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Archive for the ‘Courts’ Category

It’s been a busy last couple of weeks, to say the least:

  • Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards was forced into a runoff with millionaire businessman Eddie Rispone who had never run for office before and who offered no specific solutions to Louisiana’s problems other than to say he was going to “fix it,” a-la the late Ross Perot and that he would lower taxes a-la Bobby Jindal.
  • In the all-important races for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the big money was the big winner. Seven candidates backed by LABI and its PAC money won seven seats on the board, demonstrating in no uncertain terms that it’s not who has the best ideas and who is the best-qualified, but who has the money that determines who gets elected in Louisiana. Voters continue to listen to the sound bites and to read the brochures that clutter our mailboxes instead of educating themselves on the issues. Perhaps the completion of an intensive civics course, complete with a required essay on all the candidates should be a criteria for voting.
  • Two Soviet-born emigres managed to penetrate the White House’s inner circle by cozying up to Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump by pouring $350,000 into federal and state Republican campaigns and contacted Ukrainian officials at the behest of Giuliani in his efforts to dig up information on Democrats. No word if any of that $350,000 went into the Rispone campaign.
  • Trump threw erstwhile allies Kurds under the bus by pulling out American forces, using has his excuse the somewhat dubious claim he wanted the U.S. out of the mess in the Mideast even as he was committing more troops to Saudi Arabia to aid that country in its fight against Iran.
  • LSU won a classic heavyweight match-up with Florida and moved into the number two spot in the national rankings.
  • The Hard Rock Café Hotel in New Orleans that was under construction in the French Quarter collapsed, leaving at least two dead and raising questions about construction inspections similar to those raised in a similar incident in Baton Rouge more than 40 years ago. That’s when a building undergoing construction on Airline Highway collapsed, killing three workers and injuring three others. The building had recently undergone its “final inspection” which pronounced it “ready for occupancy.”
  • In a textbook SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) lawsuit, the Ascension Parish Council responded to a public records request from former employee Teleta Wesley by filing a lawsuit against her. The same course was taken by the 4th Judicial District Court (Ouachita and Morehouse parishes) judges against The Ouachita Citizen newspaper and by the Welsh Town Council against town council member Jacob Colby Perry. Similar action was also threatened but never taken by Lake Charles attorney Russell Stutes, Jr. in response to public records requests submitted by Billy Broussard who was never paid by Calcasieu Parish to remove debris from Hurricane Rita in 2005. Such lawsuits are filed for the sole purpose of shutting up critics who generally don’t have the resources to fight such nuisance lawsuits.

Several surveys came out recently that revealed some interesting facts.

  • Louisiana, with a poverty rate of 18.6 percent in 2018 (down from 19.7 percent the year before), improved somewhat to the fifth-poorest state in the nation. The state came in ahead of (in order) New Mexico, Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia.
  • Monroe, meanwhile, ranked as the 28th poorest metropolitan area in the U.S. with a median household income of $44,353 and a poverty rate of 20.7 percent and with 12.2 percent of households with incomes under $10,000 (both among the 10 highest rates). Not to be outdone, the Shreveport-Bossier City metro area was 14th-poorest with a median household income of $41,969 and a poverty rate of 20.4 percent.
  • Louisiana’s state retirement system, often criticized by the numbers-crunchers, while not on the best financial footing, was nevertheless, in “only” the 20th worst shape (putting the state not very far from the middle of the pack) with a funded ratio of 65.1 percent and a total pension shortfall of $18.2 billion (19th highest). That compares favorably with Kentucky’s funded ratio of only 33.9 percent and its $42.9 billion shortfall (the worst in the nation) and next-door neighbor Mississippi, which had a funded ratio of 61.6 percent but a total pension shortfall of $16.8 billion, two spots better than Louisiana’s.
  • Finally, a survey of the worst colleges in each state was done using U.S. Department of Education, Niche and College Factual (college ranking services) data based on graduation rates, costs of the university, salaries post-graduation, average student debt, and return on investment. Grambling State University near Ruston was deemed the worst in Louisiana. Grambling has a anemic graduation rate of only 10 percent and students leave with an average student debt of $27,656. With a median post-graduation salary of only $28,100, the default rate on student loans is 16.1 percent. By comparison, the worst college in Mississippi is Mississippi Valley State, which has a graduation rate three times that of Grambling at 29.8 percent and a loan default rate of 18.9 percent on average student loans of $32,252. In Arkansas, the worst is Philander Smith College in Little Rock which has a graduation rate of 39 percent but a default rate of 20.1 percent on average student debt of $26,616. The worst school in the nation is DeVry University. While it operates in nearly every state, its physical location is Illinois, so it was ranked as the worst in that state with a graduation rate of only 20.6 percent and average debt of $30,000 per student.
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Former British Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-1898) is generally credited with coining the phrase, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Anyone who has had the misfortune of navigating our legal system in a civil lawsuit is keenly aware of the relevance of Gladstone’s insightful observation, especially if an individual should find himself pitted against the unlimited financial and manpower resources of, say, state government.

