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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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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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For those who prefer the fast-paced action of James Patterson, John Grisham or James Lee Burke, In Sullivan’s Shadow isn’t for you.

But if you are a political junkie with an eye for a scholarly work about a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that was key to the simultaneous support of the First Amendment and the American civil rights movement, then you will definitely fine In Sullivan’s Shadow riveting reading.

Author Aimee Edmondson, a native of East Carroll Parish, never really appreciated the stark reality of having grown up sheltered from exposure to blacks, attending as she did, an all-white private school, until she bumped into an African-American student from her home town her freshman year at LSU. Only then did she realize that even in a small town like Lake Providence, they had grown up worlds apart. When she innocently observed that she didn’t attend public school back home, he simply shook his head and said, “No s**t.”

Edmondson, who teaches journalism at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, has crawled back through the legal archives of civil rights litigation to give us a long-awaited examination of SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) lawsuits used as weapons against national publications like Time, The New York Times, Look, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and even The Ladies’ Home Journal and bold local editors who saw resistance to the civil rights movement for what it was: a desperate attempt to keep blacks “in their place” while preserving the comfortable—and separate—lifestyles of whites.

While local television stations in the South would display “Technical Difficulties” on viewers’ screens whenever their networks would air footage of blacks being beaten in Southern bus stations, the national publications—and to a lesser extent, courageous small town editors like Hodding Carter, Buford Boone and Hazel Brannon Smith—were providing graphic coverage that left people like Lester Sullivan, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, Lawrence A. Rainey, and retired Army Gen. Edwin Walker in a litigious mood.

Sullivan was Commissioner of the Police and Fire Department of Montgomery, Alabama, Connor was Birmingham Police Commissioner, and Rainey was Sheriff of Neshoba County, Mississippi.

In a series of separate SLAPP filings, they launched a full-scale attack on the national publications, CBS News, CBS reporter Howard K. Smith, himself a native of Ferriday, Louisiana, and local newspapers that dared to take a stand against arrests, beatings, arson, and even murders. And of course, black newspapers and civil rights leaders were not exempt from the costly litigation.

Edmondson calls up some familiar names when she describes how the struggle for equality made its way to Baton Rouge. Names like Police Chief Wingate White, U.S. District Court Judge E. Gordon West, 19th Judicial District Court Judge Fred LeBlanc, and District Attorney Sargent Pitcher, Jr., Mayor John Christian, and Rev. Arthur L Jelks surface in her recounting of the volatile struggle.

She even manages to provide us with a brief account of the ongoing battles between blacks and Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal.

But more than just a rehashing of police dogs, fire hoses and clubs, Edmondson’s book focuses more on the legal struggles that came out of the multitude of SLAPP actions brought by Sullivan, Connor, Rainey, and Walker.

In frightening detail, she shows how these lawsuits bullied CBS into a public apology for Smith’s reporting and how editors at The New York Times genuinely feared for the financial existence of the publication should it lose its landmark case brought by Sullivan.

But then, in 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even if a publication had factual errors in its reporting on a public official, that public official must show that the publication new its story was false and published it anyway, with malice and reckless disregard for the truth.

But then, when Gen. Walker sued over stories that he instigated rioting during the integration of the University of Mississippi, the Supreme Court went a bit further in declaring that Sullivan protected publications from litigation not only from public officials, but from public figures, as well, thus cementing the right of freedom of the press.

In Sullivan’s Shadow is a must-read for political junkies, especially in a time when the adversarial relationship between the media and public officials–particularly on the national stage—is more acrimonious than it’s been since Montgomery, Birmingham and Neshoba County.

