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Archive for the ‘Public Records’ Category

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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When Kimberly Gail Womack was found dead in the bedroom of her Jarreau residence in Pointe Coupee Parish, her daughter Kathryn Simpson assumed there would be a thorough investigation into her death.

Womack, had died little more than a month shy of her 49th birthday of “blunt force trauma to head by assault,” according to the official death certificate. She suffered “left sided (sic) subdural hematoma (brain hemorrhaging generally associated with traumatic brain injury) because of a blow or blows to the head, and “multiple fractured ribs.

Her death was assigned to the parish coroner and Simpson had every reason to believe authorities would devote their energy to find her mother’s killer.

That was on Aug. 1, 2008, and more than 11 years later, no one has been charged with the killing and authorities have attempted to deflect Simpson’s inquiries into her mother’s case, saying (a) that she died from a fall and (b) her lifestyle was the primary contributing factor in her death.

Eighteenth Judicial District Assistant District Attorney Tony Clayton has even implied to Simpson that she “will never know” the full story of Womack’s death.

Those words now seem prophetic since after more than 11 years, the case appears no closer to resolution than ever.

Kim Womack’s “lifestyle” kept resonating with Simpson, who was aware her mother was involved with a West Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy.

The only problem was, unbeknownst to Simpson, the deputy, WBR Sheriff’s deputy was married. It’s not known if Womack was aware that inconvenient fact.

When the deputy, whom Simpson says she had known all her life, was a no-show for her mother’s memorial, “I got suspicious.”

Clayton refused to provide the investigative report to Simpson. “He told me he would let me see the information but he could not let it get out because of the media got hold of it, it could ruin the deputy’s life and he wasn’t going to do that,” Simpson said.

She said she then went to the office of the deputy’s wife and “slapped my mom’s picture down in front of his wife. I asked if she knew the woman in the picture.” She said she told the woman that her mother was having an affair with her husband and my mom “has now turned up dead.”

Womack had accompanied the deputy to a training session in Lake Charles about three weeks before her death, Simpson said.

She said the man’s wife told her she would present her husband with what Simpson had given her and that the two women would talk the following day.

“I called her the next day and she wasn’t ugly, but she said she couldn’t talk to me anymore,” Simpson said.

“The deputy went to Tony Clayton’s office and threw a fit the next day,” she said. “And that’s the last I ever heard of it (the investigation).”

Ty Chaney, chief investigator for the Pointe Coupee Parish Coroner’s Office, did write a two-paragraph letter dated Jan. 28, 2020 that he attached to the six-page autopsy report in which he stipulated that “This death was a result of a left side Subdural Hematoma from Blunt Force trauma to head.

“This is still a pending homicide investigation with Pointe Coupee Parish Sheriff Office.” The autopsy report added that she suffered “multiple bruises and abrasions on the upper and lower extremities as well as the midfrontal region of the face.”

The problem with any investigation at this point is that Womack’s body was cremated by Rabenhorst Funeral Home of Baton Rouge on Aug. 4, 2008, just three days after her death.

Louisiana R.S. 13:5719 says “…If, after the necessary investigation, the coroner is satisfied that there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, he shall issue a permit for cremation.”

An autopsy was completed but the coroner’s report made it plain that there were “suspicious circumstances. By cremating the body, any evidence that might have been overlooked was gone forever.

When prosecutors and law enforcement investigators are less diligent about solving crimes that are not sufficiently high-profile or because victims lack name recognition, social status or proper connections, or when prosecutors just go for the low-hanging fruit (read: easy cases), then justice is not being served on an equal and impartial basis.

Far from it. In fact, it smacks of either laziness or favoritism.

Clayton earlier this week formally announced his candidacy to succeed his boss, DA Ricky Ward who is retiring. This story likely will invoke howls of a political hatchet job. In an election year, that would be an expected reaction for a political candidate under fire. The truth is, however, that I know little about Tony Clayton and have no axe to grind with him. Nor do I know of any other potential candidate for the DA’s post in the three-parish 18th JDC.

