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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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A lot of people, the media included, expressed surprised that a company owned by Bernhard Capital Partners was awarded a multi-million-dollar consulting contract by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) to plan the construction of a new bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge.

They shouldn’t have been—surprised, that is.

ATLAS TECHNICAL CONSULTANTS of Austin, Texas, was awarded the two-phase contract despite finishing well behind two other firms in evaluations by the state’s technical selection committee. The selection committee’s evaluation notwithstanding, the final selection was made by DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, an appointee of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Atlas received 61.98 points from the committee while Baker International had 72.59 and AECOM had 74.01 points, more than 12 points higher than Atlas.

AECOM appealed Wilson’s decision but in Louisiana, such appeals to fairness and even playing fields generally fall on deaf ears and this was no exception as Wilson UPHELD his decision.

The entire process got Louisiana Congressman GARRET GRAVES in a tizzy, saying DOTD “better have good reasons” for doing a deal with Bernhard.

But as we said, no one should be surprised at Bernhard’s clout. He was, after all, once the state Democratic Chairman and was even rumored once as a potential candidate for governor.

As an illustration of his influence, in May 2017, LouisianaVoice did a story about how first Jindal and then Edwards pushed for a state water PRIVATIZATION CONTRACT with Bernhard Energy of Baton Rouge after a second company’s proposal was rejected in favor of seeking an oral presentation from Bernhard. Even then, another evaluation committee rejected Bernhard’s proposal, saying it was not in the state’s best interest to enter into the partnership with Bernhard because of the exceptionally high costs.

That was in 2015, in the last year of Jindal’s administration and despite the committee’s recommendations, he entered into a $25,000 contract with a Baton Rouge consulting firm to another “Evaluation and Feasibility Study” of Bernhard’s proposal. Even then, Bill Wilson of the Office of State Buildings rejected the proposal, saying it “would not be advantageous for the State of Louisiana in its current form.”

But in April 2017, well into the Edwards administration, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, in an email to Mark Moses, assistant commissioner for Facility Planning & Control, and Paula Tregre, director of the Office of State Procurement in which he said Edwards said the state “will have the RFP (Request for Proposals) on the street no later than May 31,” adding that the proposal “needs to be a top priority.”

So, of course it happened.

Again, no one should be surprised.

On Aug. 12, 2019, the Baton Rouge Advocate had a story announcing the deal whereby Bernhard will lease chiller systems at the state-owned Shaw Center for the Arts from the state for $3 million over 20 years and the state will buy back the chilled water—used to cool the building—for $6 million. Bernhard will also modernize energy systems at 31 state buildings, including the State Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion and state Supreme Court building in New Orleans, at a cost of $54 million to the state.

Another Bernhard company, Louisiana Energy Partners, will also sell extra chilled water to other companies in downtown Baton Rouge and the deal leaves open the possibility that Louisiana Energy Partners may enter into agreements with Louisiana colleges and universities to privatize their energy systems.

And, of course, who could ever forget the Blue Tarp Debacle following Hurricane Katrina in 2005—the first real indication of the stroke Bernhard has in this state.

The Shaw Group (since sold to Chicago Brick & Iron and Bernhard then started a series of new companies cited earlier in this post) was contracted to place tarpaulins over damaged roofs at a rate of $175 per square (one hundred square feet per square). That’s $175 for draping a ten-foot-by-ten-foot square blue tarpaulin over a damaged roof. Shaw in turn sub-contracted the work to a company called A-1 Construction at a cost of $75 a square. A-1 in turn subbed the work to Westcon Construction at $30 a square. Westcon eventually lined up the actual workers who placed the tarps at a cost of $2 a square.

Thus, the Shaw Group realized a net profit of $100 a square, A-1 made $45 dollars per square, and Westcon netted $28 dollars a square – all without ever placing the first sheet of tarpaulin. Between them, the three companies reaped profits of $173 per square after paying a paltry $2 per square. The real irony in the entire scenario was that the first three contractors – Shaw, A-1, and Westcon – didn’t even own the equipment necessary to perform tarping or debris hauling. By the time public outrage, spurred by media revelations of the fiasco, forced public bidding on tarping, forcing tarping prices down from the $3,000-plus range to $1,000, Shaw and friends had already pocketed some $300 million dollars.

The state threatened prosecution of those who it felt overcharged for a gallon of gasoline in Katrina’s aftermath but apparently looked the other way for more influential profiteers.

And no one was surprised.

