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To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, there Jerry Larpenter goes again.

Larpenter, the controversial sheriff and apparent strong man of Terrebonne Parish, seems to make decisions on the fly, a-la Donald Trump, about what is and what is not illegal in his parish, established laws be damned. And make no mistake, he is convinced it’s his parish.

Larpenter’s most recent dust-up is over the provision of security in the parish courthouse—which he refuses to do despite laws on the books that clearly say that is part of his job.

The result of his refusal is that the Houma Police Department is now performing security at the Terrebonne Parish governmental building and parish courthouse—all with the blessings of Parish President/Environmental Watchdog Gordon Dove GORDON DOVE.

Dove, while serving in the State Legislature as Chairman, of all things, of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment, managed to get one of his companies, Vacco Marine, Inc., cited on several occasions by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), a feat almost impossible to accomplish in Louisiana. Another company, Dual Trucking, was cited by the Montana Department of Environmental Equality for dumping radioactive waste from the nearby Bakken Oilfield in neighboring North Dakota.

Rumor has it—and this is strictly the word on the street, which more often than not, has more than a grain of truth to it—that 32nd Judicial District Court Judge Randal Bethancourt wanted more security details assigned to the courthouse in beautiful downtown Houma.

This is the same Judge Bethancourt who, apparently without consulting a law book about probable cause or the First Amendment, signed off on a warrant that allowed the high sheriff to come calling on an Internet blogger sometime around dawn to seize computers, cellphones and other electronic equipment—for no other reason than he was pissed because the blogger said some uncomplimentary things about him and the political establishment of Terror-bonne Parish.

To read the LouisianaVoice story of the infamous Free Speech Raid, click HERE.

After a federal court ruled the raid and seizure of the electronic equipment unconstitutional, the blogger, Houma policeman Wayne Anderson and his wife filed suit against the sheriff who SETTLED out of court for an unknown but substantial sum.

Apparently, if the scuttlebutt is correct, Larpenter said no to the request for additional security and he and His Honor got into something akin to a minor verbal war that ended with Larpenter telling Bethancourt that it was the judge’s fault that he, Larpenter, had to lay out some major cash on the Andersons, forgetting, apparently, that it was he, not the good judge, who asked for the search warrant in the first place.

Larpenter must have also forgotten for the moment that he didn’t have to pay a dime of the judgement—or his attorney bills. Those were covered by his office’s liability insurance policy.

But hey, we already said Larpenter thinks and acts a lot like Trump so this is validation of that descriptive analysis.

And just as with the raid on the Andersons was unconstitutional, Larpenter’s refusal to provide courthouse security appears to be at loggerheads with what the law says his duties are.

State statutes leave little wiggle room when they say:

  • “Court criers are to be provided by the sheriff of each parish to each district judge.”
  • “The crier of a court (notice this is not restricted to Orleans) shall attend all sessions thereof, under the direction of the judge shall open and close court at each session, and maintain order and decorum in the court room, and shall perform such other duties as are assigned to him by law, the court, or the sheriff.” (emphasis added)
  • “Each sheriff or deputy shall attend every court that is held in his parish…”
  • “Security in the courthouse is the responsibility of governing authority (Gordon Dove), but an agreement may be made between the parish officers and the building to share the expenses.”
  • “The principal functions of the criminal sheriff are that of being keeper of parish jail and executive officer of the Criminal District Court.”

And then there is Opinion 12-0187 of the Louisiana Attorney General’s office dated Feb. 7, 2013 which says in part:

“…security provided in the courthouse is the responsibility of the parish governing authority under this statutory regime…” and that “…the governing body of the parish shall pay to the sheriff or his deputies attending upon the sessions of their respective courts of appeal and district courts…” Click HERE to read the full opinion:

Even the Texas Judicial Council addressed the issue in a 2016 REPORT on Court Security. Of course, policies in Texas and other states have no bearing on what Louisiana policy regarding courthouse/courtroom security. Still, it’s significant to note that the report says:

“The sheriff in each county is responsible for providing courthouse security.5 The municipal governing body is responsible for doing so in municipal court buildings. While the judiciary itself does not have responsibility or authority for providing court security, it is often in the position to advocate for appropriate security to ensure that individuals in the courts are not threatened as they seek access to justice. In addition, sheriffs and municipalities are not generally responsible for providing direct security to judges and court personnel when they are away from a courthouse, unless specific circumstances warrant such. Rather, it is judges and court personnel who are responsible for ensuring their own safety.”

