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Archive for the ‘Corruption’ Category

There’s an old saying from back in the days of my long-lost youth that sometimes you have to hit a mule in the head with a two-by-four to get his attention,

And before I start getting bombarded by animal rights activists, I’m not advocating hitting mules or any other animal with anything.

And I’m not calling the good folks at WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge mules. But a $2.5 million preliminary default judgment levied against the station and its investigative reporter after the station failed to answer a defamation LAWSUIT against it and reporter Chris Nakamoto was the club that got the station’s attorneys’ attention.

The two-page JUDGMENT, signed in chambers by 21st Judicial District Court Judge Doug Hughes of Denham Springs, isn’t likely to stand for a number or reasons put forth by station attorney Stephen Babcock of Baton Rouge.

But the main point to be taken from this litigation is that it may well be the first volley fired across the bow of Baton Rouge media as part of a growing trend toward the filing of the so-called SLAPP lawsuits.

SLAPP is the acronym for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation and that’s precisely what it means: lawsuits filed not to win a judgment, but to discourage legitimate questions about official misconduct lest citizens asking the questions—or in this instance, the reporter and his news medium—be forced to shell out tens of thousands of dollars defending themselves.

In this case, WBRZ, as opposed to an ordinary citizen like Welsh City Alderman JACOB COLBY PERRY, has legal liability insurance and can well afford to defend itself. Still, such lawsuits call a station’s and reporter’s integrity and credibility into question and can conceivably injure the reporter’s career opportunities.

An editor in my professional past once told me, “If you haven’t been sued, you aren’t doing your job.” Well, that’s a form of validation I can live without. It’s not unlike being pecked to death by a duck.

I’ll leave it to WBRZ, Nakamoto and their legal team to explain why they never bothered to answer the lawsuit filed by Livingston attorney Wyman Bankston on behalf of State Police Lt. Robert Burns of Livingston Parish—if they care to put forth an explanation. But I will say from my layman’s viewpoint, it’s unwise to ignore litigation. People are trying to get into your pocket and it’s prudent that you defend yourself.

In this case, Nakamoto had done a perfectly legitimate STORY, which it based in its entirety on public records obtained from LSP, on the 64-hour suspension imposed on Burns by Louisiana State Police (LSP) following an Internal Affairs investigation into his conducting 52 illegal computer searches on his ex-wife, her finance and a former boyfriend over a period of almost three years—from November 2013 to October 2016.

Burns, in his defense—which LSP investigators, by the way, didn’t buy—said that in 46 of those occasions, he was conducting a search of his own license plate and that the “spin-off” searches of his wife were a result of “unintended inquiries generated by an automated system.”

That explanation, however, does not explain the two searches on his former wife’s current finance and the four searches on her ex-boyfriend. Those searches, besides vehicle and driver’s license records, also included computerized criminal histories on the two men. You can’t explain that away by saying you were doing a search on your own license number.

Nor does it explain why he subsequently disseminated some of the information he had found (according to WBRZ’s belated response) or why he texted his ex-wife to request that she not report his actions because he “could get fired for doing so.”

Why could he have been fired? Because the searches were “for non-law enforcement purposes, in violation of (LSP) department policy and federal law,” according to a letter from LSP notifying him of an impending suspension.

When neither WBRZ, Nakamoto, nor their legal counsel filed an answer to the lawsuit and when they failed to appear in court on Sept. 28, and without the plaintiff’s submitting any evidence of his claims that Nakamoto had not read the entire LSP report as Burns claimed in his petition, Judge Hughes—in chambers—ruled that the station and Nakamoto were at fault and awarded $1.5 million to Burns and $1 million to his wife, Hilary Burns.

That got WBRZ’s attorney’s rear in gear. On Oct. 12, Babcock filed a 19-page (10 pages longer than Burn’s original petition) MEMORANDUM in support of a motion for a new trial.

In that motion, the station’s attorney argued that a default judgment can be handed down only if the plaintiff presents “competent evidence that convinces the court that it is probable that he would prevail on a trial on the merits” and that he “must prove each element of his claim as fully as if each of the allegations of the petition had been specifically denied by the defendant.”

