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Archive for the ‘Courts’ Category

The hits just keep coming.

Another victory in a public records lawsuit—sort of—while a state tax official goes and gets himself arrested for payroll fraud, and three members of the Louisiana State Police Commission (them again?) find themselves on the hotseat for apparent violations of state regulations that already cost some of their predecessors their positions.

All in a day’s work in Louisiana where the sanctimonious, the corrupt, the unethical, and the unbelievable seem to co-mingle with a certain ease and smugness.

The Lens, an outstanding non-profit news service out of New Orleans, has just won an important fifth with the Orleans Parish District Attorney when the Louisiana Supreme Court DENIED WRITS by the district attorney’s office in its attempt to protect records of fake subpoenas from the publication.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal in October had AFFIRMED a November 2017 ruling by Orleans Civil District Court which had ordered the DA to turned over certain files pursuant to a public records request dating back to April 2017.

As in other cases reported by LouisianaVoice, the court, while awarding attorney fees to The Lens, stopped short of finding that the DA’s denial of records was “arbitrary and capricious,” meaning the DA’s office would not be fined the $100 per day allowed by law for non-compliance with the state Public Records Act.

And because the district attorney was not held personally liable for non-compliance, he will not have to pay the attorney’s fees either; that will be paid by the good citizens of New Orleans.

And, in all probability, the next time the DA’s office or any other public official in New Orleans decides to withhold public records from disclosure, he or she will also skate insofar as any personal liability is concerned with taxpayers picking up the costs.

Until such times as judges come down hard on violations of public records and public meeting laws, officials will have no incentive to comply if there is something for them to conceal.

The records requests were the result of the practice by the DA of issuing FAKE SUBPOENAS (and this preceded Trump’s so-called “fake news”) to force reluctant witnesses to speak with prosecutors—a practice not unlike those bogus phone messages from the IRS that threaten us with jail if we don’t send thousands of dollars immediately.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune described the practice as an “UNDERHANDED TRICK.”

Meanwhile, former Livingston Parish Tax Assessor and more recently Louisiana Tax Commission administrator CHARLES ABELS has been arrested on charges of payroll fraud, improper use of a state rental vehicle and for submitting unauthorized fuel reimbursement requests for the vehicle.

Abels was elected Livingston Parish assessor, an office held up until that time by his grandfather, with 51 percent of the vote in 1995. He served only one term, however, being defeated by current assessor Jeff Taylor in 1999.

In 2002, he was hired as a staff appraiser by the Louisiana Tax Commission. He said at the time that he was a recovering alcoholic who was trying to turn his life around. He was promoted to administrator of the commission during the tenure of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

He was arrested last march on a domestic violence charge but the case was never prosecuted.

One LouisianaVoice reader, a longtime critic of the Louisiana Tax Commission, said Abel’s arrest came as no surprise and that the entire agency is long overdue a housecleaning. “Let’s hope that the State of Louisiana doesn’t wind up on the hook financially for any misdeeds,” he said.

And then there is the Louisiana State Police Commission (LSPC) which just won’t go away.

Almost three years ago, two members became the second and third to RESIGN after reports that they had contributed to political campaigns in violation of the Louisiana State Constitution.

So, you’d think their successors would’ve learned from their indiscretions, right?

Nah. This is Louisiana, where prior actions are ignored if inconvenient and duplicated if beneficial.

But then again, this is the LSPC that paid Natchitoches attorney Taylor Townsend $75,000 to not issue a report on a non-investigation into political contributions by the Louisiana State Police Association (LSTA), contributions that were not paid directly to candidates (including John Bel Edwards and Bobby Jindal), but funneled instead through the personal bank account of LSTA Executive Director David Young so as to conceal the real source of funds.

And now, we have three of the commission members who combined to contribute more than $5,000 to political campaigns during their terms on the LSPC), either personally or through their businesses.

Whether the contributions were justified as having be made by a business (as claimed by State Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington) or whether the money was contributed to a political action committee as opposed to an individual candidate appears to make no difference; they are all strictly prohibited under state law.

Despite his earlier obfuscation on the issue, Townsend did provide some clarity on the legality of political activity. Quoting from the Louisiana State Constitution, Townsend said, “Members of the State Police Commission and state police officers are expressly prohibited from engaging in political activity. More specifically, Section 47 provides that ‘No member of the commission and no state police officer in the classified service shall participate or engage in political activity…make or solicit contributions for any political party, faction, or candidate…except to exercise his right as a citizen to express his opinion privately…and to cast his vote as he desires.’”