All of which, of course, means exactly nothing to Larpenter. After all, he makes up his own laws and who are we—or judges, for that matter—to question that authority?

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The State of Louisiana shelled out almost a half-million dollars over a three-year period to a single law firm to defend two lawsuits against the former director of the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC)—both of which went against the state.

Records obtained from the Division of Administration reveal that both lawsuits, defended by Renee Culotta of the New Orleans law firm of Frilot, LLC, were settled in favor of the plaintiffs. The most recent of the two, filed by one current ATC and two former agents, all African-Americans, was settled for $250,000.

Prior to that, the case of another former agent, Lisa Pike, was also settled but the terms of that settlement were held confidential by the court.

ATC, under the leadership of former director Troy Hebert, was riddled with controversy and in the end, possible criminal wrongdoing, according to no less authority than Hebert himself. Hebert, at one point in the proceedings of yet a third pending CIVIL ACTION against him, filed a MEMORANDUM in Support of his Motion for Protective Order.

In the LAWSUIT filed by Charles Gilmore of Baton Rouge, Daimin McDowell of Bossier Parish, and Larry Hingle of Jefferson Parish, the case that was settled recently for $250,000, Frilot was paid $309,00 in attorney fees–$150,000 more than the final settlement.

Another $186,400 was spent by the State in defense of the Lisa Pike matter.

PAYMENTS TO FRILOT

And while the terms of that settlement are not known, it might seem prudent for the State to consider cutting its losses in all litigation pertaining to Hebert’s stormy tenure as Bobby Jindal’s boy at ATC.

For that matter, how far must a given case proceed for the defendant—in this case, the State—to realize it is defending the indefensible? At what point should the decision to walk away be made before wasting more taxpayer dollars?

Hebert’s deposition, taken in December 2016 in which he refused to answer questions on the grounds that it might leave him exposed to criminal prosecution should have been the signal to the State to throw in the towel and settle. What better justification could there be to settle? Why keep the meter running? That, nonetheless, is precisely what the State elected to do.

Throwing good money after bad has just always seemed like a bad proposition in any endeavor and these cases are no exception.

 

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Only in Louisiana.

A lawsuit filed in 23rd Judicial District Court in Ascension Parish challenging the legality of the proposed approval of $450 million in industrial tax exemptions raises two immediate questions:

  • What are Projects Magnolia, Zinnia, Bagel and Sunflower/Sunflower Seed?
  • Why is the Ascension Parish Council being so secretive about the true identities?
  • Why did the Ascension Parish Council’s Finance Committee not follow the law in considering the proposed tax exemptions?
  • Most important of all, what is the Ascension Parish Council trying to hide?

These are all questions to which plaintiffs Dr. Henrynne Louden, George Armstrong and Lana Williams are seeking answers in their petition filed last Friday.

On Sept. 12, the council’s Finance Committee, which in truth is comprised of all 11 council members, met and added to its agenda for the full council meeting of Sept. 21 Item 7, calling for the consideration of “resolutions to award industrial tax exemption at levels recommended by the Ascension Economic Development board for the following projects:

  • Project Magnolia;
  • Project Zinnia;
  • Project Bagel;
  • Project Sunflower/Sunflower Seed.

Altogether, the four projects would cost Ascension Parish $55.6 million—for a grand total of 32 new jobs, or $1.7 million per job.

To see the lawsuit in its entirety, click HERE.