“Plaintiff is required to adhere to the rules of evidence despite there being no opponent to urge objections,” Babcock wrote in his motion, and that the “trial judge should be vigilant to assure that the judgment rests on admissible evidence.”

Babcock cited a decision by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in which the court said:

  • Judges, acting with the benefit of hindsight, must resist the temptation to edit journalists aggressively. Reporters must have some freedom to respond to journalistic exigencies without fear that even a slight, and understandable, mistake will subject them to liability. Exuberant judicial blue-penciling after-the-fact would blunt the quills of even the most honorable journalists.

On Monday, Judge Hughes signed a one-page ORDER setting 9 a.m. Monday, Dec. 11, as the time and date that Burns must show cause why a new trial should not be granted.

Burns would probably be wise not to buy that beachfront property in Gulf Shores just yet.

And WBRZ, you just got scooped on your own story.

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Lest Attorney General Jeff Landry mistakenly believe that LouisianaVoice is going to drop the matter of his office’s foot-dragging in the investigation of the rape of that 17-year-old girl in the Union Parish jail back in April 2016, let this be a reminder that he is sadly mistaken.

https://louisianavoice.com/2017/09/07/17-year-old-girl-raped-in-union-parish-jail-cell-files-lawsuit-meanwhile-ag-still-hasnt-completed-probe-after-17-months/

Yesterday, (Tuesday, Oct. 17) I sent the following public records request to the Attorney General’s office:

  • Please provide me with any documents or reports pertaining to the status of the attorney general’s investigation of the rape of the 17-year-old girl in the Union Parish jail cell last April. That’s the investigation 3rd JDC District Attorney John Belton asked the attorney general’s office to investigate because of a conflict of interests.

Today, I received the following response from Luke Donovan, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Division:

  • Your request has been assigned the tracking number 17-0159.  Our office is in the process of determining what, if any, records are subject to this request and, if so, whether any privileges or exemptions apply. This may take some time. You will be notified within 30 days whether records have been located that are responsive and approximately when they will be ready for review.

First of all, I don’t know the response came from the Civil Division when this is clearly a criminal matter.

But, just to cover my bases, I also sent a second inquiry at the same time, this one to Ruth Wisher of the Attorney General’s press office. Rather than putting it in the form of a public records request, I simply made it a straightforward question:

  • Could you provide me with a status update on the investigation of the rape of the 17-year-old girl in the Union Parish jail cell?

Today, I received a five-word response from Ms. Wisher:

From: AG Landry News [mailto:aglandrynews@ag.louisiana.gov]
Sent: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 1:49 PM
To: Tom Aswell
Subject: Re: QUESTION

This matter is under investigation.

Thanks!

Ruth

To be clear, none of this bureaucratic shuffle is the fault of Ms. Wisher or Luke Donovan. God knows, they have an impossible task of trying to get the rest of us to take their boss, this clown Jeff Landry seriously.

But in the year-and-a-half since this young lady was raped—not once, but twice—by an inmate already convicted of aggravated rape and awaiting sentencing who was allowed into her cell, I have seen the most egregious example of an overall lack of interest by the one person who should be on a white charging steed to wrap this investigation up and to deliver some semblance of justice for this heinous act.

Granted, the girl was brought into the jail because she was on meth. An innocent saint? No, but how many of us are? Who among us has nothing in our past that we wish we could change. I believe the passage goes something like this: Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone.

So, granting that she was not the typical young lady you’d see in the church choir, she was still someone’s daughter, maybe soiled and hardened, but still someone’s little girl.

And to be denied justice while the attorney general grandstands on all sorts of other high-profile issues in an orchestrated effort to enhance his political career so that he can run for governor is reprehensible, disgusting, and unpardonable.

I am on Landry’s email list for his politically-crafted news releases and I have gathered a few of them and listed them below in no particular order. Following each one, I have included my personal observations in italics:

Oct. 18, 2017:

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry is once again offering his office’s assistance to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in an effort to protect critical federal funding for the City from the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ).

“My office stands ready and available to work with your legal counsel in drafting a policy that conforms to federal law and ensures continued financial support by the USDOJ,” wrote General Landry in a letter today to Landrieu. “The safety of citizens who live, work, and visit New Orleans is too important to ignore.”