But the real kicker came from a headline in the Baton Rouge Advocate, which proclaimed, “Three State Police commissioners under probe for possible unlawful political donations.”

Buried in that STORY was a paragraph which said LSPC Chairman Eulis Simien, Jr.” tasked the commission’s Executive Director Jason Hannaman to conduct an investigation into the allegations and report back with the findings. Hannaman, a civilian administrator for the board, said Thursday he hoped to complete the report by next month’s meeting.”

Oh, great. An in-house investigation. That should do it. Get a subordinate to investigate his bosses. At least Taylor Townsend carried out the appearance of an outside, independent investigation—until he proved by his inaction that it wasn’t.

What are the odds of this being truly independent and candid?

 

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He’s been gone from office for three years now but the legacy of Troy Hebert lives on at the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC).

Hebert recently prevailed in a federal lawsuit filed for fired ATC agent Brette Tingle and that decision is currently being appealed.

But another suit  by fired agent Randall Kling, tried in state court resulted in a jury award of nearly $400,000, plus legal interest from May 26, 2011, the date Kling filed his suit in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.

That decision, which somehow flew under the radar of all Baton Rouge news media, including LouisianaVoice, was rendered just over a year ago, on December 30, 2017 and like the Tingle decision, is currently under appeal.

Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur Smith represented both Tingle and Kling in their litigation.

In that action, Kling had claimed that when he made official complaints of what he deemed was offensive behavior on the part of Hebert on March 16, 22, and 25 in 2011, Hebert fired him on March 30.

The jury verdict form revealed that jurors determined by a 9-3 vote that Kling “was engaged in protected speech on a matter of public concern” under the Louisiana Constitution. It then said, by an 11-1 vote, that “His termination was substantially motivated by his protected speech.”

The breakdown of the award was $243,045 in lost wages, $75,000 for mental anguish and distress and another $75,000 for loss of enjoyment of life.

Nineteenth JDC Judge William Morvant, in writing the formal judgment, somehow managed to circumvent the usual 6 percent per annum interest the state pays on judgments and set total interest at $9,538.06.

At 6 percent, interest would normally accrue at a rate of about $24,000 for each year since the suit was filed in May 2011 until final resolution, which is still pending.

If applied as in other judgments against the state, that would mean Kling would be entitled to more than $168,000 to date.

In any case, it will be the taxpayers of the State of Louisiana, and not Hebert, who will be called on to pay the judgment should the verdict be upheld by the First Circuit Court of Appeal and, should it advance that far, the Louisiana Supreme Court.

And that $400,000 doesn’t even include the cost of the state’s having to pay a contract attorney to defend Hebert and the Department of Revenue, costs paid through the Louisiana Office of Risk Management.

It’s another example of state officials, in this case, Troy Hebert, not being held personally accountable for their actions and taxpayers having to pick up the tab for their bad behavior.

Morvant, by the way, is the same judge who only yesterday (January 10, 2019) declined to hold Attorney General Jeff Landry personally liable for refusing to allow an Indiana woman access to what were clearly public records.

Unless some real teeth are put into these judgments, Louisiana’s public officials will go on disregarding the law in the knowledge they will suffer no personal consequences.

This needs to change.

 

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Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

A variation of that adage might be, “If your intentions are pure, you don’t have to worry about consistency.”

Jeff Landry might want to remember both statements.

But, on the other hand, sometimes it’s good entertainment to watch a politician more concerned with advancing his own career than the interests of his constituents get boxed in by his own words and actions.

Case in point: A self-serving press release from the attorney general on Nov. 19 which addressed a ruling by a state judge which said the Vermilion Parish School Board violated Louisiana’s Open Meeting Law for forcefully removing a teacher who was critical of the superintendent’s pay raise.

“I applaud Judge Smith for remedying this injustice,” Landry pontificated, “and I pledge to continue diligent enforcement of our Open Meetings Law.” (emphasis mine)

Well, Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law and the Public Records Law just happen to go hand in hand, but you’d never know that from the lawsuit pending in State District Court in Baton Rouge scheduled for trial next Thursday.

Landry is a defendant in a LAWSUIT filed by an Indiana woman who is seeking admittedly voluminous records relating to correspondence between Landry’s office and various oil and gas interests in the state as well as records of his travel to conferences, speaking engagements, lodging and meals.

