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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

A legal battle that began for a Baton Rouge television station more than two years ago is finally over.

The Louisiana Supreme Court has denied writs by a Louisiana state trooper placed on 64-hour (eight working days) suspension following an Internal Affairs investigation after he filed a defamation lawsuit against WBRZ-TV for its story about his suspension.

The gist of the WBRZ story was that Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans, felt that State Police Lt. Robert Burns II should have been prosecuted for violating federal law for running 52 searches in law enforcement databases for personal reasons.

Burns was disciplined after it was revealed that he had run his ex-wife’s name 46 times; her current fiancé twice, and the name of the woman’s former boyfriend four times through Kologic and Mobile Cop, data bases used by law enforcement.

The entirety of the WBRZ story was based on its acquisition of public records, which normally would have negated any claim of defamation but for a growing trend toward so-called SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) lawsuits. The disciplinary letter to Burns said, “Since November of 2013, continuing until October 2016, you have conducted law enforcement search inquiries…for non-law enforcement purposes, in violation of department policy and federal law.” The letter further said that Burns admitted that 51 of the searches “were for strictly personal reasons and not related to any investigation.”

Goyeneche noted that 52 times over a two-year period of time tracking his former wife and some of her acquaintances was “tantamount to stalking.”

Burns’ former wife filed the complaints which initiated the IA investigation.

Burns claimed that on 46 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.” Investigators didn’t buy that explanation

SLAPP lawsuits have only one purpose: to stymie criticism of public officials. In recent cases, they have been used by judges from the 4th Judicial District (Ouachita and Morehouse parishes) against the West Monroe newspaper, The Ouachita Citizen, to discourage that paper’s seeking public records from the court.

Another case involved the mayor, police chief and members of the Welsh Board of Aldermen filing suit against fellow Alderman JACOB COLBY PERRY when he questioned the police department’s budget.

SLAPP lawsuits had their origin during the early days of the Civil Rights struggle when officials in several southern cities, particularly Birmingham and Montgomery, filed costly lawsuits against newspapers, magazines and civil rights leaders in order to discourage attempts at obtaining equal rights and news coverage of those efforts.

Lake Providence native and LSU journalism graduate Aimee Edmondson wrote a definitive book titled IN SULLIVAN’S SHADOW, which explored the spate of SLAPP lawsuits at the dawn of the Civil Rights struggle. The title was drawn from the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Sullivan v. New York Times in which Montgomery police commissioner Lester Sullivan sued The New York Times over its coverage of bus station beatings of blacks in that city.

The Supreme Court’s ruling raised the bar for public officials to prove libel so long as a publication believed what it published was true and published “without malice.”

So frivolous did WBRZ consider the Burns lawsuit initially that it failed to even answer the suit, a early tactical error that resulted in a default judgment of $2.5 million—which may have just as well been in some of Odell Beckham Jr.’s phony money he was handing out to LSU players following Monday night’s national championship game.

The station filed an appeal which was upheld by the First Circuit Court of Appeal, effectively tossing out Burn’s lawsuit.

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It looks as though the John Hays Memorial Rumor Mill might become a regular feature of LouisianaVoice.

For the unindoctrinated, Hays, who died five years ago following a protracted battle with cancer, was publisher of Ruston’s Morning Paper, a weekly edition that took on the entrenched power structure and never let up.

But what began as a one-man crusade against the local hospital and local, municipally-run power plant quickly expanded into the scourge of any would-be swindlers, scam artists and flim-flam peddlers. He once took on Ponzi schemer Steven Hoffenberg who headed up a scam called Towers Financial Corp. (TFC) and sent Hoffenberg packing off to federal prison, copping his Morning Paper a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in the process.

As I said yesterday in the column immediately below this one, the misfortune of having one’s name crop up in his Rumor Mill was the local equivalent to having Mike Wallace show up at your office for an interview on 60 Minutes.

And as I said in the opening paragraph, his Rumor Mill may, of necessity, become a permanent feature here after picking up on the rumor we heard today.