No one knows that better than three individuals who have seen their cases languish for as long as eight years with no resolution in sight. Murphy Painter, Corey DelaHoussaye and Billy Broussard have found the state attempting to ground them into submission through a flurry of legal motions.

The state has taken a page out of the playbooks of Allstate and State Farm in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Delay, deny, defend. Like those billion-dollar insurance companies, the state can afford to drag a case out indefinitely in the hopes of either demoralizing or bankrupting a plaintiff.

For those who insist that every person is entitled to his day in court, there is an equally compelling argument that justice can be bought. In criminal matters, the wealthy defendant who steals millions from his company or the politician who runs off a bridge, killing his female passenger, has a far better chance of avoiding a lengthy jail sentence—or any at all—than, say, some down on his luck individual who has the misfortune to getting caught with a joint. That’s because he can’t afford the legal representation and extracted courtroom fight as can those with greater resources.

LouisianaVoice will examine the legal pitfalls encountered by each of the three persons mentioned above in separate stories beginning today in an effort to show how the state drags out these cases as a tactic to wear down their finances and their will to keep fighting.

In the case of Murphy Painter, Bobby Jindal tried to set him up on bogus charges way back in August 2010 when he wouldn’t bend to the wishes of the late Tom Benson, a major contributor to Jindal’s political campaign, over a licensing issue. In our initial 2013 story about the prosecution, LouisianaVoice was the only media outlet to say publicly—and correctly—that Painter was being SET UP by Jindal.

Subsequent to that, we learned that the WARRANT executed on Painter’s ABC office was illegal in that the raid was carried out three days before the warrant was signed by Judge Bonnie Parker.

But that didn’t stop Jindal from pursuing criminal charges against Painter. He was indicted on 42 separate counts of computer fraud. But despite Jindal’s marshaling all the resources of state government against Painter, he was acquitted and the state had to pay his legal fees of $474,000—and that didn’t even take into account how much the state spent on his prosecution.

We will return to the state’s legal fees momentarily.

But first, let’s move to August 2011. That’s when Painter filed a lawsuit against the state, the Department of Revenue and Taxation, former Secretary of Revenue and Taxation Cynthia Bridges and Inspector General Stephen Street

It’s been eight years now and Painter’s lawsuit is no closer to a trial than it was in 2011.

Attorneys for the state have responded with stalling tactics that have taxed the patience of presiding judge who, out of exasperation, complained that Painter’s lawsuit had become so clouded by the state’s defensive maneuvers, motions, denials, and delays that the case had become impossible for any legal scholar to follow.

Just like the state planned it.

Justice delayed is justice denied.

Lost in all this is the issue of just how much of taxpayers’ money the state is willing to spend in order to break an adversary who was railroaded for political purposes in the first place.

After all, if his lawsuit had no merit, it would seem the state would be eager to go trial and get the matter settled once and for all. That alone would save untold thousands of dollars. But all too often, defense attorneys with political connections are given contracts to defend these lawsuits. It’s a lucrative arrangement: the attorneys contribute generously to political campaigns and they are rewarded with contracts to sit on a case for a few years—all while the meter is running, of course.

