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Archive for the ‘Lawsuits’ Category

Last July I published my book Louisiana’s Rogue Sheriffs: A Culture of Corruption.

Now, it looks as though a book about district attorneys and judges might well be in order.

Somehow, it seems the ones we elect to protect us and to administer justice evenly and fairly are running amok with no regard for the law, ethics, propriety, or for the citizens they are elected to serve.

This is by no means a blanket condemnation of all DAs or judges but the behavior of the few is beginning to take its toll on the public image of the many and there needs to be a cleansing.

DAs have gone to jail, they have initiated frivolous disputes with judges, they bring in hired guns from elsewhere to do jobs they should be doing [if they and their staffs aren’t qualified to perform their jobs, they should get out and leave the work to those who can] and some even are said to use their offices as leverage to obtain property and businesses from defendants in exchange for a dismissal or reduction of pending charges.

Louisiana judges have been accused of:

  • Hiring his GIRLFRIEND to review medical records for his office;
  • Presiding over his girlfriend’s DWI case;
  • Molesting TEENAGE GIRLS;
  • Texting RACIST REMARKS in a jealous dispute with a sheriff’s deputy with whom she was having an affair (the judge submitted her resignation today);
  • Engaging in SEXUAL MISCONDUCT which led to his resignation;
  • Interfering in a female friend’s APPEAL which resulted in his suspension from the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal and which has thrown the 2nd Circuit’s overturn of a $20 million award into turmoil.
  • Accepting kickbacks which resulted in the impeachment and REMOVAL from the federal bench.
  • Accepting bribes from bail a bail bondsman which resulted in his conviction, along with 13 others convicted in the FBI’s OPERATION WRINKLED ROBE

There are others, of course. But add to that the unique idea that a Baton Rouge attorney who has been SUSPENDED FROM PRACTICE for a year is a candidate for a vacant city.

Donald Dobbins says the law requires only that he hold a law license to qualify for judicial office but not to be a judge because judges cannot practice law. He qualified exactly three weeks before he was suspended by the State Supreme Court for failure “to provide competent representation to clients” and that he “neglected legal matters, failed to communicate with clients, failed to refund unearned fees and unused costs, failed to properly supervise his non-lawyer start, resulting inf false affidavits being filed in the court record, failed to reduce a contingency fee agreement to writing, forged client signatures on settlement checks and failed to place disputed funds in his trust account.” He says he has no intention to withdraw.

One Supreme Court justice called the one-year suspension “overly lenient,” saying he preferred “no less than a three-year actual suspension, if not disbarment.”

And then there are the judges in Terrebonne and St. Tammany parishes who took it upon themselves to issue warrants that were in direct violation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression.

In the Terrebonne case, Sheriff Jerry Larpenter prevailed upon an obliging JUDGE RANDAL BETHANCOURT to issue a search warrant so he could raid the home of a blogger who hurt Larpenter’s feelings. That ended up costing the sheriff’s office about $250,000 in a federal lawsuit stemming from the illegal raid.

That was in August 2016. Three years later, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith arrested a former deputy who sent an email to the family of a murdered woman in which he was critical of the sheriff’s office for not making an arrest in the 2017 murder of Nanette Krentel.

The warrant was signed by DISTRICT JUDGE RAYMOND CHILDRESS District Judge Raymond Childress. After the local district attorney recused himself and referred the case to the Louisiana Attorney General’s office, the AG’s office promptly washed its hands of the entire affair after noting that the Louisiana Supreme Court had held that criminal defamation (the justification for the warrant) was unconstitutional insofar as statements made in reference to public figures engaged in public affairs.

No story about law enforcement and the judicial system would be complete without a story from Iberia Parish where Louis Ackel turned the word sheriff into a term of fear and dread.

Bo Duhé, 16th JDC District Attorney, crossed swords with Judge Lori Landry by accusing her of making accusatory remarks to the effect that the DA’s office “deliberately incarcerate African Americans more severely and at a higher rate than others” and that the DAs office knew or should have known about misconduct at the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office that eventually led to the convictions of several deputies in a civil rights case.

Her remarks prompted Duhé to seek her honor’s removal from more than 300 criminal cases throughout out the 16th JDC which includes the parishes of Iberia, St. Martin, and St. Mary.

Duhé, of course, claimed that Judge Landry’s remarks were unfounded. He further argued that Landry, the 16th JDC’s first African-American judge, was “biased and prejudiced” against his office to such an extent that “she cannot be fair or impartial.”