Landry jumped onto this issue like a monkey on a cupcake (to quote Ray Baronne in an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond) for no other reason than it’s an issue being advanced by Trump, his favorite POTUS (I’ll leave it to the readers to determine whether that’s Trump’s favorite POTUS of Landry’s). Apparently, the safety of teenage citizens exposed to rapists in jail cells in Union Parish are not so important and can be ignored.

Oct. 16, 2017:

Attorney General Jeff Landry today announced the arrests of three New Orleans women as a result of an investigation exposing over $2 million in Medicaid Fraud.

“We have continued to see Medicaid welfare fraud increase as a result of the Governor’s expansion,” said General Landry.

Wait. What? We’ve had Medicaid fraud since Moby Dick was a guppy and he’s going to lay it off on Gov. Edwards? If Landry puts his mind to it, he can probably say gun violence, North Korea and climate change are “a result of the Governor’s (Medicaid) expansion.” That’s how grandstanding buffoons like Landry and his favorite POTUS think.

 

Oct. 10, 2017:

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry is urging parents, guardians, and consumers to be mindful of several child products that have been recently recalled.

“My office and I are committed to doing all that we legally can to make Louisiana a safer place for families,” said General Landry.

If he’s “committed” in the same way that he’s “committed” to investigating the rape of a 17-year-old in a small jail cell where the victim, the assailant, the time, and the assailant all are knowns, then parents, you’re on your own here.

 

Oct. 10, 2017:

Attorney General Jeff Landry is praising EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision today to repeal the Clean Power Plan, an Obama overreach that would have devastated Louisiana’s power plants and energy consumers.

“On behalf of Louisiana workers, job creators, and consumers – I commend Administrator Pruitt and the Trump Administration for repealing this unconstitutional, job-killing regulation,” said General Landry. “The so-called Clean Power Plan was always a political attempt to force states into green energy submission.”

Yep, his favorite POTUS. If Trump or one of his lap dogs does it, you can expect these kinds of news releases to keep flowing non-stop from Landry’s office.

 

Oct. 6, 2017:

BATON ROUGE, LA – Attorney General Jeff Landry will host a fair housing workshop in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, October 10, 2017. General Landry’s Equal Housing Opportunity Section will give an overview of the Fair Housing Act and address some of the most common misconceptions and violations under the law.

“My office is committed to educating the public on their housing rights,” said General Landry. “State law prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap; and we will continue working hard to ensure Louisiana’s people are treated fairly when it comes to buying or renting homes.”

…And if Trump should ever go public with his intense contempt for the Fair Housing Act (he was prosecuted for violations of the act as a private citizen/landlord), you can expect Landry to do a 180 so quickly that you’ll feel the breeze from his about-face.

 

Oct. 12, 2017:

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has arrested a Covington man on charges of child pornography, and he is asking the public for their assistance and information on the alleged perpetrator.

“Today’s arrest is another step forward in making our communities safer,” said General Landry. “However, our work is not done. I am asking anyone with information or concerns about Victor Loraso to please contact my Cyber Crime Unit.”

Obtaining assistance from the public is most likely the only way Landry will ever successfully conclude any investigation, this one included. 

 

Oct. 17, 2017:

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry today announced additional criminal charges have been brought against Michael Wayne Tipton of Alexandria.

“It is a disturbing trend that those who view and distribute child pornography often are also hands-on offenders,” said General Landry. “My office will not rest in our efforts to arrest child predators and help rescue their victims.”

That last sentence is laden with irony and not one damned bit inspiring. Eighteen months after the jailhouse rape of a juvenile, and the investigation is still not complete? Are you kidding me?

 

Oct. 6, 2017:

BATON ROUGE, LA – Attorney General Jeff Landry’s Cyber Crime Unit has arrested three south Louisiana men on multiple charges of child exploitation, including molestation of a juvenile.

“The victimization of children should infuriate all of us and shake us to the core,” said General Landry.

Same comment as above.

This state and nation have seen its share of ambitious, self-serving, egotistical, megalomaniacs elected to office. Not a one of them qualifies as a true public servant in the sense of consigning his own financial and political career to a role that is secondary to the public good.