Here is a copy of her request for the records and her lawsuit.

Landry’s public information officer Ruth Wisher said, “We can only hope it is not a political witch hunt distracting from the important work of our office.”

And even though he has already turned over more than 6000 PAGES of documents, the woman, Scarlett Martin of Indianapolis, has sued Landry because she says he has failed to fully comply with her request and that he is holding back additional records.

Now Landry has offered up a rather unique defense by CLAIMING that Louisiana’s public records law applies only to citizens of the gret stet of Looziana.

That doesn’t exactly square with Opinion 17-0044 of last May 18 in which he wrote in an opinion pursuant to a legislator’s request, “The public’s right to public records is a fundamental right guaranteed in the Louisiana Constitution. ‘No person shall be denied the right to observe the deliberations of public bodies and examine public documents…”

(Note there is no mention of any restriction of that right to Louisiana citizens. And also note how he conveniently ties public meetings and public records together in a nice little bow for us.)

In the next paragraph of that opinion, he says, “Any person of the age of majority may inspect, copy, or reproduce, any public record” and “any person may obtain a copy or reproduction of any public record.”

That sounds a tad definitive for a man who is now trying his best to protect certain records from disclosure.

Kinda makes one wonder what he’s trying to hide.

Oh, and in response to Ms. Wisher’s little comment about hoping the request isn’t some kind of “witch hunt” (wonder where she picked that phrase up from?), state law also expressly says, “The purpose for the document request is immaterial, and an agency or record custodian may not inquire as to the reason…”

Moreover, in further addressing Landry’s water-thin residency claim of exception, the Louisiana Supreme Court in Title Research Corp. v. Rausch (450 So.2d933,937 (1984) opined:

The legislature, by the public records statutes, sought to guarantee, in the most expansive and unrestricted way possible, the right of the public to inspect and reproduce those records which the laws deem to be public. There was no intent on the part of the legislatures to qualify, in any way, the right of access. [Citations omitted]. As with the constitutional provision, the statute should be construed liberally, and any doubt must be resolved in favor of the right of access.

Section 31 provides that any person may obtain a copy or reproduction of any public record, except as otherwise provided. A person over 18 has the right to inspect and copy or get a copy of a public record that is not exempt from examination, and the custodian has the burden of proving that the record is not subject to inspection. The person may apply in person to the custodian of the public body, to inspect, to copy or to reproduce a public record; however, in Elliot v. District Attorney of Baton Rouge, (1995) 664 So.2d. 122, the court opined that a person could make a request by letter. (emphasis mine)

Mr. Landry is going to have a helluva time getting around all that and he just might have to write a pretty big check (state check, of course, not personal) in penalties assessed by the court.

Editor’s Note: A conscientious attempt was made by LouisianaVoice to access that attorney general’s opinion cited in this story. Previously, the attorney general’s web page had a menu that users could use to access opinions on any subject. That menu no longer exists.

We did, however find in the Media Room, a menu labeled “More Resources” which provided:

biography  of Jeff Landry;

An introduction to Jeff Landry;

portrait of Jeff Landry;

candid portrait of Jeff Landry;

capitol photo of Jeff Landry;

Another capitol photo of Jeff Landry.

I’m certain he gladly provide those for Ms. Martin.

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That story about the north Louisiana contractor who was drummed out of business by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) and subsequently sued and won a $20 million judgment only to have it overturned on appeal just gets curiouser and curiouser with a couple of really bizarre developments.

Jeff Mercer, a Mangham contractor who had six contracts totaling nearly $9 million for which he was never paid, said his problems began when he complained that DOTD inspector Willis Jenkins attempted to shake him down to “put some green” in his hand or that Mercer place a new electric generator “under his carport” the following day.”

You can read the initial LouisianaVoice story by clicking HERE.

Mercer, armed with emails and other correspondence, filed suit against DOTD, claiming there was collusion among DOTD officials to “make the jobs as costly and difficult as possible” for him. A 12-person jury in 4th Judicial District Court in Monroe unanimously returned with an AWARD of $20 million in Mercer’s favor in 2015.

The jury, employing such terms as “collusion,” “bribery,” “extortion,” “conspiracy,” and “corruption,” not only held DOTD liable for damages, but also held four individual DOTD employees—Willis Jenkins, Michael Murphy, Barry Lacy and John Eason—personally liable.