Ascension_code_names.PNG

“The identity of the projects on the agenda for the meeting of the council held on September 21, 2017, are fictitious,” the lawsuit says, adding that neither the plaintiffs “nor any other member of the public could determine, from a review of the consent agenda:

  • The identity of the company (or companies) seeking the benefit of an industrial tax exemption;
  • The amount of the exemption sought for each project;
  • The cost of granting each of the exemptions;
  • Whether any of the projects comply with requirements of the Louisiana State Constitution, or
  • Whether any of the projects comply with requirements of Executive Order Number JBE 2016-73.

“There are two things at issue in this suit,” said a spokesperson for an organization calling itself Together Louisiana: “Whether public subsidies can be approved by a public body without disclosing the identity of the entity receiving the subsidies, and whether reasonably specific public notices must be provided regarding approval of such subsidies.”

Article 7, Section 21(F) of the Louisiana State Constitution of 1974 spells out the requirements for approval of the ad valorem tax exemptions for new manufacturing facilities.

“After being elected,” the lawsuit says, Gov. John Bel Edwards determined that the Board of Commerce and Industry “…had approved industrial tax exemptions contracts ultimately resulting in an average of $1.4 billion in foregone ad valorem tax revenue each year for the next five years for parishes, municipalities, school districts and other political subdivisions of the state that directly provide law enforcement, water and sewage, infrastructure, and educational opportunities to Louisiana citizens.”

On Oct. 21, 2016, Gov. Edwards issued Executive Order Number JBE 2016-73 entitled “Amended and Restated Conditions for Participation in the Industrial Tax Exemption.”

The executive order requires that the governor and Board of Commerce and Industry be provided with a resolution adopted by, among others, “the relevant governing parish council, signifying, “whether it is in favor of the project,” the lawsuit says.

The executive order further says that contracts for industrial tax exemptions which do not include a resolution by the relevant local governing authority “will not be approved by the governor.”

The agenda for the Sept. 12 Finance Committee meeting, the plaintiffs say in their petition, “failed to indicate that (it) would be considering whether or not to approve a resolution signifying that the council was in favor of one or more industrial tax exemption.” Despite failing to include the item on its agenda, the Finance Committee did, in fact, recommend approval by the council of such a resolution, placing the committee, the lawsuit says, in violation of the state’s open meeting laws.

“Not only are meetings of the public bodies to be open,” the lawsuit says, (but) “citizens have the right to know—in advance—the subject matter upon which governing bodies will deliberate and vote.”

The state’s open meeting laws require posting written notices of the agenda of all meetings “no later than 24 hours, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays, before the meeting” and “shall include the agenda, date, time, and place of the meeting.”

The committee’s violation of the open meeting laws, the plaintiff say, deprived the public of the right to:

  • Know what was being considered by the Finance Committee;
  • Directly participate in the deliberations of the Finance Committee;
  • Protect themselves from secret decisions made without any opportunity for public input.

The lawsuit is asking the court to declare actions of both the Finance Committee and the full council void as provided by law.

The plaintiffs and their attorneys, Brian Blackwell and Charles Patin of Baton Rouge are, in all probability, correct in their interpretation of the state’s open meeting laws (Article XIL, Section 3 of the 1974 Louisiana State Constitution and Louisiana Revised Statute 42:19).

But this is Louisiana and it has been the experience of LouisianaVoice and other members of the media that the law is whatever some judge says it is. Judges apparently have wide discretion in concocting their own interpretations of the law to accommodate whomever the judges wish to accommodate—usually campaign donors.

The three plaintiffs in this case have the full moral support of LouisianaVoice but the reality is there is usually negligible correlation between law and justice once you walk through those courtroom doors.

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As recently as 2015, Lockheed Martin LOCKHEED MARTIN, with $36.2 billion in contracts, was the single largest Pentagon contractor, more than double Boeing’s $16.6 billion.

There is little reason to believe that those numbers have changed significantly in the last two years.