Jeff Landry, you are one of those and all the glowing news releases that you can gin out proclaiming your dedication to and concern for the people of Louisiana are just empty words. Every time you ring your bell of justice, we hear a dull, hollow clank.

To prove I’m wrong, Mr. Attorney General, get up off your ass and do the job you were asked to do in this matter. Bring this girl some justice.

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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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It took an article in Everybody’s magazine by writer Charles Edward Russell to embarrass the state of Georgia into enacting reforms to the state’s inmate work release program. Following a special legislative session called to address that specific problem, the governor signed into law a compromise bill which, while restructuring the program, still assigned certain inmates to work release programs administered by private contractors for up to one year.

All Russell did was to follow the trail of a single inmate from his conviction for the theft of $300 from his employer, to his sentence of four years’ jail time to his selection for work release under the supervision of a private firm that would be responsible for his housing, his feeding, his rehabilitation, and his work assignment.

The food was of low quality, often inedible. No education programs or practical job training were offered him or the other inmates, medical care was unheard of, and recidivism was off the charts.

His every movement was made under the watchful eye of the armed guards and any prisoner who made a mistake or who did not meet his work quota paid a price.

It was a great arrangement for everyone but the prisoners. True, they broke the law and society says one must be punished for transgressions against it. No one argues that point. But as more and more prisoners were shuttled off on the private concerns, the state had fewer and fewer prisoners to care for, to feed, to educate, or to provide medical car for.

The private concerns, meanwhile were reaping huge profits through what had become a form of legalized slavery and everyone was happy but those upon whose backs the profits were being realized.

And when Russell wrote his story, it was only natural that the Georgia legislature and the governor went just a little ballistic. “Georgia didn’t waste any time finding fault with us for calling attention to the spot on her pretty gown,” said the magazine in an editorial afterwards. “All we did was criticize.”

Typically, however, when the light is focused on widespread and ingrained abuses, it is the abuser who squeals the loudest, professing to have been grievously wronged by what one prominent politico likes to call “fake news.”

But it’s not fake news. Not now and not in 1908 when Russell actually wrote his story for the long-defunct Everybody’s magazine. His story was reprinted in The Muckrakers: Journalism that Changed America, a BOOK comprising a compilation of investigative newspaper stories edited by Judith and William Serrin.

The practice described by Russell more than a century ago, lives on. It has been tweaked, adjusted, and fine-tuned but remains basically the same and today is making a lot of people wealthy. It was called convict leasing then. Today, it’s called by a much more benign name: transitional work program. It is better known as work release.

CONVICT LEASING actually predates the Civil War in Louisiana. It was legalized slavery then and not much better today. Its popularity mushroomed following the Civil War and the loss of slave labor as southern politicians saw it as a natural alternative to the real thing. It was no coincidence that the vast majority of “leased” convicts were African-Americans.

Private concerns profiteered off prisoners and they still do, even if in methods that are a little subtler. And just as it was when Russell wrote his story, the practice is sanctioned, encouraged even, by the political establishment.

And just to make sure the skids continued to be greased, lawmakers from the halls of Congress to state legislatures annually pile on more and more bills calling for stricter and stricter sentences for even non-violent offenders, thus ensuring the beds in those privately-run prisons and sheriff-run parish jails will stay full. This in turn guarantees that the payments from the feds and the state will keep rolling in and those prisoners can be farmed out to private companies.

In reality, it is a system that feeds on itself.

Convict leasing, simply defined, is a method of control and distribution of convict labor practiced mainly in the southern states, including Louisiana. Contractors would pay the state a bargain basement price to take control of a given number of prisoners. Some of these private concerns, desperate for labor, included planters and manufacturers. Some contractors used the convict labor in their businesses while others were nothing more than labor brokers, or middle men, who sublet the prisoners to other concerns.

Unlike other southern states, convict leasing in Louisiana continued almost non-stop from 1844 to 1901.