After considerable posturing disguised as testimony in court subsequent hearings, Duhé and Landry kissed and made nice, declaring that they were recommitted to working together and the DA’s office rather unceremoniously dismissed the recusal motions.

Just another day in Louisiana’s hallowed halls of justice.

[You may order Louisiana’s Rogue Sheriffs: A Culture of Corruption ($30) by clicking on the yellow DONATE button in the column to the upper right of this post or by sending a check to Tom Aswell, P.O. Box 922, Denham Springs, LA. 70727.]

 

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There are so many ways a public agency can waste your taxpayer dollars. Some are out there for everyone to see like when contracts are awarded to a favored vendor even though that vendor didn’t have the low bid.

Or when a contractor is paid $175 per 100-square-foot tarps on rooftops in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina only to have the contractor (Shaw Group) subcontract the work to A-1 Construction for $75 a square and to have A-1 hire a second subcontractor, Westcon Construction at $30 per square, who finally pays workers $2 per square.

Other times, the waste is concealed from view and without someone doing a little digging, no one ever knows how thousands or dollars are frittered away by bureaucrats who nothing better to do than to quietly spread the spoils around among the politically-connected.

So it was in March of last year that Southern University’s Grievance Committee held hearings on the appeals of four professors who had been terminated. When the four professors indicated that they wanted the hearing to be in open meeting as opposed to executive session, their request was rejected out of hand.

The state’s open meetings law [R.S. 42:14 (A), (B), and (C)] allows for all personnel matters to be discussed [without any official vote being taken] in executive session unless the employee(s) being discussed requests that discussion be held in open session. Such request by the employee(s) would supersede any move for executive session.

But the Grievance Committee’s chairperson announced—without benefit of a public vote by the committee [also a violation of the open meetings statute] that a private vote had been conducted prior to the convening of the committee meeting at which it was decided to hold the executive session to discuss the professors’ grievance.

I was there to cover the hearing and the four professors and I promptly filed suit against Southern for violation of the open meetings law. The trial was held in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.

Southern presented the unique argument that the school’s grievance committee was not a public body—even though every member was an employee of Southern and the committee was acting on behalf of Southern’s administration. Unique indeed.

Even more bizarre, Southern attorney Winston DeCuir, Jr., in his cross-examination of yours truly, tried to question my right to be a party to the suit by asking how many other events I’d covered for LouisianaVoice at Southern. The answer was none—as if that had any legal bearing on the matter at hand. He then asked why I picked that hearing to cover and I replied truthfully that I had been alerted that the hearing might produce an interesting story for LouisianaVoice.

The presiding judge had little problem in ruling for the four professors and yours truly, awarding a total of $5,000 ($1,000 per plaintiff), plus attorney fees and court costs. So, counting the award, court costs and attorney fees, we’re already looking at something approaching $8,000-$10,000 all because DeCuir did not provide proper legal counsel to the committee when it decided to break the law. [He was there and should have advised the committee that it was treading on thin legal ice.]

But Southern wasn’t finished. Rather than cut its losses and pony up the money, DeCuir appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeal. Nothing like throwing good money after bad.

In January, the FIRST CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEAL handed down its decision. The lower court’s decision was upheld without a dissenting opinion. Unanimous, in other words.

Moreover, the First Circuit assessed additional attorney fees of $1,400 and additional court costs of $1,804. And that’s not counting what DeCuir will bill the university for his solid legal advice.

So, Southern learned its lesson, right?

Not quite.

At DeCuir’s advice, the university has now taken writs to the Louisiana State Supreme Court—all to argue that Southern University and its Grievance Committee are not public bodies.

Your tax dollars at work. Not a lot of money in the overall scheme of things, but an example how quixotic legal battles by state agencies make thousands upon thousands of dollars disappear into contract attorneys’ bank accounts.

Which also raises another question: Can defense attorneys always be counted on to give the best advice to clients when that advice might conflict with the attorney’s financial advantage of keeping the meter running?

 

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You can call last September’s arrest of Jerry Rogers several things:

  • Jerry Larpenter, Chapter Deux;
  • SLAPP;
  • Stupid;
  • All of the Above.

Especially stupid.

To refresh your memory, Rogers, a former St. Tammany Parish sheriff’s deputy, fired off an email to the family of slain Nanette Krentel that was critical of the official investigation into Krentel’s murder. Specifically, he leveled his criticism at lead investigator Det. Daniel Buckner, whom he described as “clueless.”