With three large cost-plus contracts for testing and maintenance support services, Lockheed Martin has a commanding presence at NASA’s primary rocket propulsion facility at the STENNIS Space Center just over the Louisiana state line in Mississippi.

But as history has shown (remember the $600 toilet seats and the $100 screwdrivers?), the potential for ABUSE with such large contracts that seem to carry little apparent oversight, is overwhelming.

Now two Louisiana residents, one former Lockheed employee and the other a former contract employee for Lockheed, are bringing suit in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans under the federal FALSE CLAIMS ACT.

The two, Mark Javery of St. Tammany Parish and Brian DeJan of New Orleans, claim that they were first given no duties and then fired from their jobs after reporting cost overruns and safety and performance issues.

They are represented by Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur Smith, III.

DeJan was a project engineer for a Lockheed subcontractor, Camgian Microsystems, Inc. He was supervised by Javery, who was an infrastructure operations manager for Lockheed. As part of their respective jobs, they were to monitor preventive maintenance metrics and to report the results of their findings to NASA employee Reginald “Chip” Ellis, Deputy Program Inspector for the Rocket Propulsion Test Program.

In April 2014, DeJan and Javery began investigating “unexplained cost overruns and performance issues with the maintenance of test facilities.”

Their lawsuit says that during their investigation, they received “credible information that maintenance and charges related to NASA’s agreement with Space Exploitation Technology were being charged “inappropriately” to the Test Operations Contract for which Lockheed was the prime contractor.

They reported their findings on April 22, 2014, to Ellis and to their immediate supervisor, Terrance Burrell.

On April 28, Lockheed Martin suspended Javery during “pendency of an informal investigation and disciplinary process,” and on April 29, Lockheed requested that Camgian remove DeJan from the Test Operations Contract “until further notice,” which Camgian did.

On May 20, Lockheed terminated Javery’s employment and requested that Camgian “remove DeJan from the Lockheed Martin contract.” Camgian terminated DeJan on May 21.

The two claim that their actions were protected under the False Claims Act, enacted in 1863 over concerns that suppliers contracted to supply the Union Army with goods were defrauding the Army.

Javery and DeJan are seeking reinstatement, double their back pay, compensation for any special damages and attorney and legal fees.

Lockheed, like most defense contractors, has a history of overcharges and the occasional penalty. In 2011, it settled a whistleblower LAWSUIT for $2 million in another False Claims Act at the Stennis Space Center.

“Companies that do business with the federal government and get paid by the taxpayers must act fairly and comply with the law,” said Tony West, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “Whistleblowers have helped us to enforce the law by bringing to light schemes that misuse taxpayer dollars and abuse the public trust by undermining the integrity of the procurement process.”

West, of course, was describing life in a perfect world. In the real world, things are quite different and the “schemes that misuse taxpayer dollars and abuse the public trust” are rarely reported and even more infrequently punished.

The occasional fine is a mere fraction of illicit profits gained through overbilling and outright fraud.

That’s because no one seems to be watching and because members of Congress passionately protect the contractors domiciled in their districts.

And that’s why contractors continue to belly up to the public trough.

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More details from the Jeff Mercer case against the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) keep surfacing and each new revelation casts a long shadow over DOTD and the state judiciary, particularly in the second Circuit Court of Appeal.

And if that isn’t enough to shake your faith in the judicial system, the reputation of the 18th Judicial District across the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge ain’t looking too good, either.

LouisianaVoice has obtained a document addressing Mangham subcontractor Jeff Mercer’s claim that clear shows that DOTD and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) were in agreement on the AMOUNT DOTD ADMITTED OWING MERCER. In an email dated June 6, 2016, DOTD Executive Counsel Cheryl Duvieilh wrote to FHWA official Joshua Cunningham that Mercer was entitled to payment of $363,075, plus judicial interest of $42,358.91 for a total of $405,433.91.

That money, a fraction of the $10 million Mercer said he was owed but which was being withheld after he refused demands from DOTD supervisors to kick back money and equipment to him in exchange for approval of his work, still has not been paid.

