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Archive for the ‘Judges’ Category

By Robert Burns

After Louisiana’s FYE books were closed on June 30, 2013, the Jindal administration touted the fact that 2,340 hospital employees had been laid off during that fiscal year. Nevertheless, one hospital, the Huey P. Long Hospital in Pineville, was proving particularly vexing for Jindal’s administration.

With much fanfare, Jindal’s folks called a news conference to announce that the hospital’s operations would be transferred to England Airpark with an estimated $30 million required to renovate the facility which was closed in the early 1990s. The money was said to come from $5 million pledged by the England facility and the remainder from state-issued capital outlay bonds issued during FYE ’13.

Despite all of the hoopla associated with the announcement of the transfer, the proposal ended up fizzling out, and Jindal’s administration had to conjure up a “Plan B.”

That turned out to be another iteration of the public/private partnerships for which the Jindal administration essentially could have qualified for a patent on crafting such arrangements. In this instance, the public/private partnership would entail Rapides Regional Medical Center and Christus St. Frances Cabrini Hospital taking over much of the workload of Huey P. Long.

Of course, the whole proposal had the

gnawing obstacle that it needed approval from those darn folks at the Legislature, and that’s where things got interesting.

To accomplish the goal, Senator Gerald Long obediently introduced

Senate Concurrent Resolution (SCR) 48 in the regular session of the 2014 Legislative Session. On March 31, 2014, the Senate Committee posted an agenda for its meeting of April 2, 2014; however, that agenda was devoid of any reference to SCR-48.

On April 1, 2014 at 4:07 p.m., a revised agenda was posted in which SCR

-48 was posted and itemized to include a notation entailing its subject matter: “creating a new model of health care delivery in the Alexandria and Pineville area.” Amendments were added to SCR-48, and it ultimately passed both the House (66-28) and Senate (26-11).

Baton Rouge attorney Arthur Smith, III,

filed litigation on behalf of affected employees of the hospital and others alleging violations of Senate Rules of Order 13.73 and 13.75.

Also alleged was a violation of Louisiana’s Open Meetings Laws

, and relief was sought to have SCR-48 declared null and void (a relief available under Louisiana’s Open Meetings laws) based on that violation and also an assertion that SCR-48 was unconstitutional. A preliminary injunction was also sought to block the closure of the hospital with the ultimate goal of obtaining a permanent injunction.

The trial court granted the preliminary injunction, but it simultaneously suspended enforcement of the

preliminary injunction upon the defendants (the Louisiana Senate, LSU, and the State of Louisiana) perfecting an appeal.

It was initially believed that the Louisiana Supreme Court (LSC) would decide the matter because of the issue raised of the constitutionality of SCR

-48. However, the Supreme Court quickly refused to hear the matter in stating that it was “not properly before this Court.” The Supremes (no, not the singing Supremes) elaborated by ruling that it could consider only matters which had been declared unconstitutional in a court of law.

Since the trial court’s reasons for judgment only made reference to the

potential unconstitutionality of SCR-48 without making a definitive declaration that it was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court denied writs.

Meanwhile, the hospital was closed, and Smith took his case to the First Circuit Court of Appeal. That appeal was dismissed based

upon the fact there was no active injunction to prevent the hospital from being closed. That was the case because, expecting (wrongly) the Supreme Court to rule on the matter, Judge Robert Downing suspended the preliminary injunction. With no injunction in place to prevent the closure, the hospital was padlocked.

The First Circuit issued its decision on September 15, 2015. That ruling notwithstanding, the

declaratory judgment aspect of the lawsuit could proceed forward, and that led to a hearing in 19th JDC Judge Don Johnson’s courtroom on Monday, June 13, 2016.

During that hearing, much of what has been elaborated above was rehashed, but then co-counsel for the day’s proceedings, Chris Roy, Sr., of Alexandria, took center stage and converted what had been basically a snooze fest into a fireworks display.

Prior to Roy beginning testimony, Judge Johnson interjected a few points of his own into the arguments. First, Johnson indicated that, while he was a student at Southern University, he experienced a significant health issue and went to Baton Rouge’s local charity hospital

, Earl K. Long, and he said, “I sure was glad it was there to treat me.”

Earl K. Long was also shut down by the Jindal administration and subsequently demolished. Emergency room treatment of indigent patients was initially taken over by Baton Rouge General Midtown. But Baton Rouge General closed its emergency room more than a year ago. That forced low-income charity patients in the northern part of East Baton Rouge Parish to travel a much further distance to Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center in South Baton Rouge for treatment. That point was not lost on attorneys for the defendants who claimed that care would continue to be provided for the underprivileged, but such care would simply now take place under the new public/private venture.

Roy said that the closure of the

Huey Long Charity Hospital caused an enormous level of anxiety among the community’s population and also with the employees of the hospital. Johnson acknowledged that fact and said, “I’m aware of that fact. They didn’t like it at all.” Roy stressed that “125 employees lost their jobs and $11 million in wages were lost as a result of this episode.”

Roy focused most of his arguments on the fact that, contrary to defense attorney claims, the whole issue

of SCR-48 is not now “moot.” He emphasized that ordinary citizens are provided with only one mechanism for making their sentiments known about proposed legislation and that is through “showing up and testifying at committees and subcommittees of the Legislature.”