(Drum roll, please):

Politics can be a dicey game as two high-ranking officials in the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office apparently have learned, according to reports that have reached the executive offices of LouisianaVoice in beautiful downtown Denham Springs.

Without naming names (we’ll do that when we get official confirmation), word is Gov. John Bel Edwards has sent down word from the State Capitol’s Fourth Floor that the two LSFM officials, one stationed in the LSFM’s Baton Rouge headquarters and the other in Lafayette an hour to the west, should no longer be considered state employees.

Their sin? Backing the wrong horse in the recent gubernatorial election and doing it openly.

But, hey! That’s the price you pay for working as an unclassified state employee. Unclassified means you are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the governor, unprotected by Civil Service.

Unclassified, unlike classified (Civil Service) employees are free to participate in political campaigns, but they best be careful which candidate they back. Support the wrong one and your career can—and will be—cut short.

These two, we’re told, actively campaigned for Republican Eddie Rispone, apparently fairly certain that a Democrat couldn’t possible be elected governor twice in such a red state dominated by the likes of Lane Grigsby, Rispone’s mentor and principal benefactor. Surely Edwards’s win over David Vitter four years ago was an anomaly, more of an indictment of Vitter than an endorsement of Edwards, a (shudder) Democrat.

That may have been where the smart money was but the smart money doesn’t always take into account the intangibles in a tight election and the intangibles in this one included the impotence of Donald Trump’s support of Rispone (three trips to Louisiana) and an unexpectedly high turnout in support of Edwards.

And unclassified employees who rode the wrong pony are now paying the price.

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The Law is for Protection of the People

—Kris Kristofferson

The late John Hays had a popular column in his weekly Ruston newspaper The Morning Paper that he called The Rumor Mill. Getting a mention in his Rumor Mill was something about as thrilling as having Mike Wallace show up at your door for a 60 Minutes interview.

LouisianaVoice would like to briefly reprise that column with the reliable rumor that Felicia Williams, chief judge for the Second Circuit Court, will be a candidate in the special election to fill the unexpired term of Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Marcus Clark, who has submitted his retirement to the Secretary of State, effective June 30, less than four years into his 10-year term. (Read Clark’s resignation story HERE.)

It’s important to note that Judge Williams assumed the mantle of chief judge by default in October, succeeding Judge Henry Brown, Jr., who was forced from the bench by the State Supreme Court. Technically, Brown “retired” a week after the Supreme Court ordered him to vacate the appeals court building. (Read that story HERE.)

LouisianaVoice has written numerous stories about the manner in which the state, abetted by the Second Circuit, screwed over contractor Jeff Mercer, a Mangham subcontractor on several construction projects for the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD).

(Read those stories HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

And while LouisianaVoice was the only one pursuing this story for a while, it was just a matter of time before the twisted, incestuous series of sordid events would produce serious questions of alleged misappropriation, impropriety and ethics violations to such an extent that others would be drawn to the story.

Ruston’s Walter Abbott of the web blog Lincoln Parish News Online has done a great job of constructing a media timeline of news stories on the Jeff Mercer’s David vs. Goliath battle for justice. (Read his story HERE.)

Gary Hines, a former co-worker during my brief stint at the Shreveport Journal, and Jamie Ostroff have done a good job on an in-depth story for KTBS-TV of Shreveport that reads like a scaled-down version of the J. Howard Marshall/Anna Nicole Smith saga of 20 years ago. (You can read the KTBS story HERE.)

That story, instead of taking place in the city of Houston, involves the estate of a man named Houston and even the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine got drawn into the controversy.

You see, a woman named Hahn Williams (no relation to Judge Williams) was Houston’s financial adviser and it just happened that Judge Brown and Hahn Williams were tight.

When the LSU Vet school learned it was beneficiary of much of Houston’s estate, officials there naturally wondered why (a) they hadn’t been informed and (b) they hadn’t received any of the money.