For his trouble, Sheriff Randy Smith directed that Rogers be arrested for criminal defamation, despite being advised by the St. Tammany Parish District Attorney’s office that the state’s criminal defamation law had been declared unconstitutional as to public officials, according to a LAWSUIT filed by Rogers.

Named as defendants in the litigation are Smith and deputies Danny Culpepper and Keith Canizaro.

The arrest and ensuing lawsuit evoked memories of Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter who pulled a similar stunt when he spotted an online blog critical of him and other parish officials and promptly had an obliging judge sign a search warrant empowering Larpenter’s office to conduct a raid on the blogger’s home and to seize his computers. Larpenter, in the glow of his triumph, albeit temporary, crowed that when one criticizes him, “I’m coming after you.”

Except, of course, the warrant and the raid were unconstitutional and Larpenter’s office ended up ponying up about $250,000 to soothe the ruffled feelings of aggrieved blogger.

Just the kind of thing to make one wonder where the judges involved obtained their law degrees and why they would sign off on warrants that were so obviously unconstitutional.

But when considering political expedience, the rule of law often takes a back seat to the sweet (but again, temporary) taste of revenge.

In legal parlance, such legal maneuvers are known as Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP), a tactic honed to perfection during the civil rights era by Southern sheriffs and chiefs of police, particularly in Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama.

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, when questioned about his observations immediately after Larpenter’s raid but before litigation had been initiated, quipped, “I’d love to be that blogger’s lawyer.”

Prophetic words indeed. A federal judge held in that case that “no law enforcement officer in Sheriff Larpenter’s position would have an objectively reasonable belief, in light of clearly established law, that probable cause existed to support a warrant for the Andersons’ home” because it was based on criticism of a public official.

Now it’s Jerry Rogers’s turn at bat against another ill-conceived move by a sheriff and district court judge, in this case, one Hon. Raymond Childress.

That’s because as early as 2014, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office was reminded of the status of Louisiana’s criminal defamation law, the lawsuit says.

The president of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association in 2014 “described arresting anyone for an alleged violation of an unconstitutional law as a waste of time and resources,” the lawsuit quotes a newspaper article as reporting.

“Sheriff Smith’s actions were intended to deter and chill Jerry Rogers’ exercise of his First Amendment right to express his opinion about STPSO,” Rogers’s petition asserts.

That, by the way, is a classic definition of a SLAPP lawsuit.

Not only did Judge Childress sign off on the AFFIDAVIT FOR ARREST WARRANT, but the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office even had the presence of mind to issue a self-serving PRESS RELEASE to announce its diligence in protecting its citizens from being exposed to such defamatory criticism and in the process, declaring its utter disregard of the law.

Except for the decision of the Louisiana Attorney General’s office to DECLINE TO PURSUE the case after noting that the Louisiana Supreme Court had “held [that] criminal defamation is unconstitutional insofar as it applies to statements made in reference to public figures engaged in public affairs.

“…[T]he statements made by Jerry Rogers were aimed directly towards a public function of a member of state government. Because the alleged conduct under these specific facts involve statements aimed at a public official performing public duties, this office is precluded by law from moving forward with any criminal action, Assistant Attorney General Joseph LeBeau wrote on January 8.”

So chastened, there was little wiggle room for the sheriff other than to WALK AWAY from his aborted attempt at retribution.

All of which served to invoke the third option in our multiple-choice observation at the beginning of this post:

Stupid.

 

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In terms of head-scratching bewilderment, the appointment of Stephen Russo as interim secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH)—even with that word “interim” thrown in—by Gov. John Bel Edwards makes about as much sense as his reappointment of Mike Edmonson as State Police Superintendent back in 2016.

The governor’s announcement of Russo’s appointment to fill in for the departed Dr. Rebekah Gee was made on Friday (Jan. 31).

Compounding the obvious lack of vetting, word is that while a brief story by Sam Karlin in the Baton Rouge Advocate quoted Edwards as saying he has a “long list” of potential candidates for permanent secretary, the fix is apparently in for the appointment of Courtney Phillips. Click HERE to read that story.

I’ll get to Phillips later. First, let me re-hash a couple of LouisianaVoice stories that featured Russo rather prominently—and not in a particularly favorable light.

LouisianaVoice on January 18, 2018, almost two years ago to the day, published a story detailing a sexual harassment lawsuit settlement by an LDH female employee. More specifically, the story told of how the perpetrator, Attorney Supervisor Weldon Hill, was shielded and protected by Hill’s boss, Executive Counsel Stephen Russo. You can read that story by clicking HERE.