Roy then rhetorically asked how they were supposed to do that w

hen the Senate would engage in such a “flat-out violation” of posting an addition to the agenda at 4:07 p.m. the day before a hearing when the clearly-established deadline was 1 p.m. for such an addition. Roy then stressed his age, and even poked fun at the relative youth of one of his opposing counselors (who appeared to be in his late 20s at most), in indicating that he, Roy, was one of the participants in the formation of the present Louisiana Constitution.

Roy said, “One of our main objectives was to try and make everything as transparent as possible because there had been a prior governor, whom I won’t reference by name (a thinly veiled reference to Huey Long), who sought to keep the public from knowing

anything that was transpiring.” The irony of the subject matter of the suit being the closing of a hospital named for him seemed not to be lost on anybody in the room.

“Your Honor,” Roy continued, “the Senate basically said ‘to hell with the Constitution. We are the Senate of the State of Louisiana, and we decide what we will do and won’t do.’” Roy then emphasized that opposing counsel could not simply argue that the whole matter was “moot,” and assert a defense along the lines of “we won’t do it again.” Roy then emphasized that Louisiana Senate President John Alario is a good man with integrity and a close personal friend of his, but he then asserted that what Alario allowed to transpire in this instance was just “wrong.”

The State sought the granting of a Motion for Summary Judgment (MSJ) to dismiss the case, and the plaintiffs sought the granting of an MSJ declaring SCR-48 to be null and void. In the battle of the MSJs, Johnson ruled in favor of the plaintiffs: “SCR-48 of the 2014 Regular Session is declared to be Null and Void. The Plaintiff’s may seek attorney fees, costs, and expenses through post-hearing motion. The Joint Motion for Summary Judgment filed by defendants is denied.”

Now all that remains to be seen is whether the state will have to pay salaries and benefits retroactive to the hospital’s closing date to those 125 employees (the amount given was $11 million saved by closing the facility) or if there will be yet another appeal of a 19th JDC judge’s ruling to the First Circuit.

The smart money is on an appeal.

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By Robert Burns

With all parties acknowledging the need for an affirmation of her ruling Monday (June 13, 2016) by the First Circuit Court of Appeal, 19th JDC Judge Janice Clark denied multiple exceptions filed by the Louisiana State Office of Group Benefits (OGB) in response to a lawsuit filed by six retired state employees.

The lawsuit alleges that OGB, which provides health insurance coverage to nearly a quarter of a million state workers, teachers, retirees, and dependents, didn’t follow proper approval procedures calling for prior notice and public comment on significant changes to their health insurance coverage.

Winston DeCuir, Sr., who claimed in oral arguments before Judge Clark that the lawsuit was “moot,” explained that in June 2014, significant changes began to come under consideration for OGB benefits.

When an uproar began that the contemplated changes had not followed proper procedures, former Louisiana Attorney General James D. “Buddy” Caldwell’s Office issued a ruling on September 23, 2014 that, in fact, the rule-making process had been circumvented.

Pursuant to Caldwell’s ruling, DeCuir said, OGB sought an “emergency rule” to take effect because of the urgency of the situation. When Judge Clark inquired, “What triggered the need for the emergency rule?” DeCuir responded that the rapidly-shrinking balance in the reserve fund prompted OGB actuaries to say something had to be done as soon as possible.

DeCuir indicated that genuine concerns existed that, if the rate of decline wasn’t slowed, the system could literally deplete its reserve balance and be left with no funds with which to pay claims. He neglected to say the reserve fund was drawn down from its one-time high of $500 million by the reckless fiscal policies of the Bobby Jindal administration.

DeCuir explained that because of the looming impact the rule change would have on those covered by OGB benefits, on November 23, 2014, OGB issued the emergency rule but also provided simultaneous guidance entailing the additional costs to those covered.

He indicated that some costs would continue to be reimbursed until September 30, 2014 rather than August 1, 2014 as was originally planned.  He also emphasized that full implementation of the changes would not transpire until March 1, 2015 rather than January 1, 2015.

DeCuir noted that the final rule entailing full implementation was implemented on February 20, 2015 to replace the emergency rule. He said that with the required 180-day timeframe for going through normal procedures for rule changes, together with another 180 days to actually implement the changes, OGB’s reserves would have run a very serious risk of being fully depleted before the effects of the changes could take hold.

DeCuir said a public hearing was held on the changes but was “very, very poorly attended.”  He added, “In fact, I don’t know if any of Art’s (Smith, counsel for plaintiffs) clients were even present for the hearing.” Arthur Smith, III, dismissed the hearing as a “sham” designed to accomplish nothing but “window dressing with everything already done.”

Smith then focused his arguments on Jindal’s administration having “drained” OGB’s reserve balances. That statement prompted a sharp retort by DeCuir who said, “That statement simply is not accurate. There was not one dime transferred out of OGB’s reserves to the general fund. What transpired is that premiums charged to members declined. That, in turn, resulted in a decline in the State of Louisiana’s match in that it covers 75 percent of the cost of the coverage.  That is what caused the reserves to decline.”