So, the vet school did what anyone would do. It sued Hahn Williams.

Hahn Williams was subsequently ordered by a Caddo First District Court to pay the vet school $1.5 million. Broke, she sold her house to Judge Brown who (a) allowed her to remain living there and (b) eventually became her attorney in her legal efforts to fight off forced bankruptcy—raising the question obvious to most as to why Brown is even allowed to practice law at all in light of his egregious transgression while on the bench. In other words, why wasn’t he disbarred outright in light of of such a serious ethics breach?

Before Brown became her attorney, she appealed her adverse verdict to the Second Circuit where Judge Brown recused himself, but apparently attempted to lean on other judges, which eventually brought the wrath of the State Supreme Court down upon him, forcing his “retirement.”

Added to that, his law clerk, Trina Chu, was also Williams’s longtime friend and she downloaded documents to her own flash drives and emailed legal advice to Williams who then forwarded portions of those communications to Judge Brown via his Second Circuit court email address.

And here’s the real kicker: The Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Department concluded no criminal charges were warranted in the computer hacking.

The Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office, however, was not quite satisfied and decided more work was needed as it took over the investigation. But DA James Stewart is himself a former judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeal and worked with Chu and served on the court with Judge Brown, which would seem to give him a built-in conflict of interest in any investigation.

All of which may explain why the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office is now involved. But, given Attorney General Jeff Landry’s track record, that’s where criminal investigations go to die unless they can directly promote his political career.

Meanwhile, Mercer is seeking the entire case file, convinced it will aid him in his own pursuit of justice. He filed the appropriate public records requests which both the sheriff’s office and the DA’s office are fighting on the grounds the computer hacking is an ongoing investigation.

Of course, Mercer’s case is ongoing as well and the contents of those files could conceivably help him but no one in a position of authority seems to give a damn about that.

And, it turns out, the DA’s office got involved only after Mercer made his public records request, thus giving the DA justification for refusing his records request on the grounds that there was this “ongoing investigation.”

While district court judges would have to resign their positions to run for the Supreme Court, Judge Williams, as a member of the Court of Appeal, would not, giving her a distinct advantage.

Still, she would have one disadvantage in running.

Jeff Mercer will do everything within his power to legally see to it she is never elected.

And that goes, he said, for the other judges who served on the panel that overturned the unanimous trial court $20 million verdict in his favor.

Stay tuned.

 

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Did physical therapist Philippe Veeters have a guardian angel watching over him, protecting him from an aggressive investigation by Baton Rouge authorities after he was accused of inappropriate touching of female patients and inappropriate comments about their bodies?

Veeters, you may recall from LouisianaVoice’s story last month, was first arrested last February on the basis of complaints from several female patients but the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s office didn’t get around to submitted a bill of information against him until Nov. 1.

See that story HERE.

Veeters, it turns out, besides operating his own facility, Dutch Physical Therapy, also has an affiliation with The Spine Diagnostic Promotional, LLC.

Louisiana Secretary of State corporate records indicate that The Spine Diagnostic Promotional has two officers—Veeters and Dr. J. Michael Burdine.

The association with Burdine is significant in that until recently, Burdine was President of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners.

To be clear, the State Board of Medical Examiners has no direct authority over physical therapists who are licensed and regulated by the Louisiana Physical Therapy Board.

But both the State Board of Medical Examiners and the Louisiana Physical Therapy Board operate under the umbrella of the Louisiana Department of Health. That, and the business relationship between Veeters and Burdine creates at least a perception by one woman who has complained about Veeters of too much coziness between the two boards.

The two boards even shared a common legal counsel until attorney George Papale was TERMINATED by the physical therapy board following complaints about the board’s handling of….sexual misconduct cases involving physical therapists.