 

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It’s been a busy last couple of weeks, to say the least:

  • Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards was forced into a runoff with millionaire businessman Eddie Rispone who had never run for office before and who offered no specific solutions to Louisiana’s problems other than to say he was going to “fix it,” a-la the late Ross Perot and that he would lower taxes a-la Bobby Jindal.
  • In the all-important races for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the big money was the big winner. Seven candidates backed by LABI and its PAC money won seven seats on the board, demonstrating in no uncertain terms that it’s not who has the best ideas and who is the best-qualified, but who has the money that determines who gets elected in Louisiana. Voters continue to listen to the sound bites and to read the brochures that clutter our mailboxes instead of educating themselves on the issues. Perhaps the completion of an intensive civics course, complete with a required essay on all the candidates should be a criteria for voting.
  • Two Soviet-born emigres managed to penetrate the White House’s inner circle by cozying up to Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump by pouring $350,000 into federal and state Republican campaigns and contacted Ukrainian officials at the behest of Giuliani in his efforts to dig up information on Democrats. No word if any of that $350,000 went into the Rispone campaign.
  • Trump threw erstwhile allies Kurds under the bus by pulling out American forces, using has his excuse the somewhat dubious claim he wanted the U.S. out of the mess in the Mideast even as he was committing more troops to Saudi Arabia to aid that country in its fight against Iran.
  • LSU won a classic heavyweight match-up with Florida and moved into the number two spot in the national rankings.
  • The Hard Rock Café Hotel in New Orleans that was under construction in the French Quarter collapsed, leaving at least two dead and raising questions about construction inspections similar to those raised in a similar incident in Baton Rouge more than 40 years ago. That’s when a building undergoing construction on Airline Highway collapsed, killing three workers and injuring three others. The building had recently undergone its “final inspection” which pronounced it “ready for occupancy.”
  • In a textbook SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) lawsuit, the Ascension Parish Council responded to a public records request from former employee Teleta Wesley by filing a lawsuit against her. The same course was taken by the 4th Judicial District Court (Ouachita and Morehouse parishes) judges against The Ouachita Citizen newspaper and by the Welsh Town Council against town council member Jacob Colby Perry. Similar action was also threatened but never taken by Lake Charles attorney Russell Stutes, Jr. in response to public records requests submitted by Billy Broussard who was never paid by Calcasieu Parish to remove debris from Hurricane Rita in 2005. Such lawsuits are filed for the sole purpose of shutting up critics who generally don’t have the resources to fight such nuisance lawsuits.

Several surveys came out recently that revealed some interesting facts.

  • Louisiana, with a poverty rate of 18.6 percent in 2018 (down from 19.7 percent the year before), improved somewhat to the fifth-poorest state in the nation. The state came in ahead of (in order) New Mexico, Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia.
  • Monroe, meanwhile, ranked as the 28th poorest metropolitan area in the U.S. with a median household income of $44,353 and a poverty rate of 20.7 percent and with 12.2 percent of households with incomes under $10,000 (both among the 10 highest rates). Not to be outdone, the Shreveport-Bossier City metro area was 14th-poorest with a median household income of $41,969 and a poverty rate of 20.4 percent.
  • Louisiana’s state retirement system, often criticized by the numbers-crunchers, while not on the best financial footing, was nevertheless, in “only” the 20th worst shape (putting the state not very far from the middle of the pack) with a funded ratio of 65.1 percent and a total pension shortfall of $18.2 billion (19th highest). That compares favorably with Kentucky’s funded ratio of only 33.9 percent and its $42.9 billion shortfall (the worst in the nation) and next-door neighbor Mississippi, which had a funded ratio of 61.6 percent but a total pension shortfall of $16.8 billion, two spots better than Louisiana’s.
  • Finally, a survey of the worst colleges in each state was done using U.S. Department of Education, Niche and College Factual (college ranking services) data based on graduation rates, costs of the university, salaries post-graduation, average student debt, and return on investment. Grambling State University near Ruston was deemed the worst in Louisiana. Grambling has a anemic graduation rate of only 10 percent and students leave with an average student debt of $27,656. With a median post-graduation salary of only $28,100, the default rate on student loans is 16.1 percent. By comparison, the worst college in Mississippi is Mississippi Valley State, which has a graduation rate three times that of Grambling at 29.8 percent and a loan default rate of 18.9 percent on average student loans of $32,252. In Arkansas, the worst is Philander Smith College in Little Rock which has a graduation rate of 39 percent but a default rate of 20.1 percent on average student debt of $26,616. The worst school in the nation is DeVry University. While it operates in nearly every state, its physical location is Illinois, so it was ranked as the worst in that state with a graduation rate of only 20.6 percent and average debt of $30,000 per student.

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