The only dog I have in this hunt is contempt for any public official who appears to be shirking his duty to the people he or she serves or who is otherwise giving less than his/her best. And after 11 years of inaction on the Kim Womack case, it would appear that someone has gone to sleep on the job in the 18th JDC.

The alternative would seem to be that someone is indeed being protected.

 

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Regular readers of this site know of my often expressed frustration with the lack of transparency of our elected officials, particularly after Bobby Jindal so shamelessly gutted the enforcement powers of the Louisiana Board of Ethics back in 2008, just days after taking office—a move, by the way, that conveniently accommodated a couple of his supporters in the legislature who were experiencing ethics problems that suddenly went away with Jindal’s “reforms.”

Regulars also are familiar with my general angst regarding the judges of the 4th Judicial District (Ouachita and Morehouse parishes) and judges in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal in particular.

Financial statements of elected officials—except judges—is relatively easily accessible on the Board of Ethics web page for those willing to do a minimal amount of digging. That’s how I learned of the questionable motives of one LEGISLATOR for voting in favor of a contract for a company whose stock he had only recently purchased and subsequently made a killing from.

As noted above, judges have somehow managed to hold themselves exempt from disclosure of any possible conflicts via their financial dealings—conflicts that can, and do, create an aura of distrust in our system of justice. (Financial disclosure reports are not to be confused with campaign finance reports, which even judges are required to disclose.)

So, I was more than a little thrilled today when I saw in my email inbox a press release from the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans.

The MCC, to fill void of accountability and transparency, has taken it upon itself to make financial disclosure statements available on nearly 300 judges, from district court levels all the way up to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Rather than write my own summary, I have opted to re-print the MCC press release in its entirety:

Today, the Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC) launched a new search engine on our website that enables the public to access the financial disclosure statements of all 289 Louisiana District Court Judges, Appellate Court Judges, and Supreme Court Justices for the past five years.

The MCC’s Louisiana judicial financial disclosure statement search engine is accessible here: https://metrocrime.org/judicial-financial-disclosure-statements/

Financial disclosures are required of all Louisiana elected officials and contain information regarding income, property and business ownership, non-profit affiliations, and major financial transactions.

Prior to today, there was no online access to financial disclosures filed by Louisiana judges. Rather, the only way to access judicial financial disclosures was by filing a public records request with the Louisiana Supreme Court’s Judicial Administrator.

“The Louisiana Supreme Court’s fails to recognize that judges are just as accountable to the public as any other elected official,” said MCC President Rafael Goyeneche. “The cumbersome process that the Supreme Court has devised for the public to obtain judicial financial disclosures needlessly restricts citizens’ access to these records and undermines public confidence in the judiciary. Going forward, judicial financial disclosures will be accessible to the public in the same manner as all other Louisiana elected officials.”

The Louisiana Board of Ethics provides online access to all financial disclosures required of elected officials and public servants serving on boards and commissions, with the exception of the judiciary. Providing these records online brings financial transparency of the judicial branch of government in line with that of the legislative and executive branches.

Campaign finance reports for all elected officials, including judges, are already publicly available on the Louisiana Board of Ethics website via the following link:
http://ethics.la.gov/EthicsViewReports.aspx?Reports=CampaignFinance

The MCC obtained these records by making a public records request to the Supreme Court’s Judicial Administrator and asking for financial disclosures of state judges from the past five years. The Judicial Administrator promptly furnished these digital records, and the MCC found all judges had appropriately submitted the financial disclosures according to requirements of Supreme Court rules. The MCC notified the Louisiana Supreme Court that we are launching the judicial financial disclosure search engine in a letter accessible through the following link:
https://metrocrime.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/1.10.20-MCC-Letter-to-LASC.pdf

“By not making these records readily available as other elected officials, the Supreme Court does a disservice to the Appellate and District Court judges who are doing a good job,” Goyeneche stated. “Openly sharing judicial financial disclosures should provide confidence to the public that their cases are being considered without conflicts of interest.”

…To which LouisianaVoice can only add: Amen!

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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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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.

 

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