 

Business: THE SPINE DIAGNOSTIC PROMOTIONAL, L.L.C.
Charter Number: 35730933K
Registration Date: 6/28/2004

 

Domicile Address
  5408 FLANDERS DR.
  BATON ROUGE, LA 70808

 

Status: Active
File Date: 6/28/2004
Last Report Filed: 7/5/2018
Type: Limited Liability Company

 

Agent: J. MICHAEL BURDINE
Address 1: 5408 FLANDERS DR.
City, State, Zip: BATON ROUGE, LA 70808
Appointment Date: 6/28/2004

 

Officer: J. MICHAEL BURDINE, M.D.
Title: Member
Address 1: 5408 FLANDERS DR.
City, State, Zip: BATON ROUGE, LA 70808

 

Officer: PHILIPPE VEETERS
Title: Member
Address 1: 10343 SIEGEN LN.
City, State, Zip: BATON ROUGE, LA 70810

 

Here is the biographical information on Dr. Burdine prior to his leaving the Board of Medical Examiners:

Board Members

J Michael Burdine, MD – President

Dr. Burdine grew up in Lafayette, LA attending high school at Acadiana High and received his bachelor of science at LSU in Baton Rouge.  He attended medical school at LSU New Orleans graduating in 1983.  He completed his internship at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and after, worked emergency medicine for four years in the Acadiana area.  He attended the University of Arkansas in Little Rock studying Anesthesiology and moved to the University of Cincinnati to complete his fellowship in Pain Management.  He worked in Oklahoma City providing outpatient regional anesthesia and pain management for eleven years before returning to Baton Rouge in 2002 to practice pain management exclusively.

Since returning to Baton Rouge Dr. Burdine has been an active member in the Louisiana State Medical Society, the President of the Capitol Area Medical Society, and the President of the Louisiana Society of Interventional Pain Physicians.  He was an Executive Board Member of the Arthritis Association of Louisiana and was its volunteer of the year in 2006.  He serves on the Louisiana Medicare Carrier Advisory Committee; is an Executive Board Member of the Louisiana Society of Anesthesiologists; and the LSIPP Delegate to the Calcasieu Prescription Drug Task Force.

In 2008 he was voted Medtronic’s Patient Access Advocacy Hero and has twice been a CRC of America Top 100 Physicians in Pain Management.

Dr. Burdine is Board Certified by the American Board of Anesthesiology and holds added Certification in Pain Management in 1996 and 2006 by the ABMS.  He is a member of multiple National and State wide physician organizations.  He is currently in full time private practice at the Spine Diagnostic and Pain Treatment Center of which he is the founder in Baton Rouge, LA.

 

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It seems I owe Steve Pylant an apology.

I left him out of my book Louisiana’s Rogue Sheriffs: A Culture of Corruption.

Please know it was an oversight and was never an intentional slight of the former three-term Franklin Parish sheriff and current lame duck state representative.

Please consider this my feeble attempt to atone for that glaring omission.

After all, his voting record in the House was consistently that of a staunch law-and-order, lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key hard-liner.

Except, of course, when he decided to come to the rescue of four former meth felons caught with weapons in neighboring Catahoula Parish.

In case you may not remember that story I wrote last January, you can read it HERE.

But my reason for bringing him up again is not only to express my contrition for omitting him from the book.

My reason this time concerns a couple of incidents just a couple of months ago which might leave the mistaken impression that Pylant is still the high sheriff—or thinks he is.

Pylant apparently feels he has the right to attempt to enter private property and question occupants without a warrant or even a badge.

In fact, he seems to feel he can even brandish a weapon and force two women driving alone at 10 p.m. to pull over on a darkened Franklin Parish roadway.

April Franks says she and her friend, Amber Conley, were stopped by Pylant and a man named Steve Drane, 50, of Gilbert on the night of Oct. 16. “It was a dark road,” said Franks, who said she believed Pylant, who was waving a gun, was drunk. “[He] grabbed the door window and slammed his pistol against it, telling us we could not leave.”

Drane was one of four convicted felons for whom Pylant secured a $90,000 property bond to spring them from jail in Catahoula Parish in December 2018. Another of those arrested for hunting on private property in Tensas Parish on that occasion was Michael Linder, whose brother, Bryan Linder, was—and still is—an employee of the Franklin Parish Sheriff’s Department.