Judge Clark then asked for reiteration of the fact that no funds were swept from OGB’s reserves to the general fund. Both DeCuir and Michael Adams, another defense attorney representing OGB, were emphatic in stating no such sweeps transpired.

What actually occurred was this: the administration lowered premiums so that its own 75 percent match would be reduced and the money saved from that maneuver was then used to cover some of the recurring budgetary shortfalls experienced by Jindal and a sadly incompetent but compliant Legislature for eight straight years. The decline in premiums, Mr. DeCuir, was not caused by fewer covered employees but by the clumsy shell game perpetrated by Jindal and Co. That statement, Mr. DeCuir, is accurate.

DeCuir indicated to Judge Clark that the plaintiffs may not be happy if they get what they’re ultimately seeking with their lawsuit. He explained that it’s conceivable that plaintiffs could end up owing OGB significant premium dollars if the plaintiffs do in fact ultimately prevail.

In making her ruling, Judge Clark stated: “The Court is of the opinion that plaintiffs have stated a valid cause of action within the four corners of the document.  It’s time for this matter to be presented to the First Circuit, which I understand is now returning from Sandestin, so that these plaintiffs can know whether they can move forward with their claim or have it drained.”

Adams then inquired about the prospect for him to assert Exceptions for Prematurity and Subject Matter Jurisdiction. Clark said that the Exception of Prematurity was too “intertwined” with DeCuir’s exception and therefore denied that exception as part of the day’s proceedings.  When DeCuir inquired if he could reassert the Exception of Subject Matter Jurisdiction, Clark indicated he could “have another bite at the apple, but it needs to be quick.”

Smith wrapped up the proceedings by inquiring about a Motion to Compel he’d previously filed, but Clark said, “Surely that matter can be resolved between the parties.” Adams then indicated that Smith had modified his discovery requests to make it far more narrow and that he believed that a mere meeting between him and Smith ought to be able to negate the need for any hearing on a Motion to Compel.

Adams said after the day’s hearing that he would appeal Clark’s ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeal.

Judge Clark said if the whole matter proceeds to trial, “It will be a challenge to keep the jurors awake when all those actuaries start testifying.”

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MAGNIFYING GLASS

By Ken Booth

Guest Columnist 

Under the provisions of Louisiana 44:1 et seq. (The Public Records Law), should any local or state government official raise questions as to whether requested records are public, the agency’s custodian of public documents is required to notify in writing the person making the request of the custodian’s determination and the reasons, including the legal basis. Said notice shall be made within three days of the request exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays (emphasis added).

The law is pretty plain. It doesn’t say “may be made,” “might be made” or “should be made” within three days. The word used was shall.

MIKE EDMONSON PHOTO

But with the introduction of the new administration, elected and appointed officials in Louisiana seem to have decided they are exempt from provisions of the state law…one of them, the head of the State Police, of all people, even having “manufactured…own loophole for denying public records requests,” as reported by Louisiana Voice. https://louisianavoice.com/2016/06/01/lsp-stakes-out-claim-that-investigations-records-are-exempt-from-public-records-law-if-no-disciplinary-action-is-taken/

Are they perhaps taking their cues from federal officials?  Within the past week, for instance, the State Department told a federal court that processing a demand for documents relating to Hillary Clinton and her aides would take as long as 75 years and would stretch “generations.”

Besides Obama, of course, Nixon, both Bushes and Bill Clinton have regularly invoked executive privilege as a means of protecting documents from public scrutiny.

What brings this to mind are a series of demands for public records recently involving three areas of significant public interest but which have either gone unacknowledged or denied or even fought with lawsuits against the public seeking the records.  That’s a mean stretch even by Louisiana’s political and corruption standards.

When the weekly Ouachita Citizen sought to follow-up on a state audit that pointed to possible payroll fraud involving a law clerk for the 4th Judicial District Court, the court’s judges balked and denied the paper’s request for disciplinary action taken against court clerk Allyson Campbell over her alleged falsification of time sheets and other public documents.

When the newspaper filed a complaint with the District Attorney, the court filed a lawsuit against the newspaper which from a financial standpoint would effectively throttle further attempts to litigate the issue.

The paper has multiple public requests in at the office of state Attorney-General Jeff Landry which have for weeks gone unanswered.

Similarly, a couple of my own requests (shown here) to the new “transparency-minded” and “aggressive” Republican Attorney-General remain without result except for one letter which said it “may take some time.”

In a June 7th E-mail to Landry’s office, I wrote: “I would very much appreciate either the documents requested sixteen days ago or an opinion from that office on why they cannot be produced. Please know this is a public records request that will not go away silently.”

Landry’s press secretary Ruth Wisher has made sure that reporters know that her boss doesn’t always return her texts. Well, that certainly makes everything hunky-dory.

BOOTH REQUEST

AG RESPONSE TO BOOTH

BOOTH FOLLOW UP REQUEST
           Known records requests to the AG’s office also demand access to a state police report on its investigation into the allegations of possible payroll fraud and destruction or concealment of court documents. A report on the findings from a companion investigation by the Inspector General’s office was released back on April 15th. The state police report is known to be in the hands of the Attorney General.

All of this is at odds with the very public Landry who has been throwing his weight around the capitol lately pushing for control of his agency’s own finances, making national headlines while trying unsuccessfully to crack down on illegal aliens, and squaring off (at least publicly) with the Gov. John Bel Edwards as if he hopes to succeed him some day.

But Landry and the 4th Judicial District Court in Ouachita Parish are not the only ones playing keep-away with public records.

LouisianaVoice has been repeatedly stymied by the Louisiana State Police with respect to sought after records.

In fact, as a recent LouisianaVoice post notes, Edmonson has manufactured his own loophole for denying public records requests after tiring, he suggests, of the public learning of “far too many instances of misconduct at LSP followed by a mindset of circling the wagons.”

Several high-profile cases of alleged improper State Trooper conduct have been determined to have been free of wrong doing and are therefore exempt  from public records laws if no diciplinary action is taken. That’s staking out a rather questionable claim by the Supertindent.

Curiously, however, his agency did release records showing payroll fraud had occurred at Troop D headquartered in Lake Charles when the lieutenant there was accused of having instructed the men under his command to pad their time sheets to reflect work that had not been performed.

Ironically, that’s the same charge investigated by the same LSP against the law clerk in Ouachita Parish, the report of which has been hidden from public scrutiny even amid growing speculation nothing will come of the charges against her or the Judges who approved her bogus time sheets. It should be noted that the Troop D lieutenant was found to have engaged in “no wrong doing” and access to any investigation findings with respect to him has been denied. However, a trooper he supervised and who figured in the padded time sheets was fired.

The Superintendent of the Louisiana State Police is appointed by the Governor with consent of the State Senate. Edmonson had—and continues to have—the support of Gov. Edwards.

Edwards is also credited with preserving through his influence, at least indirectly, the job of another Jindal administration hold-over department head, Education Superintendent John White. While White actually is appointed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education over which the governor has little control since most board members are elected, his stated support of White certainly didn’t hurt.

JOHN WHITE PHOTO

White, a 2012 BESE appointee, has been under considerable public fire over his steadfast defense of the Common Core program.

White has filed a lawsuit against two individuals seeking public records in five different requests from the Department of Education, presumably to block their access to dirty laundry in that agency as might be said of the lawsuit by the Judges in Monroe against The Ouachita Citizen.

Even considering Louisiana’s notorius reputation for politial scandals, suing private citizens or even the news media by government agencies has plunged the state’s standards to a new low.

As has been pointed out elsewhere the use of unlimited financial and legal resources—all paid for by the taxpayers—to block citizens with limited financial means is a dangerous threat to the very notion of checks and balances that are supposed to protect the public from abuse.

For those elected Louisiana officials to sit back and do nothing to put a stop to this unprecedented assault on the public’s right-to-know is pretty much tantamount to an endorsement of such actions.

And if the civilian public looks the other way when this kind of mess is exposed and doesn’t demand that it stop then expect the level of distrust to grow.

 

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It seems that certain state officials are finding a new means of discouraging Louisiana citizens from seeking information about the way the public’s business is being conducted. This new tactic is nothing less than a form of official harassment that is both chilling and dangerous.

Transparency and accountability in government are currently hot news topics. Last week (May 26), a local Baton Rouge group, Leaders with Vision, held a lunch meeting and discussion with the theme, “Are Louisiana Sunshine Laws adequate in today’s 21st Century World?” Participants included Sen. Dan Claitor; Rep. Dee Richard; Former Baton Rouge Advocate Executive Editor and transparency advocate Carl Redman and LouisianaVoice Editor Tom Aswell.

Both the state and the federal government recognize the need for transparency in the democratic process. Louisiana passed the Louisiana Public Records Act, also known as Louisiana’s Sunshine Law, in 1940 – more than 25 years before President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. Anyone can request public records and the purpose of the request does not need to be stated. In fact, the custodian of the record is not allowed to ask the purpose. The major exemptions are pending criminal litigation; juvenile status offenders; sexual offense victims; security procedures; trade secrets; and some public employee information.

Unfortunately, not everyone in government agrees with the concept of transparency and accountability. We have public officials suing constituents in an obvious effort to prevent them from accessing public records. Two recent examples follow.

On May 27, A LouisianaVoice REPORT revealed that several judges in the 4th Judicial Circuit Court filed a lawsuit against The Ouachita Citizen and Publisher Sam Hanna, Jr to prevent the publication from seeking public records to which they were legally entitled. In this case, judges are suing a publication to prevent them from accessing public records concerning the court operation and their presumably dirty laundry.

Now we find that closer to home, John White has likewise filed a LAWSUIT against Mike Deshotels and Dr. James Finney over public record requests that they made to the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) – most likely because they have hit a nerve.

On May 31, 2016, Dr. James Finney detailed the history of the suits in a letter to the Governor, John White, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) members, and various state staff how the lawsuit came about:

As you may recall, I sent you an email March 12 (attached below) describing the status of several pending record requests that I had placed with John White and the Department of Education.  I also mentioned the existence of a lawsuit (Finney vs White, 6395333, attached).  That lawsuit, which was filed May 22, 2015, was set for trial in late April.

However, on April 11, Mr. White’s attorney requested and was granted a continuance, presumably to become better prepared for trial and to resolve a scheduling conflict with the Department’s sole witness.  Rather than prepare for trial, however, it seems that Mr. White instead instructed his attorney to file two lawsuits against me which appear to be groundless, unnecessary, and against the public interest. Meanwhile, Mr. White and his staff have made no effort to address the 35 pending requests which are subject of my lawsuit.

The first new lawsuit (White vs Finney, 647827, attached) addresses five requests I made in fall 2015, five that I made in February of this year, and one that I made in March. In the lawsuit, Mr. White apparently is asking the judge to create special conditions on Louisiana’s public records law. It seems that, for whatever reason, Mr. White is bending over backward to make sure the public has no idea what statistical distributions LEAP, iLEAP, or EOC test scores follow.  Are they symmetric?  Skewed?  Bimodal? Uniform?  Nor does he, it seems, wish the public to have any means of verifying that School or District Performance Scores have been fairly and accurately calculated.

The second new lawsuit (White vs Deshotels et al, 647953, attached) attempts to reverse favorable judgments Mr. Deshotels received in two prior lawsuits, and apply that reversal (which seems unlikely given that the 19th JDC is not an appellate court) to a subsequent request by Mr. Deshotels and also to one of my requests.  He seeks to use Mr. Deshotels and I as pawns, and cost us additional time and money, to establish a data-suppression policy that was already soundly rejected at court.

I have repeatedly requested meetings with Mr. White and/or his staff to work out arrangements that allow the public to have access to important public records without compromising student privacy nor causing the Department undue burden. I have consistently been rebuffed. And now we’re tangled in litigation in three different divisions of the local district court.

Most of my requests to date, and all that are subject to litigation thus far, could be collected into the following six categories. I trust you would consider these all to be important and of potential public interest:

  • calculation details regarding Value-Added Modeling as performed by the Department
  • voucher programs’ exact enrollments and costs, and demographics of voucher students
  • test-score distributions and technical reports
  • details of School and District Performance Score calculations adequate to verify accuracy and credibility
  • charter schools’ enrollments, charters and leases, and other information
  • exact enrollment numbers with no more suppression than is absolutely required to protect the anonymity of an individual student

I urge you as a body to ask Mr. White to defend his position regarding data secrecy, and his preference for litigation over useful dialogue. Is the department in service to the public, or to test-creators, charter networks and private schools? Have the school grades and Value-Added measures been calculated fairly?  How will we ever know? Is Southern politeness more important than democracy? Is it appropriate to sue citizens rather than responding properly to public record requests?  Please ponder those questions carefully, and provide the appropriate guidance to the Superintendent who is employed at your pleasure.

Thank you.

Dr. James Finney

As one might expect, the suits against Deshotels and Finney are funded by you, the taxpayer, as the LDOE has brought the suit using LDOE funds. Deshotels and Finney are on their own when it comes to legal fees related to these suits. Just to be clear:  You are covering the costs for John White to sue private citizens to prevent them from exercising their constitutional rights.

Of course, Deshotels and Dr. Finney intend to pursue the suit in the courts, rather than ask for a dismissal, to press forward on their requests to this public information that is critical to determining the impact of various policies on our children’s education and the efficacy of the charter experiment in Louisiana. (Remember the last time the government experimented in the south? It happened at Tuskegee.)

As Mercedes Schneider recently noted in her blog deutsch29, “Suing private citizens over public record requests is a new low for an already sorry excuse of a state superintendent. However, it seems that with White, no low is too low.” https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/la-superintendent-john-white-sues-citizens-who-made-public-records-requests/

The use of virtually unlimited financial and legal resources (at taxpayer expense, no less) to beat down citizens with limited funds to fight back poses an unprecedented and dangerous threat to the very checks and balances upon which our government is founded.

When will Governor Edwards tire of this excuse for a superintendent and encourage the BESE board to bring John White’s tenure up for a vote? Let’s get the BESE members on record as to whether they stand for Louisiana’s children or for the out-of-state interests that bought their seats. Let’s decide, once and for all, if BESE stands for accountability or for secrecy.

For Edwards, the Legislature, and BESE to sit back and do nothing about this infringement upon the public’s right to know should be seen as an endorsement of clandestine activity worthy only of our distrust and fear.

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Editor’s note: Just when you think good, old-fashioned investigative reporting has gone the way of LINOTYPE MACHINES and hot lead typesetting, the Baton Rouge Advocate conducts a thorough probe of operations at the Louisiana State Penitentiary that has resulted in a wave of resignations if no indictments.

And then there is a twice-weekly publication up in West Monroe called The Ouachita Citizen headed by Publisher Sam Hanna, Jr. His paper’s ongoing investigation into the Fourth Judicial District Court is making a lot of people very uncomfortable and with good reason. So uncomfortable, in fact, that several judges in the 4th JDC actually filed a lawsuit against Hanna and The Citizen to prevent the publication from seeking public records to which they were legally entitled. Such action by the judges is unprecedented and appears frighteningly Nixonesque in its brazen attempt to thwart legitimate efforts to inform the citizens of Ouachita Parish. It’s the kind of action that should send chills down the spine of the electorate. Hanna has vowed to refuse to pay court costs assessed in that litigation. He has lost advertising revenue as a result of his coverage of the court.

Following is a lengthy story by Citizen reporters Zach Parker and Johnny Gunter published yesterday (Thursday, May 26) by the paper. One major point raised is the apparent conflict of interest in the Attorney General’s office conducting an investigation of the 4th JDC while at the same time defending four of the judges in a lawsuit brought against them by a fifth judge.

By Zach Parker and Johnny Gunter

The Citizen

Inquiries by The Ouachita Citizen into Fourth Judicial District Attorney Jerry Jones’ involvement in an investigation of Fourth Judicial District Court show the district attorney offered a false account of his communications with investigators, filed misleading court documents and did not refer this newspaper’s criminal complaint to authorities involved in the investigation.

Those activities formed part of Jones’ efforts to downplay the investigation into possible wrongdoing at the court as well as his involvement in the probe.

The investigation concerned allegations that law clerk Allyson Campbell committed payroll fraud and destroyed or concealed court records. Those accusations also are the focus of separate lawsuits, one filed in district court by Monroe businessman Stanley R. Palowsky III and the other in federal court by Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Sharon Marchman.

Jerry Jones restricts probe’s scope

In July 2015, Jerry Jones called on the Office of State Inspector General and Louisiana State Police to investigate public corruption. At that time, he was tight-lipped about the scope of the investigation, at first refusing to comment though he later clarified the investigation concerned Fourth Judicial District Court.

As revealed in comments to The Ouachita Citizen as well as to other media outlets, Jerry Jones restricted the scope of the investigation to an audit of the court’s finances released March 2, 2015 by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office. That audit said some court employees may have earned pay for hours not worked. As first reported by The Ouachita Citizen and later confirmed in open court, Campbell was the subject of auditors’ comments.

However, there were other allegations concerning Campbell that Jerry Jones sidestepped during interviews, repeatedly claiming the probe concerned the audit only. During interviews, he downplayed any outcome of an investigation into payroll fraud since Campbell was a salaried employee, not hourly, in spite of the allegations concerning falsified time sheets approved by court judges.

In March 2015, Ouachita Citizen reporter Johnny Gunter submitted a criminal complaint to Jones’ office, asking the district attorney to investigate not only allegations that Campbell had committed payroll fraud but also accusations by Palowsky and Monroe attorney Cody Rials that Campbell had destroyed or concealed documents they had filed with the court in their separate legal matters.

Little more than a week before the Inspector General and State Police launched their joint investigation, The Ouachita Citizen learned Jones had not begun an investigation, requested any documents or information from court officials in response to the newspaper’s criminal complaint.

Through The Ouachita Citizen‘s inquiries and reports, more details emerged concerning the scope of the court investigation. In a June 30, 2015 interview, retired Judge Ben Jones, who is the court’s administrator, informed The Ouachita Citizen that he had discussed the newspaper’s criminal complaint with Jerry Jones.

“He (Jerry Jones) indicated to us (the court) that he would respond to your criminal complaint and take appropriate action at such time that he thought appropriate,” Ben Jones said. “We are prepared, should he act on that criminal complaint, we are prepared to cooperate, and that’s what we’ll do. But at this point, he has not asked us for any information, any documents, or initiated any investigation.”

During that interview, Ben Jones repeatedly said Jerry Jones would conduct an investigation into the matters raised by The Ouachita Citizen‘s criminal complaint “with integrity” and would show court officials no special privileges.

Ben Jones was one of five district court judges named defendants along with Campbell in Palowsky’s lawsuit. In his lawsuit, Palowsky accused Ben Jones and judges Carl Sharp, Wilson Rambo, Fred Amman and Stephens Winters of covering up Campbell’s activities, a claim reiterated in Marchman’s lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

In the district attorney’s interviews with the press, Jerry Jones said the investigation into the court did not involve any judges.

Jerry Jones gives false account of communications with investigators

The Ouachita Citizen learned Jerry Jones concealed his communications with investigators as well as offered the newspaper conflicting accounts of a report on the investigation’s findings.

When asked in an April 25 interview whether he had engaged in any communications with the Inspector General or the State Police concerning the investigation, he said, “No. None at all.”

The District Attorney further distanced himself from the investigation at that time and said, “I haven’t had any communication with them other than having my assistant ask (Inspector General) Stephen Street about the status of the report,” referring to whether a report had been prepared on any findings in the court investigation.

He made that statement to the newspaper in spite of the fact that his office had received a letter from Street 10 days before, a letter which represented a report on the investigation’s findings. Street’s April 15 letter claimed there was no “sufficient cause” to file criminal charges against Campbell on the accusations of payroll fraud or document destruction was first reported by The Ouachita Citizen. According to that letter, Street was concluding his office’s investigation into the matter.

“Because the available facts do not provide sufficient cause for the arrest of Ms. Campbell for any criminal offense, we are closing our file and taking no further action on this matter,” Street wrote. “Ms. Campbell was interviewed and denied destroying or hiding any court records or pleadings. She stated that her work schedule was approved by her supervisor and that she worked the hours for which she was paid. Judge Carl Sharp supported her claim that all court documents were always available to him. He also confirmed that Ms. Campbell was a salaried employee whose hours were sometimes irregular.”

In a May 11 interview, The Ouachita Citizen asked Jerry Jones why he had misinformed the newspaper by saying he’d had no communications with investigators though he’d received the April 15 letter from Street. In response to that query, he again denied he had engaged in any communications with investigators.

The Ouachita Citizen then asked Jerry Jones about his written correspondence with Street: He declined to comment, saying he couldn’t answer that question and had referred his office’s investigation to the Attorney General’s office.

The Ouachita Citizen then informed him that the newspaper had obtained a copy of the April 15 letter revealing correspondence between Street and Jerry Jones on the investigation, at which point the district attorney paused and then said, “Okay, I made a mistake. You’re not getting another word out of me.”

Throughout the investigation Jerry Jones sought to distance himself from the court probe though the Inspector General’s letter as well as The Ouachita Citizen‘s inquiries to State Police all referred to the district attorney’s involvement. According to the newspaper’s inquiries, he was calling the shots in the investigation though he said he wasn’t investigating and didn’t have the manpower in his office to conduct such an investigation.

“We keep it separate,” he said in the April 25 interview. “I’m not investigating.”

Following The Ouachita Citizen‘s May 11 interview, Jerry Jones informed the newspaper that State Police had completed a written report that contradicted the findings revealed in Street’s April 15 letter. He said he would ensure the newspaper was provided with a copy of the State Police report he claimed existed.

The Ouachita Citizen submitted an inquiry and a public records request to State Police about the purported report, asking to obtain a copy. However, State Police authorities informed the newspaper that Jerry Jones had told them the investigation should be considered open, a status that would bar the release of documents pertaining to the investigation, including the unseen State Police report.

According to a May 11 statement from State Police spokesman Maj. Doug Cain, State Police investigators were awaiting clearance from Jones to release the investigative report.

Later that day, State Police informed The Ouachita Citizen that record would not be released, per instructions from Jerry Jones.

“The district attorney for the 4th JDC is awaiting additional information and the matter is considered still open at this time,” wrote Michele M. Giroir, State Police attorney supervisor in a May 11 email. “Therefore, pursuant to R.S. 44:3(A)(1), the records are exempt from disclosure at this time.”

Records dispute DA’s claim he transferred case to AG

Since early last year, Jerry Jones has repeatedly told The Ouachita Citizen he was not investigating but had referred that responsibility to the Attorney General’s office.

“You people keep saying I’m investigating, but I’m not,” he said. “I sent that to the AG’s office.”

At that time, Buddy Caldwell was Attorney General and had appointed a taxpayer-paid defense for Campbell in spite of questions raised by The Ouachita Citizen about the legality of that appointment. Caldwell’s involvement in the defense of Campbell later was cited as grounds for naming him a defendant in Marchman’s lawsuit.

In support of his claim he had transferred the responsibility of investigating to the Attorney General, Jerry Jones produced last year a motion to recuse he had filed at the Ouachita Parish Clerk of Court’s office in the court record for Stanley R. Palowsky III v. W. Brandon Cork and others, the lawsuit in which the allegations against Campbell first surfaced.

His Dec. 5, 2014, Motion to Recuse said, “Now into this Honorable Court comes Jerry L. Jones, Fourth Judicial District Attorney, who, with respect, represents: The District Attorney recuses himself and his office in the above captioned case and moves that same be sent to the Attorney General’s Office.”

However, Jerry Jones’ motion to recuse has laid untouched in the court record and was never sent to the Attorney General’s office, according to Ouachita Parish Clerk of Court Louise Bond.

Earlier this week, The Ouachita Citizen asked to review the court record for Palowsky v. Cork, which is secured in Bond’s office since, she said, it’s a “high profile case” and she did not want any parties claiming their documents had gone missing from it, referring to accusations from Palowsky that Campbell had either destroyed or concealed documents he filed in that same case.

After a review of the record by Bond and The Ouachita Citizen, there was no indication that Jerry Jones’ motion to recuse had ever been sent to the Attorney General’s office.

“I don’t see anything that shows we sent anything, but there’s nothing on there that shows where it should be sent,” she said.

Bond confirmed with her deputy clerks that the DA’s document had not been sent there. It hadn’t been sent because Jerry Jones’ document didn’t indicate who or where the motion should be sent, though it asked the Clerk of Court’s office to handle the matter.

“I checked and nothing was sent,” Bond said. “But there’s nothing on here showing us who at the Attorney General’s office should receive it or where even to send it.”

Bond told The Ouachita Citizen that the deputy clerk, B.J. Graham, who accepted Jerry Jones’ filing no longer worked at the Clerk of Court’s office. Graham had quit, according to Bond.

According to Bond, normally a mover in a legal matter will either indicate they have sent copies of the filing to other parties in the matter. If the filing does not bear the name, address or contact information of the person it should be sent to, like the DA’s filing, then the mover will attach a cover sheet with instructions, Bond said.

“Most of the time they say please serve to so-and-so, or it shows that they’ve already sent copies, but there are no instructions, either on a cover sheet or on the motion itself,” Bond said.

Jones’ motion to recuse was later signed as a judicial order by Judge Carl Sharp: “It is ordered that the Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s Office is recused from the above captioned case and same be sent to the Attorney General’s Office.”