Efforts have been made to learned just how much the state has spent in defending Painter’s lawsuit but the state says that information is protected under the public information statute.

For that matter, we have even been unable to learn how much the state spent in legal fees in its criminal prosecution against Painter. We know his legal fees of near half-a-million dollars were awarded but the state had shielded from view the amount it spent in the criminal prosecution on the grounds the ongoing civil suit prohibit the release of that information.

In fact, there is a provision tucked away in the statute [R.S. 44:4 (15)] which exempts divulging current legal fees in litigation to anyone except the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget and that committee litigation subcommittee.

So, basically, the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill for defending otherwise indefensible litigation are kept in the dark by state statute from learning how their tax dollars are wasted on years of costly legal maneuvers designed to frustrate and short circuit a system supposedly designed to allow the average citizen to seek redress for wrongs committed against them.

The exemption shielding this information notwithstanding, the citizens of Louisiana should have a right to know when the state deliberately draws out litigation in which it is a defendant with definite exposure—all as a ploy to exhaust the plaintiff physically, mentally and financially. A key element in the equation is the right to know how much taxpayer money is being lavished on contract attorneys who happen to have the right political connections,

A New York Appellate Court judge wrote in a 1968 case, “Public opinion, which is the most effective check on official abuse, can never be aroused (if) any and all acts of such an official are protected either by a veil of secrecy or the critic is subjected to costly litigation.”

William Gladstone would probably agree.

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There’s a wide-open sheriff’s race in Iberia now that three-term incumbent Louis Ackal has decided to hang up his gun and badge.

Ackal probably waited at least four years too long to walk away from a controversy-plagued tenure of his own making pockmarked as it was with dog attacks on defenseless inmates, beatings and even deaths that resulted in millions of dollars of damages from lawsuit judgments and settlements—along with a half-dozen federal criminal convictions of deputies.

Four years ago, Ackal was forced into a runoff and had to resort to soliciting the endorsement of the third-place finisher in exchange for a job in order to win that election in what should have been declared a clear ETHICS VIOLATION had there been an ethics commission with any ethics of its own.

On October 12, Iberia Parish voters will be tasked with picking a successor from among six candidates—two Republicans, a Democrat and three with no party affiliation. In alphabetical order, they are:

  • Roberta Boudreaux (No Party), who lost that runoff election four years after third-place finisher endorsed Ackal and was rewarded with the newly-created position of director of community relations—not that such a position wasn’t sorely needed by Ackal.
  • Joe LeBlanc (No Party).
  • Fernest “Pacman” Martin (Democrat).
  • Murphy Meyers (Republican), a retired state trooper.
  • Tommy Romero (Republican), another former state trooper now retired from the Louisiana Attorney General’s office.
  • Clinton “Bubba” Sweeny (No Party).

For the moment, Murphy Meyers would appear to be the main story in this election.

That’s because while Meyers wants to be sheriff of Iberia Parish, there is a serious question about whether or not he actually resides in the parish, a qualification most folks would seem to desire of their sheriff.

Meyers has been the sole 100 percent owner of a residence located at 1000 Hugh Drive, St. Martinville, since 1991.

But back on July 12, 2016, Meyers did in fact register to vote in Iberia parish, using the address 210 L Dubois Road, New Iberia.

But on March 7, 2018, Meyers’ then-employer, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety, Office of Louisiana State Police, filed an updated “Request for Personal Assignment and/or Home Storage of State-Owned Vehicle.” The vehicle was a 2008 Dodge Charger assigned to Meyers as his personal take-home unit. The form was for the requested approval period of July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2019. He signed the form stating all information in it was accurate and correct. The listed address of the employee’s resident was 1000 Hugh Drive, St. Martinville.

The very next day, March 8, 2018, Meyers renewed his driver’s license using 2101 Dubois Road, New Iberia, as his correct physical address. (Note: A driver may be cited and fined if the address on his or her driver’s license does not correspond with the driver’s actual address of residence.)