Each of the four men had prior drug convictions as well as other assorted convictions spread among them and each was armed at the time of the arrests even though convicted felons are prohibited by law from possessing firearms.

None of which deterred Pylant from stepping in to conduct his own traffic stop despite lacking the proper credentials to do so.

“He had no right to pull us over,” Franks said. “He and Steve Drane were sitting in a curve 200 yard from where we pulled out – right past the boat landing they had been watching us from for two hours. He was in the middle of the road waving his hands in the air and was holding a pistol. We had no choice but to stop. Amber, my friend, was driving and thought they must need help …. that was not the case at all. In the video I sent you he (Pylant) is saying he didn’t ‘point the pistol as us I had it in the air.’  He was visibly and audibly drunk that night.”

Franks said she subsequently called the police department and “told them some man stopped us with a pistol and was drunk and they told me that there was already an officer out there to talk to him.

“A few days later, I went to get a copy of the police report and (Deputy) Bryan Linder (brother of Michael Linder) took me to his office, acted like he was looking for it and then told me that he didn’t have one, that he doesn’t require his officers to write up every little call and if I didn’t like his response, I could go across the hall to (Sheriff) Kevin Cobb’s office and talk to him.”

No record of a report of a man waving a gun and pulling motorists over in the middle of the night? Seriously? That begs the question of just what would a person have to do to generate an incident report? Once, when I was running police beat for the Baton Rouge State-Times, I saw an incident report of a “deceased chicken.”

Cobb, of course, was Pylant’s chief deputy before succeeding his former boss as sheriff.

The traffic stop by an unauthorized individual brandishing a weapon (drunk or sober) would be bad enough but just minutes later, Pylant and Drane appeared alongside a houseboat on the Tensas River owned by Frank’s friend Amos “Gene” Kenney of Gilbert.

Pylant, claiming he smelled meth cooking. Kenney responded that he was running trot lines and was cooking only beans on his boat.

Pylant then referred to another boat in the river, indicating the smell was coming from that direction. “It may be,” Kenney said, “but that ain’t my boat. This is my boat here and I’m cooking a pot of beans.”

Pylant insisted on searching the boat but Kenney demanded to see a search a warrant, which, of course, neither he nor sheriff’s deputy Brandon Boxx, who eventually showed up on the scene, happened to have on them. When Franks alluded to Pylant’s pointing a pistol at her car earlier, he denied it, saying, he was holding the pistol “in the air.”

At one point, Pylant said to Franks, “I’m gon’ tell you, baby, you piss on somebody’s foot…” Without completing what almost certainly was a profound thought, he switched gears, telling “Baby”, “I been in law enforcement for 30 years. I was sheriff here a long time.”

Pylant, harking back to his glory days as sheriff of Franklin Parish, boasted, “I was sheriff here a long time. I been retired eight years. I been in the state legislature.” Claiming he knew what meth smells like, he said, “I took the first meth lab down in northeast Louisiana in 1996 and I know what it smells like.”

Then he said, “I’m interested in seeing what we gonna find on that houseboat out there ‘cause I done seen y’all go back and forth out there twice.”

“We were on a trot line,” Franks protested.

“Naw, you wasn’t on no damn trot line,” Pylant said. “Somebody’s probably still in the houseboat.”

“I hope so,” Franks said. “Then there won’t be any question.”

“Well I heard y’all get out and get on it and ever’thang,” Pylant said.

After more back and forth accusations and denials, Franks said, “Well, I’m not going to argue with you…”

“There ain’t no need,” Pylant said, sounding like a true southern redneck sheriff that he seemed to think he still was. “It’s a damn shame,” he said, “a damn shame.”

I couldn’t have said it better, Rep. Pylant.

The folks in House District 20 must be so very proud.

And folks dare wonder why our legislature is so dysfunctional?

For your viewing enjoyment:

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