 

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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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A politically-conservative organization is set to launch its campaign to rethink the issue of capital punishment next week in Baton Rouge but a press release on Tuesday indicates the group is more concerned with the cost of capital punishment in terms of dollars than in the human cost of lives adversely affected by numerous documented cases of wrongful convictions.

Louisiana Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, “a network of conservatives who question the alignment of capital punishment with their conservative principles,” will hold a news conference to officially announce the group’s formation next Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Capitol Park Event Center’s Fishbowl Conference Room at 702 River Road North in Baton Rouge.

Speakers scheduled for the event include:

  • King Alexander of Lake Charles, a member of the Louisiana Republican State Central Committee;
  • David Marcantel of Jennings, member of the Louisiana Republican State Central Committee;
  • Robert Maness of Madisonville, member of the St. Tammany Republican Parish Executive Committee and unsuccessful candidate for a number of elected offices;
  • Marcus Maldonado of New Orleans, described as a “liberty activist;”
  • Hannah Cox, national manager, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

Louisiana is one of 12 state-based CCADP groups the press release says are “part of a nationwide trend of conservatives rethinking capital punishment.”

“The latest study shows the death penalty costs Louisiana taxpayers nearly $16 million a year more than life without parole, and this waste of money is a big reason why conservatives in Louisiana are speaking out against the death penalty,” Cox said. “For a state with one of the highest violent crime rates, Louisiana is flushing away enormous resources that could be used to make its people much safer.”

What the news release did not say was that no fewer than 60 Louisiana inmates have been exonerated after it was determined that they were wrongly convicted, according to the National Registry of Exonerations which lists more than 2500 exonerations nationwide.

Of those 60 Louisiana exonerations, 15 were on death row awaiting execution.

One of the principal reasons for the high number of wrongful convictions is that prosecutors are not held accountable in a country where virtually all but judges and prosecutors must answer for their actions.

District attorneys want a high rate of convictions to hold up to the public when re-election time comes around and if they have to fudge with the evidence in order to obtain a conviction, many prosecutors have no compunctions about doing so.

And why not? It’s practically impossible to successfully sue a district attorney for his actions and judges are absolutely immune.

A good example of how difficult it is to extract some measure of retribution from a DA can be found in the case of John Thompson of New Orleans. Convicted of a murder he did not commit because the DA withheld exculpatory evidence, he spent 14 years on death row before the Innocence Project of New Orleans obtained his freedom. He sued DA Harry Connick and won a $14 million judgment that was appealed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court which struck down the award. For 14 years of his life taken away by subterfuge on the part of the prosecutor, he got nothing.

Thompson died in 2017 at the age of 55, just 14 years after his 2003 exoneration. Fourteen years on death row followed by 14 years of freedom during which time the courts deprived him of any remuneration for the “inconvenience” of 14 years behind bars and now…he’s dead.

But sometimes the actions of a prosecutor can be so egregious that the protections against legal liability must be stripped away to allow the exoneree to seek recompense for the damages done to him and his family.

Apparently, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick felt that 21st JDC District Attorney Scott Perrilloux may have committed such a breach of protocol and ethics in a Livingston Parish murder conviction when she ruled that a lawsuit by Michael Wearry could go forward.

Dick, chief judge for the U.S. Middle District, ruled that Perrilloux’s “alleged use of intimidation and coercion to produced fabricated testimony went beyond the scope of the prosecutor’s role as an advocate of the state” by costing Wearry more than 20 years of his life on death row.

In light of Judge Dick’s ruling and a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that called the entire case “a house of cards,” Perrilloux’s claim of prosecutorial immunity came up pretty thin.

The Wearry case stems from the brutal murder of 16-year-old pizza delivery boy Eric Walber whose body was found on a gravel road not long after he delivered pizza to a remote area in Livingston Parish in 1998.

The lawsuit was filed against Perrilloux and Marion Kearney Foster, former Livingston Parish Chief of Detectives who, together, built their case against Wearry on the basis of the testimony of then 10-year-old Jeffrey Ashton who has since recanted his testimony, claiming he was threatened by Perrilloux and Foster and that Perrilloux coached him on his trial testimony..

He now says he was nowhere near the crime scene and that he never saw Wearry,” said Ashton, now 30. “I seen none of that. On the night that everything happened, I was not in Springfield, period. We was at the Strawberry Festival (in Ponchatoula).”

Ashton says Perrilloux and Foster threatened to take him to juvenile hall if he didn’t say what they wanted him to say in his testimony and that “you’re going to be there for life.”

The case languished for two years before a jailhouse snitch told authorities he participated in the murder and named Wearry and four others. The problem with Sam Scott’s story, however, was that he got several details about the crime wrong.