A year later, on March 25, 2019, Malinda Meyers, wife of Murphy Meyers, contributed two in-kind donations to her husband’s campaign fund, according to state campaign finance records submitted September 10, 2019. Malinda Meyers gave her address as 1000 Hugh Drive, St. Martinville.

On August 9, 2019, Murphy Meyers officially qualified to run for Iberia Parish Sheriff in a sworn statement that he met all requirements set forth by Louisiana law, including residence requirements. On that form, he gave his place of residence as 210 L Dubois Road, New Iberia, further affirming that he not only currently resides at that address but has for at least the last year, as per state qualifications.

So, just who does own that property at 210 L Dubois Road in New Iberia that keeps popping up on forms filled out by Meyers?

That would be the home that belonged his mother-in-law, Malindayes Mattox Burks.  Courthouse records in New Iberia list her as 100 percent owner of a home valued at $71,400 and assessed at $7,140. Malinda Meyers inherited the home but she and Murphy Meyers still reside in St. Martinville at 1000 Hugh Drive.

Or do they?

This would seem to be a job for the State Ethics Commission to straighten out provided, of course, it had any ethics of its own.

 

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The wheels of justice are prone to turn slowly. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the courts can pretty much verify that. Even routine litigation can take up to a decade—or longer—for resolution.

So, when The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal denied a motion by Mangham contractor Jeff Mercer to recuse Chief Judge Henry Brown at 10:23 a.m. on August 3, 2017, it was more than a little surprising when Judge Pro Tempore Joe Bleich of Ruston was able to whip out a three-page supporting opinion—drafted, neatly typed and filed by the clerk—two minutes later, at 10:25 a.m.

In fact, Mercer’s attorney, David P. Doughty of Rayville, is of the opinion that it’s simply impossible and that “[t]he logical explanation is that this supporting opinion was drafted prior to the hearing ever occurring,” which might indicate to those familiar with the machinations of the courts to conclude that someone within the 2nd Circuit was not quite playing by the rules.

By examining the timeline included in the link at the bottom of this story, one can see in the sixth and seventh entries that the order to deny the motion was issued at 10:23 a.m. on August 3 and Bleich’s supporting opinion filed by the clerk at 10:25 a.m. that same day.

One can also see how the principals involved probably thought Mercer would never be privy to the internal records of the court which revealed the expeditious manner in which Bleich’s supporting opinion was generated.

But they obviously underestimated the Mangham contractor who has already been forced out of business by DOTD and the 2nd Circuit and by this time, had nothing to lose by pursuing a string of public records requests which led to revelations of skullduggery on the part of Brown and his law clerk, Trina Chu.

Both Brown and Chu would be gone in little more than a year.

A little background may be in order for Bleich. His BIOGRAPHY, as provided by the Louisiana Supreme Court, notes that he was assigned in January 2016 by order of the supreme court as judge pro tempore of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal to fill a vacancy created by a retirement. He was scheduled to serve from January 14 through April 30, 2016 or until the vacancy is filled, which occurred first. But in August 2017, of course, he was still serving.

Bleich received his undergraduate degree from Louisiana Tech University and his law degree from LSU Law School and served as a district court judge for the Third Judicial District Court (Lincoln and Union parishes) from 1982 to 1996 when he was elected Associate Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court to fill an unexpired term. He “retired” later that same year when he lost his bid for election to a full term and has practiced law in Ruston and served as a pro tempore judge in various district courts.

Bleich wrote a flowery three-page supporting opinion complete with legal “research,” peppering it with effusive praise for Judge Brown, finding “not a scintilla of bias by Judge Brown.”

Most observers would agree that that’s a lot of legal research and writing to cram into two minutes.

The only problem with that, besides, of course, the dubious speed with Bleich supposedly penned his gushing respect and admiration for Brown in his supporting opinion, was that it might have been a bit premature.

Little more than a year later, Brown would be gone from the bench, forced to resign after being SUSPENDED for his alleged behavior toward colleagues who were considering an appeal involving a close female friend of Brown’s.

