Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burns claimed that on 46 occasions, he was conducting a search of his own license plate and that the “spin-off” searches of his wife were a result of “unintended inquiries generated by an automated system.” Investigators didn’t buy that explanation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur Smith, III, has been named president of a new political action committee (PAC) founded in an attempt to stem the growing trend of economic, religious, gender, racial and healthcare discrimination against American employees.

Stand Up for Workers (SU4W) “was established by people who care about the basic rights of the American worker. We seek to protect the right to a fair and livable wage and benefits; to receive fair and humane treatment in the workplace, including work with dignity; and to have full access to justice, including the right to trial by jury,” according to its web page.

A little background is in order here.

The formation of the new PAC is realistically challenged with overcoming nearly a 50-year head start by big business and business-backed Republican elected officials who, indebted to corporate PACs, have given their tacit approval to the more subtle means of employee discrimination. At the same time, open endorsement has been given the so-called Powell Memorandum of 1971 by then-corporate attorney Lewis Powell, Jr., who shortly after writing his memo, was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Nixon.

The MEMORANDUM, written specifically for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was entitled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System” and served as a master plan for conservative business interests to retake America from the so-called New Deal era. It was supposed to have been confidential, but was discovered an published by columnist Jack Anderson following Powell’s appointment to the Supreme Court.

Powell, who had served as corporate attorney and director on the board of Phillip Morris until his appointment to the Supreme Court, was an unabashed champion of the tobacco industry during his term on the court as well as an opponent of reforms to the automobile industry prompted by Ralph Nader’s expose’ Unsafe at Any Speed, which revealed the auto industry’s higher priority on profits than on safety. Powell called Nader the chief antagonist of American business.

The memo, which foreshadowed several of the Powell court’s opinions served as the blueprint for the rise of the American conservative movement and the formation of a spate of right-wing think tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and lobbying organizations and also inspired the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to become more active in the political arena.

Conversely, as the chamber’s and other conservative organization’s influence gained strength in Washington, the political clout of organized labor weakened, further silencing the voice of American workers.

Following is the full press release announcing the formation of SU4W, as well as a link to the organization’s web page:

 

A group of worker advocates from across the nation has announced founding of a specialized political action committee, “Stand Up for Workers” (SU4W), dedicated specifically to the needs and concerns of American workers.  https://standupforworkers.org/    SU4W is a hybrid PAC, comprising both a traditional PAC and a super PAC.

“Despite recent promises of improvements in work life conditions for working Americans, the plight of middle and lower income workers has, if anything, become more dire,” said Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur “Art” Smith, III, President of SU4W.

Mr. Smith is a 47 year veteran employee-side litigator in Louisiana. He has litigated numerous trials and appeals in labor and employment on behalf of both employees and unions. He is a fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, and has served in numerous positions with the Louisiana Association for Justice, including membership on the Board of Governors, and chair of both its employment and civil rights committees.

SU4W Vice President James Kaster, a Minneapolis, MN attorney, is an experienced trial lawyer who concentrates on representing plaintiffs in employment cases. He is one of only a few plaintiffs’ lawyers who is a member of both the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers and the American College of Trial Lawyers, a group limited to one percent of America’s trial attorneys.  Mr. Kaster has also been a frequent lecturer at continuing legal education seminars and has been active in bar activities, including serving as President of the National Employment Lawyers Association.

“Until now there has been no group specifically dedicated to supporting political candidates committed to sponsoring and voting for legislation aimed at concrete measures that will produce better conditions for the American workers whose labor has formed the backbone of our country’s prosperity,” Mr. Smith said. SU4W will support candidates for all federal offices and will engage in other activities in support of working Americans, such as providing accurate information about candidates, proposed legislation and policies.

Most lower- and middle-income American workers have seen stagnant wages for decades, while executive and professional income has risen astronomically, Smith noted. Efforts to better the lives of workers through measures such as affordable health insurance have been consistently attacked and undermined by the current administration in Washington.

SU4W focuses on three goals:

  • more equitable pay for workers;
  • fair and humane treatment in the workplace, and
  • full access to justice, including trial by jury. Trial rights have been substantially eroded by the advent of arbitration agreements extracted from workers through the threat of not being hired.

SU4W will solicit applications for support from candidates, and will engage in a careful vetting process to ensure that the candidates selected satisfy a clear set of criteria showing they will include support for workers among their top priorities.  SU4W will study recent election returns to identify districts where pro-worker candidates will have the best chance of success.

The need for advocacy on behalf of workers extends beyond the issues of income and access to affordable health care, Smith noted. Incidents of degrading treatment at work, including racial, religious and sexual discrimination, are on the rise, and many employers have failed to prevent  abuse or act against it.