It wasn’t until 1892 that efforts began in earnest to abolish the practice. Gov. Murphy J. Foster (does that name sound familiar?) supported those opposed to the leasing practice. The Louisiana Constitution of 1898, passed during his administration, abolished both convict leasing and the Louisiana lottery, which had become a notorious source of corruption. The last lease for convict labor expired in 1901 and the state took over operations of what is now the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

In Georgia, the practice continued until it was OUTLAWED by the legislature in 1908, the same year Russell wrote his story for Everybody’s magazine.

Exactly what is to be gained from work release?

Well, of course those who run the programs are quick to point out that prisoners are learning a trade.

That’s strictly a subjective evaluation at best. Swabbing the floors of a chicken processing plant isn’t very appealing as a career choice for most people, even prisoners.

Maya Lau wrote an excellent STORY for The Shreveport Times about one work release inmate in the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Department’s work release program prior to moving to the Baton Rouge Advocate. Lau, now with the Los Angeles Times, reported that the inmate was paid $7.75 an hour, barely more than minimum wage. Of that amount, the sheriff’s office claimed up to 62 percent right off the top. Multiply that by the number of total hours all prisoners in the program work in fiscal year 2011-12, the latest year data were available for Lau’s Jan. 7, 2015, story and you come up with a cool $500,000 added to the Caddo Sheriff’s Department’s general fund.

That was in addition to the $25 per day the sheriff’s office was paid for housing state inmates and $47 per day per prisoner paid by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for federal inmates, most of whom have committed no greater crime than being illegal aliens.

Moreover, there are those commissaries operated by the private prisons that reach deeper into inmates’ pockets. With literally a captive clientele, private prisons were able to charge $4 for a Honey Bun and $5 for a cold drink. That’s according to Baton Rouge Public Radio reporter Sue Lincoln, who did an outstanding series on THE PRICE of JUSTICE earlier this year. It’s no wonder, then, that Correct Commissary, LLC, of Ruston approached the Lincoln Parish Police Jury several months ago about constructing a 50,000-square-foot commissary warehouse on the site of the former Ruston Municipal Airport. The company packages snack boxes that it sells to prison inmates, according to An April 2, 2017 article in the Ruston Daily Leader.

After 11 weeks, the prisoner about whom Lau wrote, took home a grand total of $416, or about $37.82 per week.

And what about businesses who employ work release inmates?

Well, besides the low wages, there is the obvious benefit of not having to pay for medical insurance or contribute to retirement funds—or to pay each such employee two weeks’ vacation pay each year. One could make the case that using this cheap prison labor could be knocking non-inmates out of jobs.

But that’s not the only consideration. For every work release inmate employed, the state gives the employer a whopping $2,400 tax credit. That’s not a tax deduction, but a full-blown tax credit, meaning that amount is lopped right off the top of the company’s tax bill. So, a company like the Foster Farms chicken processing plant in Farmerville in Union Parish, which uses up to 200 inmates from work release, gets an instant reduction of up to $480,000 off its state tax bill.

A 2016 AUDIT by the Legislative Auditor’s Office revealed that there were 8,700 prisoners in work release programs across the state. That computes to nearly $21 million in tax credits—and that’s in addition to the $80 million or so the state pays private and parish prisons for housing inmates.

And while the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 may have abolished plantation slavery, it may have unwittingly opened the door to another form of slavery that while flying below the radar, nevertheless remains legal more than a century-and-a-half later, enriching the modern slaveowner, aka private and parish prisons.

So, it is understandable perhaps that Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator was so FURIOUS at the new Louisiana sentencing and parole laws that go into effect on Nov. 1. The new law will mean the release of about 1400 non-violent offenders. He will, he says, lose some of his best CAR WASHING prisoners.

 

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Do State Fire Marshal Butch Browning and his top deputies, including Chief Deputy Brant Thompson and others, prevail upon French Quarter hotel management to comp them and their entourage rooms when they frequent New Orleans’ night life—as often as “several times a year?”

Browning and Thompson, through a State Fire Marshal spokesperson, say no.

But three independent sources say otherwise and moreover, there are times the free hotel rooms aren’t restricted to the French Quarter. Sometimes, they are in such places as New Orleans suburb Metairie in Jefferson Parish.