He received an order from the Supreme Court to vacate the appeal court building in downtown Shreveport and to not take any judicial actions after complaints were filed that he had created a hostile environment toward colleagues who were hearing the appeal of a civil lawsuit against his friend who had been found liable for more than a million dollars in her own case which was also on appeal before the 2nd Circuit.

But the story, particularly as it relates to Mercer, goes much deeper and involves several officials in the 2nd Circuit and the possible illegal access of court files, including those in the Mercer case.

Mercer was a contractor on highway construction projects in Ouachita, Morehouse, Bossier, LaSalle and Caddo parishes—projects totaling nearly $9 million. He filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) in which he claimed DOTD inspectors attempted to shake him down for kickbacks and equipment or risk not having his work pass inspection.

When his payment for his work was subsequently withheld, he sued and a 12-person jury in 4th Judicial District Court in Monroe unanimously AWARDED him $20 million on December 4, 2015. The official judgment was rendered on February 10, 2016.

DOTD appealed the decision to the 2nd Circuit and Chief Judge Henry Brown, along with Judges Jeff Cox and Jeanette Garrett composed the three-judge panel which heard oral arguments. Brown sat on the panel despite the fact that his father had worked for 44 years as a civil engineer for DOTD, a fact he neglected to disclose.

Brown even wrote the opinion of the 2nd Circuit panel which reversed the unanimous state district court verdict. That decision was filed on June 7, 2017. It was only after that decision that Mercer subsequently learned of Judge Brown’s failure to disclose his father’s employment with DOTD. He filed an Application for Rehearing and a Motion to Recuse and Vacate the Panel’s opinion.

It was that motion to recuse on which the August 3 order was issued at 10:23 a.m., followed by Bleich’s opinion of more than three pages was researched, drafted, typed and filed by the clerk within the next two minutes.

A year later, on August 22, 2018, Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Detective Doug Smith was told by 2nd Circuit Judicial Administrator Lillian Richie that she and other court employees had become aware that Trina Chu, Judge Brown’s clerk, “may have intentionally exceeded her authorization” while handling court documents on the court’s computer network.

Smith subsequently wrote a six-page report that reads more like a Trumpian chapter from the ongoing Ukraine investigation than routine court business with reports of unauthorized photocopies, access to restricted computer files, copying of confidential files onto a USB drive, and a string of emails that indicated ex parte communications (communications with respect to or in the interests of one side only or of an interested outside party to the exclusion of attorneys for the opposing parties) with Judge Brown’s friend Hahn Williams, the subject of the appeals case that ultimately got Brown removed from the bench.

One of those emails instructed Williams on how to transmit a document to her attorney so that it could not be traced back to her: “you can send the document to him (attorney) as is because it has no information that can be traced back to me on the document. Save it to a jump drive and give it to him so he won’t have to type much.”

Nor were the ex parte communications limited to Chu, Mercer claims, but also included Judge Brown receiving an email and documentation regarding his friend’s case. “The documents emailed to Judge Henry Brown were the confidential Second Circuit documents related to the Succession of Houston case…and actually sent to his Second Circuit email address,” Mercer says in his latest Petition to Annul (the 2nd Circuit Court) Judgment.

According to the 2nd Circuit panel’s decision, all three judges conducted a de novo review of the Mercer case on appeal. De novo appeal is an appeal in which the appellate court uses the trial court’s record but reviews evidence and law without yielding to the lower court’s ruling—as if the trial was being heard anew.

In Mercer’s case, there were nine volumes of exhibits comprising nearly 8,700 pages of required reading by each judge in a de novo review of the record.

“[t]he 2nd Circuit sign sheet for the record and exhibits, however, reveals that the panel, in making the de novo review, must have relied solely on Judge Brown’s review of the record,” Mercer claims in his petition to annul. “Judge Cox never checked out either the original or duplicate record or exhibits, and after the April 4, 2017, oral arguments, Judge Garrett never checked out the duplicate record. Therefore, it was impossible for the entire panel to have made a de novo review of all the trial testimony and exhibits that were seen and heard by the (district court) jury for almost a month,” Mercer says.

