over the agency’s failure to complete the deposition or to produce legally required public records.
It’s a story of how the superintendent of State Police was unable to account for the receipt of two checks totaling nearly $150,000 and how the state attorney general’s office and its former rogue investigator wound up with egg all over their already questionable reputations.
And, of course, it’s a story of how the taxpayer and not the public official responsible ultimately will bear the cost of those penalties.
It all began in May 2014 with the indictment of Joseph Palermo of Sulphur on five counts of possession of stolen things, destruction of serial numbers and forgery.
Palermo previously got crossways with state police over operation of casinos in Calcasieu Parish and he settled that civil matter back in 1998 but prosecutors, apparently still nursing a grudge over the casino gambit, brought up the 1998 trouble in connection with his more recent problems. Things have a way of playing out that way for some people.
In February 2015, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of receiving “ill-gotten gains” in a plea bargain in which he agreed to paying civil penalties of $1.2 million over three years with expenses to the Calcasieu Parish District Attorney’s office coming off the top. After expenses, the $400,000 per year was to be divided equally between the Calcasieu DA, the attorney general and State Police ($133,333.34 each). An additional $14,792.55 was what remained after the district attorney’s expenses were paid.
Identical checks of $14,792.55 and $133,333.34 were then issued to Louisiana State Police and the attorney general’s office. State Police, however, initially had no record of receipt of the funds.
Moreover, neither of the checks to the attorney general’s office was ever negotiated and it took more than a little effort to get State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson to acknowledge his office had received the money. State Police’s financial section has no record of the checks, nor is there any record of the checks having been deposited in state police accounts.
In February of this year, Palermo began efforts to obtain certain records from the attorney general’s office, specifically those pertaining to the criminal investigation of his case by Scott Bailey, then employed as an investigator for the attorney general’s office.
Bailey, in addition to being a central figure in the botched CNSI investigation of a couple of years back, holds the dubious distinction of being the investigator who photographed Jimmy Swaggart exiting his infamous rendezvous with the hooker in that seedy Metairie motel three decades ago. (Some claims to fame you just want to hang onto for whatever reasons).
Bailey resigned from the attorney general’s office the very day he was directed to provide all his time management records for all his investigations.
The records by Palermo from the attorney general were insufficient to meet the parameters of his request, so he tried again and this time he was met with a response that the records, after all, were exempt from public disclosure despite the investigation of Palermo having been completed for more than a year.
The legal back and forth jockeying continued with two separate legal actions by Palermo—one for public records and the other to force deposit of the checks into the court’s registry pending a determination of to whom the money actually belonged—being consolidated into a single lawsuit. Finally, it culminated in a deposition scheduled for October 27 in Lake Charles.
Alas, it was not to be.
State attorney Chester Cedars abruptly called an end to the deposition only a few minutes into the proceedings, acknowledging he was doing so at his own peril.
On Monday, 19th Judicial District Judge Don Johnson of Baton Rouge came down hard on the attorney general’s office and we would be less than honest if we didn’t admit we are delighted (so much for any pretense of objectivity).
It was such a beautiful order, we’re reproducing some of the wording here:
“Judgment is hereby entered herein in favor of Joseph R. Palermo, Jr. and against Jeff Landry, in his official capacity as the Attorney General of Louisiana, in the amount of twenty-five thousand and no/100 dollars ($25,000.00) payable within 30 days from November 14, 2016.”
Here is the judgment in its entirety.
One courtroom observer speculated that Cedars would likely take writs to the Louisiana Supreme Court on the matter of the amount of the fine.
That’s unlikely, however, because of Cedars’s own admission at the time he suspended Bailey’s deposition.
It is part of the transcript of the deposition and Cedars tells opposing counsel Christopher Whittington, “…I do so at the defendant’s peril. I fully understand that if I’m incorrect in the assertions and the law as I understand it, or in the facts as I understand it, then we are going to have to pay the appropriate sanctions.”
WHITTINGTON: “Okay. And we will move for those sanctions pursuant to Article 1469.”
You have to wonder how that little on-the-record exchange and Judge Johnson’s ensuing fine are going to sit with Cedars’s boss, Attorney General Jeff Landry (Of course Landry has his own problems, having recently dodged service on a subpoena in the ongoing litigation with Gov. John Bel Edwards over the governor’s non-discriminatory executive order).
Now, if we can just find out what happened to those two checks after they arrived at State Police headquarters…
(Special thanks to Robert Burns for scurrying around and digging up valuable court documents for this story.)