He said the murder occurred on Blahut Road but police reports show that it actually happened several miles from there, on Crisp Road.

The jury wasn’t told, for example, that Scott gave five statements over two days, getting both the color and make of the car wrong. In his initial statement, he said that Walber was shot but he was not. He was kidnapped in his own vehicle and then beaten before being run over several times.

Moreover, Wearry’s then-girlfriend, Renarda Dominick, said she and Wearry were at a Baton Rouge wedding reception until well beyond the time of the murder but prosecutors, never eager to admit wrongdoing, claim he could have participated in the murder after returning from the reception.

Like Ashton, Dominick said authorities went so far as to arrest her for traffic tickets she had already paid in an effort to get her to change her story.

Undaunted by the double-team scolding from Judge Dick and the U.S. Supreme Court for his office’s sloppy work, Perrilloux immediately began planning to re-try Wearry. But Wearry’s lawsuit forced an abrupt change of plans. With the lawsuit hanging over him like the sword of Damocles, Perrilloux quickly agreed to a plea deal with Wearry in December 2018, just a month before his scheduled retrial for first-degree murder. Wearry entered a guilty plea to a lesser charge of manslaughter and agreed to a 25-year sentence with credit given for more than 20 years already served.

Whether or not Wearry was involved, this was the best deal for him. Even if he was innocent, it was his only chance of not having to endure another grueling trial at the hands of a prosecutor who had already shown his propensity to win at any cost, even if it meant bending the rules to the breaking point. And another conviction would mean Wearry would never get out of prison.

And again, whether or not Wearry was involved, the actions by Perrilloux and Johnson are inexcusable. These people are elected to protect us, not to resort to unethical behavior to obtain a dubious conviction in order to bolster their resumes at election time.

With most public officials, we ask only for honesty and integrity. With prosecutors and judges, the bar must be set higher because they deal with human lives and the consequences can be catastrophic. With them, we must also demand absolute adherence to the highest standards of justice. No one is perfect, but perfection must be the objective.

Every time.

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It looks as though the John Hays Memorial Rumor Mill might become a regular feature of LouisianaVoice.

For the unindoctrinated, Hays, who died five years ago following a protracted battle with cancer, was publisher of Ruston’s Morning Paper, a weekly edition that took on the entrenched power structure and never let up.

But what began as a one-man crusade against the local hospital and local, municipally-run power plant quickly expanded into the scourge of any would-be swindlers, scam artists and flim-flam peddlers. He once took on Ponzi schemer Steven Hoffenberg who headed up a scam called Towers Financial Corp. (TFC) and sent Hoffenberg packing off to federal prison, copping his Morning Paper a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in the process.

As I said yesterday in the column immediately below this one, the misfortune of having one’s name crop up in his Rumor Mill was the local equivalent to having Mike Wallace show up at your office for an interview on 60 Minutes.

And as I said in the opening paragraph, his Rumor Mill may, of necessity, become a permanent feature here after picking up on the rumor we heard today.

(Drum roll, please):

Politics can be a dicey game as two high-ranking officials in the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office apparently have learned, according to reports that have reached the executive offices of LouisianaVoice in beautiful downtown Denham Springs.

Without naming names (we’ll do that when we get official confirmation), word is Gov. John Bel Edwards has sent down word from the State Capitol’s Fourth Floor that the two LSFM officials, one stationed in the LSFM’s Baton Rouge headquarters and the other in Lafayette an hour to the west, should no longer be considered state employees.

Their sin? Backing the wrong horse in the recent gubernatorial election and doing it openly.

But, hey! That’s the price you pay for working as an unclassified state employee. Unclassified means you are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the governor, unprotected by Civil Service.

Unclassified, unlike classified (Civil Service) employees are free to participate in political campaigns, but they best be careful which candidate they back. Support the wrong one and your career can—and will be—cut short.

These two, we’re told, actively campaigned for Republican Eddie Rispone, apparently fairly certain that a Democrat couldn’t possible be elected governor twice in such a red state dominated by the likes of Lane Grigsby, Rispone’s mentor and principal benefactor. Surely Edwards’s win over David Vitter four years ago was an anomaly, more of an indictment of Vitter than an endorsement of Edwards, a (shudder) Democrat.

That may have been where the smart money was but the smart money doesn’t always take into account the intangibles in a tight election and the intangibles in this one included the impotence of Donald Trump’s support of Rispone (three trips to Louisiana) and an unexpectedly high turnout in support of Edwards.

And unclassified employees who rode the wrong pony are now paying the price.

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