“Thus, the Second Circuit’s own records show that a full de novo review of the trial records/exhibits by all three (3) judges never occurred after the case was submitted after the April 4, 2017 oral arguments (emphasis Mercer’s). In essence, one judge (Brown) substituted his opinion for twelve unanimous jurors. Judge Brown wrote a fifty (50) page opinion for the panel, thirty-eight (38) pages of which was discussion of an alleged de novo review fact finding by the entire panel, which never occurred after the case had been submitted.”

The petition says that because of the ill practices of the court, “the June 7, 2017 decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeal should be declared null and void, and the original unanimous jury verdict and judgment of February 10, 2016, should be reinstated and the Second Circuit [Court] of Appeal should be recused from any further hearing of this case.”

Mercer has also subpoenaed Lillian Ritchie for her deposition as well as digital copies of all documents obtained through forensic imaging that were copied from Chu’s computer as they relate to his case and all email messages of Jennifer Brown, Judge Brown’s former permanent supervising law clerk (and now general counsel for the 2nd Circuit) from August 26, 2016 through August 30, 2017.

If nothing else, Mercer has peeled back the layers of secrecy, for lack of a better description, that shroud the court’s procedures from the general public—procedures that citizens have the right to know about when they have business before the court.

We live in what is generally considered an open society and as such, we should know what our elected officials—including judges—do and how they do it. Secrecy should have no place here.

Mercer may have opened a tiny portal to how the system works and how more transparency should be the order of the day.

The fair administration of justice demands it.

To review the entire Mercer petition and the eye-opening exhibits, go HERE.

 

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To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: here they go again.

The expenditure of public funds, under the law, is supposed to be just that: public.

But trying to pry an accounting of legal costs associated with the state’s defense of 4th Judicial District law clerk Allyson Campbell has proved to be somewhat problematic, to say the least, for a north Louisiana publication.

The Ouachita Citizen in West Monroe is the only newspaper willing to take on the powers that be and so far, it has encountered a huge stone wall.

[The unwillingness of the Monroe News-Star to involve itself in the fight for the public’s right to know may be attributed to two factors: (1) it’s a Gannett publication which in and of itself, lends itself to mediocrity, and (2) Campbell once worked part time as something of a gossip columnist for the paper. Of course, it didn’t hurt that her father was an executive with Regions Bank and is married to the daughter of influential attorney Billy Boles, or that Campbell is the sister of Catherine Creed of the prominent Monroe law firm of Creed and Creed. Got all that? If not, here’s a LINK to one of our earlier stories about Campbell.]

But back to the latest developments in this ongoing saga. The Citizen made a by-the-books public records REQUEST of the Division of Administration (DOA) in which it sought an accounting of legal costs in defending Campbell in a lawsuit brought against her by Stanley Palowsky, III, for damages incurred when she “spoliated, concealed, removed, destroyed, shredded, withheld, and/or improperly handled” his petition for damages against a former business partner.

It seems that some 52 writ applications went missing for more than a year only to be found in Campbell’s office where, incredibly and inexplicably, she was using them as an end table in her office.

So, how DOA respond to the Citizen’s request? Basically, it said attorney’s bills for legal services were exempt from production under an exception pertaining to pending claims.

That’s debatable. Yes, in ongoing litigation, communications between attorney and client are definitely privileged. But a simple accounting of expenditures for legal representation has nothing to legal strategy or negotiations. It’s an expenditure, pure and simple, and should be available as a public record.

The Citizen, in its story, pointed out that Christian Creed, Catherine Creed’s husband and law partner, contributed $5,000 to Attorney General Jeff Landry’s campaign in November 2015.

But more significantly, LouisianaVoice combed through campaign reports and found that Christian Creed, Catherine Creed, and the Creed Law Firm were quite active in their support of other candidates.

Gov. John Bel Edwards was the beneficiary of $25,000 in contributions from both Catherine and Christian Creed over the three-year period of 2015-2107, and Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne received $2,000 in contributions from Christian Creed in 2013 and 2014.

Attorney Scott Sternberg of New Orleans is representing the Citizen and by letter dated August 27, gave DOA until today (August 30) to comply with the request.

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