Founding members of SU4W are from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.  Among its leadership are some of the country’s most prominent attorneys whose legal practices are committed to enforcing employee rights.

For more information about SU4W, to make a donation, or find out how to apply for support, visit the website at https://standupforworkers.org/

Read Full Post »

Pre-trial intervention (PTI) programs, in theory at least, are designed to give those charged with a first offense—such as driving while intoxicated (DWI), for example—to keep the conviction off their record by participating in a program of community service or a series of classroom sessions, usually extended over a period of several weeks.

The purpose of the programs, again in theory, is that not every person charged with an offense should be subjected to criminal prosecution and that there are those who can be prevented from becoming repeat offenders through proper intervention.

The problem with Louisiana’s PTI programs is that there is no uniform application or oversight, allowing local district attorneys complete autonomy in how the programs are administered.

Instead of serving their intended purpose, many local PTI programs have morphed into cash cows and as such, lend themselves to widespread abuses at the expense of other programs such as indigent defender boards and local law enforcement.

In May 2018, former Baton Rouge Advocate (now Associated Press) reporter Jim Mustian wrote an excellent story that illustrated that very point. His entire story may be seen HERE.

Mustian showed that from 2012 to 2017, two parishes in particular had taken advantage of the program to create a lucrative source of income for prosecutors while a third did even better during the years from 2012 to 2017.

Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier saw income for his office increase threefold, from $556,000 in 2012 to $1.65 million in 2016. Jefferson Parish did even better with its income from PTI programs increasing four times, from $335,000 to $1.37 million during the same period.

But Rapides Parish DA Phillip Terrell has turned the practice into an art form, boosting his PTI revenue by a factor of seven, from $302,000 in 2012 to a mind-blowing $2.2 million in 2017.

Still, that influx of new dollars didn’t keep Terrell from requesting more than $2.5 million in parish funds for his office in 2018 despite a looming budgetary shortfall of $427,000 for the parish.

That was enough to attract the attention of online publication Politico, which normally devotes its attention to stories of national and international significance than to the budgetary problems of a parish situated in the middle of Louisiana. Politico’s story can been read in its entirety HERE.

Rapides Parish Treasurer Bruce Kelly wondered why the DA’s office was suddenly asking for more funds than at any time in his 30 years in the parish treasurer’s office knowing, as he did, that the DA had a new fleet of vehicles with leather seats.

He soon learned why.

Pre-trial diversion, otherwise known as pre-trial intervention, or PTI.

The DA’s income from court fines had dropped by nearly half, from $900,000 to $500,000 over the past three years. That corresponded with a similar drop in traffic tickets issued—from 12,000 per year to 7,000.

At the same time, however, Terrell’s office had significantly increased its PTI program, allowing offenders to pay money to the DA in exchange for charges being dropped and their cases dismissed, thus keeping their tickets or arrests off their records as though they never happened.

Offenders were charged dismissal fees ranging from $250 for traffic tickets, $500 for misdemeanors and as high as $1,500 for felonies.

And Terrell’s office, Kelly learned, was keeping that money for itself—money that should have gone into the parish’s general fund to be shared with indigent defender offices and the sheriff’s office.

Believing Terrell was depriving the parish of fine money to which it was entitled, Kelly and the parish leadership filed suit against Terrell’s office in an effort to get the court to force the DA to share its PTI revenue.

Terrell responded that he could make as much as he wanted through PTI because…well, because the law didn’t say otherwise.

And he was right in the assertion that there were no statewide standards to the implementation and operation of PTI programs and thus, no restrictions as to his ability to exploit the program.

To make his case, he brought in a hired gun in the person of Hugo Holland, a prosecutor who normally works only as a prosecutor in criminal cases and who appears to be on the payroll of several parish district attorneys simultaneously, from Caddo Parish in north Louisiana to Calcasieu Parish in the state’s southwestern extreme.

The battle between Terrell and Rapides Parish Police Jury took on true Trumpian overtones when Holland threatened the police jury members with investigations into their own use of funds if they did not agree to drop their fight with his client. When that tactic failed, Terrell filed a countersuit arguing that he did not owe any money to the parish and calling the police jury’s lawsuit “politically-driven.”

It’s easy to see why Terrell is so possessive of his sudden stream of income—and why similar battle lines could be drawn between prosecutors and parish governing bodies as more and more DAs are made aware of the untapped revenue windfalls currently available to them.

It’s also pretty easy to predict an intense lobbying campaign by the Louisiana District Attorneys Association (LDAA) to protect PTI programs from regulation should some state lawmaker have the temerity to introduce legislation to rein in such a lucrative enterprise.

I’m willing to bet even money that Arkansas would have a better chance of beating LSU today than any such bill would have of making it out of committee.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: