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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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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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There’s been a major rule change to Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier’s Monopoly game.

Defendants in the 14th Judicial District Court may no longer pass Go by purchasing Get Out of Jail Gift Cards.

Okay, in the parlance of the classic board game of my youth, that’s something of a mixed metaphor. Anyone over 65 who has played the game knows that you collect $200 for passing Go and a Get Out of Jail Free card comes with the luck of the draw when you land on Community Chest.

But as it applies to past practices of DeRosier’s office, the metaphor is justified—and appropriate because DeRosier does run something of a monopoly and cards were certainly involved.

You may recall the LouisianaVoice STORY of Nov. 6 in which we called attention to a Nov. 1 story in a slightly more widely-read publication, the WASHINGTON POST (sorry, but if you don’t have a subscription the Post has a pay wall that only allows subscribers to access its stories—so you’ll just have to take my word for it), which described an ongoing scam over in Calcasieu whereby those arrested in the parish could buy their way to a reduced sentence by purchasing gift cards and donating them to the DA’s office.

Well, after the Post story and after our punctuation mark five days later, the district judges of the 14th JDC have abruptly put the quietus to the practice.

While it would appear highly unlikely that the good judges could have been unaware of the ongoing practice, there’s nothing like a little publicity to bring everyone around to the realization that even the appearance of a little not-so-subtle coercion, i.e. extortion, is never a good thing, especially when carried out in the name of law and order.

So, the obvious thing to do would be to stand tall for right and justice—‘cause now, folks are looking.

In the wake of the Post’s story and two days before LouisianaVoice came along with our reminder, DeRosier sent out a one-sentence memo to parish probation officers.

The memo, dated Nov. 4, read:

  • “Any defendant on Misdemeanor Probation who desires to change or modify any terms Misdemeanor Probation will be required to present such request to the court for its consideration. Only after response from the court will this office take any action to modify any term or condition of Misdemeanor Probation.”

Well, not so fast.

Click HERE to read DeRosier’s memo.

On Monday (Nov. 18), 14th JDC Judge W. Mitchell Redd, in a letter to DeRosier on which all the 14th JDC judges were copied, wrote:

  • “This confirms our recent meeting in which you informed us of the District Attorney’s program that had been allowing criminal defendants to purchase gift cards and give the gift cards to your office as a means of reducing up to one-half of their community service obligation.”

(Notice how Judge Redd was careful to note that DeRosier had only recently “informed” the judges of the program. That might be construed as deniability by someone more skeptical than I.)

Judge Redd continued:

  • “You asked the Court to advise you on whether or not the Court wished this program to continue as to criminal defendants who have been sentenced by the Court to community service.”

One might normally think the DA would have cleared this with the judges before the program was ever implemented and not as an afterthought—or more correctly, after the bright glare of light shone on it by the Post.

One might also have reckoned that the good judges would not have waited more than two weeks after the Post story or waited until after their “recent meeting” with DeRosier to issue its directive.

Finally, Judge Redd concluded his letter to the DA:

  • “Please be advised that the Court has discussed the matter and agreed not to allow gift cards to be substituted to any degree (emphasis mine) for our court-ordered community service. Please let us know if you have any questions or comments. We appreciate you taking your time to discuss this with us.”

Click HERE to read Judge Redd’s letter to DeRosier.

The only question not addressed by the judges is what to do about the gift cards defendants already purchased and gave to the DA’s office which were supposed to be used for charitable purposes such as purchasing toys and gifts for underprivileged children but which in some cases were used instead to purchase gifts for staff members, their grandchildren and other relatives—and to DeRosier’s friends and political supporters and even journalists.

But then, that little matter probably didn’t come up in DeRosier’s “recent meeting” with the judges.

 

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The saga of Mangham contractor Jeff Mercer is taking on all the ugly characteristics of a conspiracy between the state, the 4th Judicial District Court, and the 2ND Circuit Court of Appeal.

Mercer is the contractor who was forced out of business by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) when DOTD withheld more than $11 million he was owed when he resisted SHAKEDOWN EFFORTS by a DOTD inspector who demanded that Mercer “put some green” in his hand and that he could “make things difficult for mercer.”

He is also the man who dug his heels in and sued DOTD, eventually winning a staggering $20 million JUDGMENT after a jury trial in Monroe’s 4th JDC.

And he is the man who saw his verdict overturned by the 2nd Circuit.

It’s not like LouisianaVoice didn’t obtain INTERNAL DOCUMENTS from DOTD that supported Mercer’s claim that he was owed the money. They did. In spades.

But then, more information became public. This time, it was about 2ND Circuit Court Chief Judge HENRY N. BROWN, who assigned the case to himself despite his ties to DOTD.

Brown subsequently wrote the opinion which reversed the unanimous state district court verdict. Subsequent to that adverse opinion, Mercer learned of Brown’s ties to DOTD and filed an application for rehearing and a motion to recuse and vacate the panel’s opinion which, of course, was denied.

But then even more damning information surfaced, including reports of ex-parte communications, unauthorized computer accessing, and apparent falsification of discussion of an alleged DE NOVO REVIEW by Brown of Mercer’s trial court record.

A year after Mercer’s motion to recuse was denied, Brown and his law clerk were gone. Brown was FORCED TO RESIGN after being suspended for his alleged behavior toward colleagues who were considering an appeal involving a close female friend of Brown’s.

So, Mercer did what anyone so aggrieved would do: He filed a 71-page PETITION TO ANNUL the 2nd Circuit Court’s judgment.

And that’s when the appearance of a tight-knit conspiracy begins to take shape.

The petition to annul was filed in 4th JDC in Monroe on September 27 but now the 2nd Circuit Court, which is not even a party to the original lawsuit, has jumped into the fray in an effort to seal documents sought by Mercer.

If that seems a bit confusing, it is. The 2nd Circuit’s MOTION, itself under seal, seeks an ex parte order to seal documents of the 2nd Circuit which Mercer feels would demonstrate rampant corruption in the 2nd Circuit which would in turn, justify overturning the appeal court’s reversal of his trial court verdict.

In a head-scratching claim in its decision to reverse the lower court verdict, the 2nd Circuit said Mercer had not proven the DOTD official had acted with malice or had prevented him from submitting contracts to the state.

No malice? Shakedown attempts? Withholding $11 million owed Mercer (which had the effect of preventing him from bidding on future contracts).

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine what would constitute the definition of “malice” in the eyes of the 2nd Circuit if such intimidation didn’t do the trick.

If all that isn’t bizarre enough, motions are scheduled to be heard Thursday by 4th JDC Judge J. Wilson Rambo.

Rambo, of course, was a central figure in another case involving the DESTRUCTION OF DOCUMENTS in a lawsuit by developer Stanley Palowsky, III.

The words of a judicial CONSPIRACY first appeared in connection to that case and nothing we have heard or read since then has removed the cloud over the entire 4th JDC.

Documents the 2nd Circuit seeks to seal include objections to jurisdiction as well as internal documents, bench memos, and drafts of opinions.

“If the judge (Rambo) seals it (the record), they’ll bury this,” Mercer said.

His words could well be prophetic.

Which would justifiably raise the question: What price justice?

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Iberia Parish continues to generate negative publicity that only serves to underscore the racial divide in that parish. This time, though, it’s not the sheriff’s office but the office of District Attorney Bo Duhé and instead of silencing African-American prisoners, Duhé’s office is attempting to undercut the authority of an African-American judge

Sarah Lustbader, writing for http://theappeal.org/, described on Tuesday the legal effort of the DA’s office to force the recusal of 16th Judicial District Judge Lori Landry from more than 300 criminal cases.

On Wednesday, Katie Gagliano, writing for the Acadiana Advocate, put a slightly different spin (the DA’s spin, as contained in Duhé’s office’s legal filings) on the same story.

While Gagliano’s STORY dealt with confrontations between Judge Landry and attorneys for the district attorney’s office, Lustbader chose to hard statistics that reflect harsher penalties for blacks who commit felonies than for their white counterparts. You can read that story by going HERE.

But there’s more to the story—as there nearly always is.

And it’s not that First Assistant DA Robert Vines, who is white, filed the recusal motion—the same Robert Vines who was named LEAD PROSECUTOR in a case involving alleged illegal manipulation of the Cypress Bayou Casino’s employee and payroll databases.

Cypress Bayou Casino is run by the Chitimacha Indian Tribe in St. Mary Parish and in June 2016, the tribe’s chairman, O’Neil Darden, Jr., was arrested by State Police on charges of felony theft, accused of stealing from the tribe by tinkering with the casino’s data bases that resulted in his receiving an “annual bonus” of several thousand dollars to which he was not entitled.

The only problem with Vines serving as lead prosecutor in that case is that Darden hired Vines in January 2016, six months before his arrest, as prosecutor for the Chitimacha Tribal Court.

Apparently, the question of recusal never came up in that case.

Of course, the Cypress Bayou Casino case is not related to the latest controversy arising in the DA’s office, but it does illustrate how the district attorney’s office—along with the office of Sheriff Louis Ackal—operates as a law unto itself.

As further illustration of the manner in which justice has been turned on its ear in Iberia, there is the case of DONALD BROUSSARD. In July 2016, Broussard, who had begun a drive to recall Sheriff Ackal, was rear-ended in adjacent Lafayette Parish by a hit-and-run driver named Rakeem Blakes.

Broussard followed Blakes, getting close enough to read the license number, which he gave to a 911 dispatcher before falling back. Moments later, after entering Iberia Parish, Blakes was killed when he collided with an 18-wheeler.

Broussard was subsequently indicted for manslaughter by Duhé and sentenced to four years hard labor. Thus, the message was sent loud and clear: Broussard, a black man, should have known better than to initiate a recall of Ackal.

So, there is obvious acrimony between Judge Landry and Duhé’s office, but when one looks beyond the legal motions filed by Vines and analyzes the data provided by Lustbader, it’s easier to understand why there might be some undercurrent of resentment in Iberia Parish’s black community.

There is a real disparity in the manner in which justice is meted out and there has been little effort to address that disparity.

The Appeal is a non-profit media organization that produces original journalism about criminal justice that is focused on the most significant drivers of mass incarceration, which occur at the state and local level.

Its job is to address that disparity.

Duhé’s job, apparently, is not.

 

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