But wait. Judge Henry N. Brown, as Chief Judge of the Second Circuit, had the responsibility of assigning cases and in Mercer’s case, he chose to assign it to himself—and wrote the decision that didn’t just reduce but obliterated the award in its entirety in OVERTURNING the lower court verdict.

Brown’s logic was that Mercer still had his contractor’s license and was still free to bid on state jobs. But when that same contractor is owed $9 million that the state refuses to pay him, he can’t meet payroll and he can’t purchase—or keep—equipment needed to perform the work. Nor can he afford worker’s comp and liability insurance.

Mercer says he was forced to sell off all his equipment—backhoes, trackhoes, dozers, trucks, etc. He estimates he lost another $2 million by being forced to sell his equipment for less than its real value. So, he is effectively out of business, Judge Brown’s opinion notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit in which Mercer still seeks payment of the $9 million that he’s never been paid makes its way slowly through the legal system.

The only problem with that was Judge Brown’s failure to recuse himself or even disclose his huge potential bias stemming from the fact that his father, Henry N. Brown, Sr., had been a civil engineer for DOTD for 44 years which “undermines the very fabric of our people’s faith in the judicial integrity of the Second Circuit Court of Appeal,” according to a MEMORANDUM in Support of Application for Rehearing and a Motion to Recuse and Vacate the Panel’s Opinion filed by Mercer’s attorney, David Doughty of Rayville.

At the trial, attorneys for both Mercer and for DOTD specifically asked each potential juror if they or any member of their family had ever worked for DOTD. “That was the first question asked every potential juror,” Mercer says. “If anyone answered yes, they were immediately excused.”

The case took 30 days to try, with thousands and thousands of pages of testimony. Yet, the Brown’s decision was rendered only 22 days after the appeal was filed, making it likely that he cherry-picked what he wanted to write since it was highly doubtful that the entire trial record could have been adequately reviewed in such a short time. The alternative would be that an attorney for DOTD drafted the decision for him and he signed off on it.

All of which can justifiably be labeled old news, already thoroughly rehashed on this site, right?

Right.

Except for a couple of recent news stories that loop right back into Mercer’s original claim of corruption, favoritism, bribery, extortion and otherwise unethical behavior by those in control of the dollars and the legal system.

Like this STORY from October 1 by KTBS-TV in Shreveport.

Judge Henry Brown was ordered by the Louisiana Supreme Court to vacate the Second Circuit Court of Appeal building in downtown Shreveport and to refrain from taking any further judicial actions after complaints that he had created a hostile environment toward colleagues who were hearing the appeal of a civil lawsuit against one of his friends from whom Brown had purchased a home.

Although Brown had recused himself from hearing the appeal because of the obvious conflict, members of the court found evidence that computer files where judges’ memos and drafts of opinions are kept had been hacked. A law clerk who worked for Brown was subsequently fired and banned from the courthouse.

And then there was this STORY by WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge that showed that one of the defendants in Mercer’s lawsuit may have had a too-cozy relationship with a DOTD contractor who manages to keep getting contracts through the agency despite repeated fines for failure to complete jobs on time.

The television station showed several photographs of DOTD engineer Barry Lacy on fishing trips, hunting trips, and at crawfish boils, and golf tournaments with officials of Coastal Bridge of Baton Rouge.

Lacy was one of four DOTD employees who were held personally liable in Mercer’s lawsuit.

DOTD Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson said that while Lacy has no authority to award contracts to firms, he does make recommendations on such decisions.

It was not immediately clear if Lacy received the hunting and fishing trips or invitations to the crawfish boils or golf tournaments as gratuities but numerous OPINIONS by the Louisiana Board of Governmental Ethics have repeatedly said that “no public servant shall solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, anything of economic value as a gift or gratuity from any person or from any officer, director agent, or employee of such person if such public servant knows or reasonably should know that such person:

  • Has or is seeking to obtain contractual or other business or financial relationships with the public servant’s agency, or
  • Is seeking, for compensation, to influence the passage or defeat of legislation by the public servant’s agency.”

Meanwhile, Mercer, who was only trying to make a living, has been put out of business by a system that seems to consistently disregard the tenets of human decency, fair treatment, and equal opportunity in favor of preferential treatment, prestige, and power—with little or no consideration of the human consequences.

 

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When I was a boy, my grandfather kept feed for his livestock in what we referred to as the corn crib in our barn. Naturally, rats, attracted to the grain, were a major problem.