And the free rooms often have little or nothing to do with official state business—like, for example, free rooms for the softball recruiters of one deputy fire marshal’s daughter and softball tournament promoters, at the deputy fire marshal’s request.

Employees of two French Quarter hotels have come forward to say that Browning, Thompson, and others come to New Orleans during Mardi Gras “and several other times” each year and their rooms are comped at either of two separate hotels that LouisianaVoice was able to identify through sources who work at the two facilities.

LouisianaVoice is not identifying either the employees or the hotels that employ them because they fear for their jobs but both say it is common practice for the hotels to provide free rooms to fire marshal employees, “their wives and/or their girlfriends.”

Louisiana State Ethics RULES have specific guidelines, rigidly enforced against rank and file civil servants but rarely, if ever, against elected or appointed personnel, which prohibit the acceptance of anything of value as a gift. Some examples, taken verbatim from Ethics Commission rules, of prohibitions:

  • No PUBLIC SERVANT shall receive any thing of economic value, other than the compensation and benefits to which he is entitled from his governmental employer, for the performance of the duties and responsibilities of his office or position.
  • No PUBLIC EMPLOYEE shall solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, anything of economic value as a gift or gratuity from any person who conducts operations or activities which are regulated by the public employee’s agency.
  • No PUBLIC EMPLOYEE shall solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, anything of economic value as a gift or gratuity from a person who has substantial economic interests which may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the public employee’s official job duty(ies).
  • No PUBLIC SERVANT or OTHER PERSON shall give, pay, loan, transfer, or deliver or offer to give, pay, loan, transfer, or deliver, directly or indirectly, to any public servant or other person anything of economic value which such public servant or other person would be prohibited from receiving by any provision of the Ethics Code.
  • Persons who give prohibited gifts to public servants violate §1117 of the Code and are subject to the enforcement proceedings and penalties for their violation.

Hotels fall under the regulatory umbrella of the State Fire Marshal’s Office by virtue of their having to undergo fire safety and fire code inspections by the office. Free rooms given the fire marshal and his deputies could conceivably be interpreted as some sort of quid pro quo whereby deputy fire marshals might be inclined to look the other way when encountering fire code violations.

quid pro quo

kwid ˌprō ˈkwō/

noun

  • a favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something.
  • something given or received for something else; a deal arranging a quid pro quo.

One hotel employee said he was not personally aware of any such arrangement but added that would be out of his area of work at the hotel. “I wouldn’t know about that,” he said. In addition to the claims of comped rooms for Browning and his deputies, a hotel bartender in the French Quarter has also come forward to claim that he witnessed two fire marshal supervisors drinking alcoholic beverages while on call during the recent Hurricane Nate response. Fire Marshal personnel are paid while on call.

“(Fire Marshal Captain Bobby) Pellegrin and (Senior Deputy Fire Marshal Trevor) Santos have also used their fire marshal status to coerce hotel owners into free hotel stays in the French Quarter and Metairie,” one source said, adding, “Pellegrin used connections to strongarm hotel owners to give him free rooms for his daughter’s softball recruiters and promoters.”

A hotel employee at a second French Quarter hotel said he had worked at the hotel for “a number of years,” and fire marshal personnel have stayed there “many times.” He said it generally is Lt. Santos, who works in New Orleans, who books the rooms and that he always said at the time of booking the reservations that it was “important” that the rooms be “taken care of.”

Asked if wives and girlfriends also stay at the hotel free of charge, the employee said, “Oh, yes. Wives, girlfriends and other female guests.”

He said former Superintendent of State Police Mike Edmonson and some of his top aides were also the frequent recipients of comped rooms at the hotel.

LouisianaVoice emailed Santos, Pellegrin, Thompson and Browning to give them an opportunity to address the claims and while receipts were received from all but Browning that indicated that that had opened the email, none of the four responded.

The only response was through a spokesperson who issued a blanket denial. While pointing out that fire marshal personnel do patrol the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, she did not say why they were armed, since deputy fire marshals are not police officers and have no duties other than fire prevention and the investigation of fires. “That’s another issue,” she said.

While the representative stated emphatically that the complimentary rooms “did not happen,” she gave nothing to substantiate the denial other than to say, “People can say anything but that doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Exactly.

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