Instead, DOTD told Mercer and his attorney the money would held “hostage” until everything was settled, knowing that even a partial settlement would be an admission that all of Mercer’s claims were valid.

A separate document obtained by LouisianaVoice also shows that prime contractor AUSTIN BRIDGE, through whom Mercer’s company was contracted as a subcontractor, was owed $9,081,695.30 to resolve its contract claims in a pending mediation session.

That document, from John M. Dubreuil and Ryan M. Bourgeois and addressed to Richard Savoie, was dated Oct. 2, 2013, said, “Accept this memorandum as a final request to participate in the scheduled mediation with a maximum settlement authority of $9.1 million. It was signed off on by Savoie and three FHWA officials.

While other documents were requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the state’s Public Records statutes, as well as through official discovery in part of the civil process of litigation over the payments, those were the only two documents DOTD provided. Agency attorneys refused to release all other documents relative to claims by Mercer or Austin Bridge.

Because settlement negotiations are not admitted into testimony, the jury hearing Mercer’s lawsuit against DOTD was never apprised of DOTD’s in-house admission that it owed the money to Mercer. Despite not hearing this information, the 12-person jury unanimously awarded Mercer $20 million after hearing the sordid details of attempts of extortion, bribery and strong-arming.

DOTD appealed and Second Circuit Chief Judge Henry N. Brown, whose father was a DOTD civil engineer for 44 years, assigned the case to himself and wrote the opinion overturning the jury’s award.

It would be one thing if this was an isolated incident. Sadly, though, it is not. While the vast majority of judges carry on their duties quietly and without fanfare in their genuine efforts to dispense justice equitably, there are always those who will attempt to exploit their positions. They will either attempt financial gain or exercise power and to gain prestige from the bench—or all three.

  • New Orleans Federal Judge G. Thomas Porteous was removed from the bench in 2010 by the U.S. Senate after being IMPEACHED.
  • Judges in the 4th Judicial District (Ouachita and Morehouse parishes) filed SUIT against Ouachita Citizen Publisher Sam Hanna, Jr., two years ago in an effort to thwart efforts by the newspaper to obtain public records.
  • Judges Ronald Bodenheimer and Alan Green went to jail and a third judge, Joan Benge, was kicked out of office by the Louisiana Supreme Court. All three were caught up in the FBI’s nine-year investigation dubbed OPERATION WRINKLED ROBE.
  • Judge Wayne Cresap, 34th JDC Judge for St. Bernard Parish, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2010 for accepting $70,000 in bribes.

The latest is one Robin Free, formerly of the 18th JDC, which includes the parishes of Iberville, West Baton Rouge, and Pointe Coupee.

Slated to return to the bench after a one-year suspension by the State Supreme Court, Free suddenly RESIGNED on Friday (June 23) following reports he had been HARASSING West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s deputies over their issuing speeding tickets on U.S. 190.

He was near the end of his year’s suspension for failing to maintain the integrity of his position and for exhibiting behavior described as “injudicious, lacking judicial temperament and giving an appearance of impropriety.”

One of the reasons for his suspension was his acceptance of a FREE TRIP from an attorney who had won a big judgment in Free’s court.

Click HERE for the full text of the June 29, 2016, Louisiana Supreme Court’s Judiciary Commission report.

Even during his suspension (without pay), he still managed to stay on the public payroll when Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso HIRED him as supervisor of Iberville Parish’s Department of General Services (whatever that is) at $75,000 per year. Ourso said Free was hired to update the parish’s personnel manual and to assist in drafting the parish’s 2017 fiscal year budget.

Free has clearly demonstrated that he is unfit to be entrusted with handing decisions that impact the lives of others. Perhaps he is qualified to work in an administrative position, but we doubt it. He exhibits far too much narcissism to be placed in any position of trust.

He is merely a symptom of the bigger problem of the public’s becoming increasingly wary and distrustful of the judicial system. The Billy Broussard and Jeff Mercer cases only serve to underscore the validity of that distrust.

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