One day, I moved a 55-gallon metal barrel into the crib. I put a couple of handsful of grain in the bottom of the barrel and propped a wooden plank outside the barrel against the open top. That night, about half-a-dozen not-so-smart rats climbed up the board and jumped into the barrel to get the grain. Too late they found they couldn’t get out.

I killed the rats and repeated the process each night, thereby eliminating quite a large number of the vermin because they too dumb to comprehend the peril of leaping before then looked.

The Senate passage (87-12) Tuesday of the CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM BILL has put Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry in a metaphorically similar barrel and it’s going to be interesting to see if he can climb out or if he learns from it.

Landry, you see, has spent the duration of his term of office either attacking every initiative of Gov. John Bel Edwards or praising every action of his acknowledged hero, Donald Trump.

He has been especially critical of the governor’s Criminal Justice Reform Program designed to relieve the state of its dubious title as the world’s incarceration center. Until passage of the Criminal Justice Reform Program, Louisiana had the highest rate of incarceration in a nation that had the highest incarceration rate in the civilized world.

No one would try to say there wouldn’t be repeat offenders. That goes with any prison system anywhere but Landry was quick to jump into the fray back in August when he issued a blistering PRESS RELEASE and newspaper OP-EDS proclaiming to anyone who would listen that nearly 25 percent of inmates released under the program had reoffended.

In an especially self-righteous display of sanctimony designed to garner sympathy, he called upon Edwards to apologize to the victims.

A noble but, coming from Landry, a somewhat empty sentiment intended to curry favor while having little to do with any real concern for anyone other than his own political capital. Consider this remark in his press release:

“The governor’s reckless approach to empty our jails simply so he can take credit for a smaller prison population remains a threat to Louisiana citizens. It further highlights the need for truth in sentencing.”

Well, first of all, there was never any intent to “empty our jails.” That’s almost laughable, ranking right up there with some of Trump’s wildly exaggerated claims. As for “truth in sentencing,” I bring to the stand the innumerable investigative audits conducted by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office that were simply filed away somewhere with no action taken against those responsible for mismanagement, malfeasance and embezzlement.

A statewide elected official can let state taxpayers pay his fine for sexual harassment and move on with his life but let some kid from the ghetto get busted for an ounce of pot and all hell breaks loose. Authorities swoop down on him, hustle him off to jail where he is most probably raped as he awaits his trial and sentencing to hard time. How’s that for “truth in sentencing,” Jeff?

It must have kept Landry awake last night just knowing that his hero (Trump) and his nemesis (Edwards) actually worked together in coming up with the criminal justice reform bill, a bill favored by Trump and for which First Son-in-law Jared Kushner actually lobbied.

It must have also upset the folks over at The Hayride after their EDITORIAL last August in which they called for Republican supporters of the Edwards prison reforms “to step away quietly…”

Basically, this is what the criminal justice reform bill does:

  • Sends up to 4,000 prisoners home by increasing the amount of time inmates can cut off of their sentences due to good behavior.
  • Allow more male and female inmates to serve time in house arrest or halfway facilities instead of prison cells, with exceptions for high-risk inmates.
  • Require that prisoners be placed within 500 miles of family.
  • Outlaw shackling during child birth.
  • Mandate the provision of sanitary napkins and tampons to female inmates.
  • Reduce the mandatory penalty from life to 25 years for a third conviction of certain drug offenses, and from 25 to 15 years for a second conviction.
  • Prohibit the doubling up, or “stacking,” of mandatory sentences for certain gun and drug offenses.
  • Give judges more discretion in giving less than the mandatory minimum for certain low-level crimes.
  • Make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, which changed sentencing guidelines to treat offenses involving crack and powder cocaine equally. This could impact nearly 2,600 federal inmates.

The bill would only impact the 180,789 incarcerated in federal prisons, but many of the changes reflect reforms already implemented in many states.

It now goes back to the House, where it is expected to pass with equal ease.

At least one Louisiana politician remained true to his beliefs, however self-serving they may be.

U.S. Sen. JOHN KENNEDY was one of only 12 Republicans in the Senate and the only one from Louisiana to vote against the bill, calling it a “violation of American public safety. He sniffed last August that Edwards “calls it prison reform, I call it prison release.”

Never one to abandon a snippy sound bite if it gets him on camera, he repeated an eerily similar CLAIM last Friday: “This is not a criminal justice bill. It is a prisoner release bill.”

It’s a pity neither is running for governor. It would have been a darn interesting election from an entertainment perspective.

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