When the woman complained to Human Resources and to Hill’s supervisor, she was moved from her eighth-floor office to a converted storage room on the fifth floor. She was not provided a telephone nor was she allowed to take her computer with her to her new location.

Besides the legal settlement, that lawsuit cost the state more than $76,000 in LEGAL FEES.

We followed that story with another exactly three months later on April 18 in which we published a string of emails written by Russo on his state computer on state time on behalf of Dr. Gee during her negotiations  with LSU to retain her medical license, credentials and board certifications through continued part-time employment as a physician at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

(That alone should have triggered conflict of interests questions since she would be performing work for an agency overseen by—and which receives funding from—the agency she was heading at the time.)

Her appointment as LDH secretary was announced on Jan. 5, 2016, and by 3:12 p.m. on Jan. 13, Russo was already emailing LSUHSC Chancellor Dr. Larry Hollier on Dr. Gee’s behalf.

A rank and file employee would be called on the carpet and perhaps fined for such a breach of ethics. A civil service employee of another agency, for example, was once fined $250 because a vendor had sent her—unsolicited—a baked ham for Christmas.

So, now the message is clear: vastly different standards apply dependent upon whether you are a rank-and-file civil servant or a privileged executive counsel of an agency. Play your political cards right and you might even get appointed interim secretary. Never mind those sexually harassed employees you leave in your wake.

Which now brings us back to Courtney Phillips, a Port Sulphur native who previously worked as Deputy Secretary of LDH, then known as the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), in the Bobby Jindal administration. She left that position in February 2015 to become CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

On Feb. 13, 2015, LouisianaVoice posted a story dealing with her employment at DHH during which time her mother was hired as a DHH employee, raising questions of NEPOTISM.

She left Lincoln in August 2018 for Austin to become Executive Commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Agency but not before leaving a path of destruction and low morale in her old agency.

On March 6, 2018, BRAD GIANAKOS, chief counsel for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, by all accounts a professional who cared deeply about his work, was summoned to the office of the agency’s chief operating officer where he was summarily fired and escorted out of the building.

He wasn’t the only one. Others met similar fate with no explanation other than the agency wanted to move “in a different direction.”

But when Gianakos interviewed for other state jobs, he found the doors closed. He concluded that he was being blackballed even though there never any allegations of wrongdoing or criticisms of the job he had done for two decades at HHS.

A month later, he was dead. Suicide.

And four months later Phillips moved on, leaving behind an agency missing many longtime managers and administrators who also left but for different reasons: a harsh working environment.

And now, less than four years after leaving Louisiana in the broad daylight and less than two years after departing Lincoln, she may again be on the move—this time back to Louisiana where she will rejoin Russo.

It’s enough to make you scratch your head in bewilderment.

 

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Sometimes it seems the mindset of infallibility of prosecutors is such that they not only cannot admit their own errors, but sometimes even those of their predecessors.

Leon Cannizzaro wasn’t even the Orleans Parish district attorney when 17-year-old Jerome Morgan was convicted in the 1993 shooting death of 16-year-old in a Gentilly motel ballroom.

The DA at the time would have been Harry Connick, Sr., whose office was so notorious at hiding exculpatory evidence from defendants that national publications like THE NEW YORK TIMES, CURRENT AFFAIRS, and THE WASHINGTON POST ripped his office’s practices.

Connick’s reputation was enhanced—if that is the right word—by a model ELECTRIC CHAIR that occupied the desk of one of Connick’s prosecutors. Photographs of five African American men that Connick’s office had sent to death row at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola were “seated” in the photo. The center photo was of one John Thompson who had been sent to death row for a murder he didn’t commit and in fact, was nowhere near the scene of the murder when it occurred.

Thompson sat on death row for 14 years before the Innocence Project of New Orleans discovered exculpatory evidence Connick’s office had withheld and freed him in 2003. An assistant DA, it turned out, had hidden 10 pieces of exculpatory evidence, including test results and a pair of pants in order to protect the DA’s case against Thompson. The pants contained blood worn by one of the victims in the crime, blood believed to be that of the perpetrator. The blood type was B. Thompson’s was O.

He sued Connick and won a $14 million judgment—a million dollars for every year he was held in solitary confinement—but with Clarence Thomas writing the majority opinion, a split U.S. Supreme Court took Thompson’s reward away and he ended up with nothing for his 14 years awaiting his execution.

Thompson, who spent 14 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit and was denied a $14 million judgment for his wrongful conviction, died of a heart attack in 2017 at age 55—14 years after his exoneration.