Sharp is a defendant in both Palowsky’s and Marchman’s lawsuits. He is accused of covering up Campbell’s activities. Sharp also is one of the judges for whom Campbell clerks. Additionally, Sharp defended Campbell against the payroll fraud allegations during an interview with Inspector General investigators, according to Street’s letter.

Jerry Jones’ motion to recuse and Sharp’s order are available for viewing at www.ouachitacitizen.com

The Ouachita Citizen contacted the Attorney General’s office on numerous occasions, through telephone and email, to ask whether they had received any correspondence from Jerry Jones, including his recusal. Attorney General spokesperson Ruth Wisher suddenly ceased all communications with The Ouachita Citizen last week in spite of earlier pledging to answer the newspaper’s questions by Thursday, May 19. Attorney General Jeff Landry and Assistant Attorney General Shannon Dirmann also did not respond to communications from The Ouachita Citizen.

Two days after the Attorney General office’s last communication with The Ouachita Citizen concerning its questions, Landry’s office filed a pleading in Marchman’s federal lawsuit on behalf of Caldwell, the former Attorney General and defendant in the judge’s lawsuit.

Absence of investigation a key point in public records dispute

The Ouachita Citizen recently learned Jones did not refer the newspaper’s criminal complaint to some authorities investigating the court. Inspector General Stephen Street said state law protecting Inspector General records meant he could not reveal whether Jerry Jones had sent his office the newspaper’s criminal complaint or not.

“Due to OIG (Office of Inspector General) statutory confidentiality, I am unable to confirm or deny the receipt of the complaint to which you refer,” Street wrote in an email.

However, State Police did not receive the newspaper’s criminal complaint, according to Cain, the State Police spokesman.

“We are unaware of any complaint from The Ouachita Citizen through the DA’s office,” Cain said.

The Attorney General’s office did not respond to questions from The Ouachita Citizen about whether Jerry Jones had sent them this newspaper’s criminal complaint.

The Ouachita Citizen‘s criminal complaint was prompted by the district court’s refusal to produce public records from Campbell’s personnel file that could shed light on the allegations of payroll fraud and document destruction. The day after The Ouachita Citizen submitted its criminal complaint, the court sued the newspaper, asking for an ad hoc judge to determine whether Campbell’s right to privacy outweighed the public’s right to know.

In spite of The Ouachita Citizen submitting its criminal complaint with Jones in March 2015, there was no investigation called to target the court until after an ad hoc judge had ruled against this newspaper, declaring Campbell’s personnel file off-limits to public records requests.

During a court hearing before the ad hoc judge, The Ouachita Citizen argued the public should be granted access to Campbell’s personnel file since its public records requests – stemming from the allegations of payroll fraud – concerned public tax dollars (referred below as the “public fisc”). In response, the court argued there was no need for judicial intervention to make Campbell’s personnel file available to the public since the district attorney could exert his office’s authority to investigate if there were any reasonable grounds present in the newspaper’s criminal complaint.

Delivering the court’s argument was Monroe attorney Jon Guice, who also represented the five district court judges in Palowsky’s lawsuit and is a defendant in Marchman’s lawsuit.

“The response to his argument about the protection of the public fisc is it is handled by the law and you need not intervene in that,” Guice continued during the May 19, 2015 hearing on the public records requests. “His client (The Ouachita Citizen) is well aware that the legislative auditor sent a copy of its findings to the district attorney.

“They have also asked the district attorney to avail himself of that report and to do his duties to investigate, and if there is an issue there for him to address it. So, this court need not feel as though it has a duty of protection of the public fisc when there is an expressed officer, i.e., the district attorney who the legislative auditor has provided its findings and whom the paper has asked to honor his obligation. So if there is something there then that’s the way that is to be handled.”

After the ad hoc judge ruled against The Ouachita Citizen, details in Palowsky’s and Marchman’s lawsuits have suggested Guice, Ben Jones, the court administrator, and other court officials manipulated the documents present in Campbell’s personnel file before the ad hoc judge reviewed it to determine whether it was subject to The Ouachita Citizen‘s public records requests.

Jerry Jones later told The Ouachita Citizen he had agreed with Ben Jones to postpone acting on The Ouachita Citizen‘s criminal complaint until after the ad hoc judge had ruled in the court’s case against the newspaper.

When Ben Jones was asked about that arrangement during a June 30, 2015 interview, he said, “I am not prepared to say I had any agreement with Jerry Jones to wait until after the final judgment but he has elected, obviously, to delay any action until, I mean, to my knowledge, no action has been taken so far.”

“I have no idea when any action might be taken, but I take him at his word that he will respond to the complaint, and he has indicated that he would honor his obligation to respond to the complaint,” Ben Jones continued. “That’s all I can tell you about that. I have talked to him, but I’m not at liberty to say everything about that conversation.

“But I will say this to you. I know Jerry Jones and I am convinced that any investigation that he initiates will be one done with integrity. I absolutely believe that to be the case. He will go wherever the findings take him. That’s how he is, and that’s a good thing. It is our expectation that he will show us no special privileges or special deference. I expect him to respond to the request that he investigate with integrity, and I don’t fear that at all.”

 

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