Fully a quarter of Connick’s convictions during his 30 years as Orleans Parish DA were overturned, each time because of exculpatory evidence that was withheld from defense attorneys.

But Connick’s screw-ups didn’t stop Cannizzaro from attempting to go forward with re-trying Morgan after New Orleans Judge Darryl Derbigny vacated his conviction in 2014 after two witnesses who later recanted their trial testimony, saying that police had steered them to identify Morgan as the shooter when Clarence Henry was killed at a birthday party at the hotel.

In fact, Cannizzaro promptly moved to re-try Morgan and to charge the two witnesses, Hakim Shabazz and Kevin Johnson, with perjury while quietly forgoing any attempt to go after the police officers who the two said coerced their original testimony.

Their attorney even said as much. “If the DA is eager to prosecute for perjury,” said attorney Robert Hjortsberg, “then justice would dictate that he begin with prosecuting the corrupt NOPD officers who coerced false statements out of scared teenagers so they could close this case quickly rather than accurately. There is no justice for a victim’s family when the police don’t arrest the actual perpetrator. And the police department will never correct these lazy, corrupt practices unless the DA begins to hold the department accountable and truly treats all the people of this city fairly.”

Cannizzaro, while refusing to proclaim Morgan innocent of the killing, nevertheless in 2014 dropped the murder charge after a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling said prosecutors could not use transcripts from Morgan’s 1994 trial during a new trial.

That meant that for the first time in 20 years, Morgan was a free man and that should have ended his problems, but like the plot from a Stephen King novel, more horrors lay ahead for him as he encountered something called the BAIL BOND INDUSTRY.

“I am the victim not only of prosecutors who violated the law, but also of our money bail system and the predatory bail bond industry,” Morgan wrote in a letter to the letter of the New Orleans Advocate last year.

When Cannizzaro, in his dogged pursuit of Morgan, decided to re-try him, his bond was set at $25,000—this for a man whose conviction had just been set aside by a judge—and he spent an additional 18 days in jail while his family raised the bail money.

When, after 14 months, Cannizzaro finally relented and dropped all charges, Morgan assumed—wrongly, it turned out—that the bail bond company would return his bail money.

He said he learned that the Louisiana Commissioner of Insurance had investigated the bail bond company that he had paid and found that it had overcharged him for his bail bond. But it was not just him, he said. “The commissioner found that dozens of bail bond companies have overcharged as many as 50,000 New Orleans families by an estimated $6 million,” he said. “That is a lot of people and a lot of money!”

He said he was angry at learning that he’d been overcharged but was confident that he and others would receive compensation.

“I figured the bail bond industry would not be happy about having to return the money. But I did not expect that the Legislature would introduce a bill — SB 108 — that would prohibit the insurance commissioner from ordering this money to be returned and another bill — HB 171 — whose purpose is to protect the bail bond industry’s profits.”

Morgan was referencing SB 108, which passed the Senate by a vote of 36-1 (Sen. Dan Claitor casting the lone nay vote) with two absences (with one of the bills authors, Jean-Paul Morrell, being among the two absentees), and sailing through the House by a vote of 85-0 with 20 absences (sponsor Raymond Garofalo was among the absentees).

So, what, exactly was SB 108, which was signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards as Act 54 of 2019?

Well, basically it says that the rates for underwriters writing criminal bail bonds throughout the state “shall not be subject to the rates set by the insurance commissioner, but shall be set and adjusted by the legislature.”

But then there’s this in Section B of the bill:

“In any parish having a population of more than three hundred thousand and fewer than four hundred thousand persons …no repayment of overcollections as determined by the commissioner shall be required nor shall such actions be considered a violation…”

Well, guess how many parishes just happen to have a population of between 300,000 and 400,000?

And just how did the bail bond industry manage to slide that bill through the legislature so easily?

The same way all controversial legislation seems to get passed: Political contributions or, for a lack of a better term: payoffs. A check of campaign finance records shows pages and pages and pages of political contributions by bail bondsmen. And you just know those contributions were made in the interest of good government.

Contributions were made not only to legislators but to sheriffs as well—25 that we found since 2011. Others were to judges. What political groups have the most clout in the legislature? Sheriff and judges. So when the New Orleans bail bondsmen need favorable legislation to protect their practice of gouging low-income defendants who lacked the expertise or the financial resources to fight back, who do you call on? Your friendly legislators, sheriffs and judges.

“It took 20 years for me to be exonerated,” Morgan said. “But it took only about a month for a bill to exonerate the bail bond industry that cheated my family and my community out of millions of hard-earned dollars.”

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