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Archive for the ‘Public Records’ Category

Rampant drug deals, police officers taking McDonald’s lunches to the police chief’s son at school, a fundraiser that reportedly raised $50,000 for a wounded officer which he never received, and termination of a department officer who only tried to do his job.

Just another day at the Jennings Police Department.

But every now and then, the good guys win one.

Christopher Lehman, a retired Navy veteran and a resident of Jennings, has reached a confidential SETTLEMENT believed to be in the six-figure settlement range with the City of Jennings and its former Police Chief for wrongful termination.

Lehman, who also is a retired federal government civilian employee, joined the Jennings Police Department in June 2013 as a community services coordinator after having reported suspicious activity on his street beginning back in 2011.

His duties with the Jennings PD included overseeing the city’s Neighborhood Watch program.

And his troubles began when he started watching his own neighborhood as a representative of JPD.

And someone didn’t like it so, in December 2015, he was suspended.

Generally, law enforcement officials are quick to tell you, “If you see something, say something.”

But it appears others don’t want people rocking the boat or airing the city’s dirty laundry, i.e. the proliferation of illegal—and unrestrained—drug activity. In short, upstaging the local police chief. And saying something can sometimes get you fired.

Remember: Jennings is in Jefferson Davis Parish and Jefferson Davis Parish is where the murders of eight prostitutes between 2005 and 2009 remains unsolved to this day. The victims were said to have been heavily involved in the area’s drug culture, the issue that was—and remains—at the center of Lehman’s termination.

Lehman, you see, took his duties seriously and when he began reporting suspected drug trafficking on Isabelle Street, his days as a member of the Jennings Police Department were numbered.

It just so happens that Lehman resides on Isabelle Street, so he had an up-close look at the activity on the dead-end street. Some days, as many as 100 vehicles made their way to the end of the street where a couple resided in a dilapidated mobile home that, it would turn out, was in violation of a number of local building codes.

None of the cars turning into the driveway of the trailer stayed more than a few minutes and when a suspicious Lehman installed a high-tech surveillance camera to record the comings and goings, his career at Jennings PD went south in a hurry.

Add to that atmosphere the fact that then-Police Chief Todd D’Albor, who referred to Lehman as his department’s “token nigger,” according to the sworn CLAUDE GUILLORY AFFIDAVIT, a 27-year veteran of the Jennings PD, and you have a department with internal problems.

Former officer Debbie Breaux testified in her SWORN DEPOSITION, that D’Albor would make her shuttle his son to and from school and to take his lunch to him at school each day. She also would take the city mower to the chief’s home so he could cut his grass (at least he didn’t have her perform that chore).

“I knew it was all wrong and I shouldn’t have been doing it,” she said in her deposition of Oct. 29, 2018, “but what was I supposed to do? He was the chief, he told me to do it. I have no protection. I’m not civil service. He could have fired me on the spot.”

And then there is the case of officer RICKY BENOIT, shot in the neck while responding to a domestic disturbance call in 2014..

Chief D’Albor spearheaded a skeet shoot and silent auction on Benoit’s behalf and reportedly raised about $50,000.

Problem is, Benoit says he never received a penny of the benefit money.

But it was the deposition of Jennings officer CHRIS WALLACE that proved to be really eye-opening. His testimony, along with that of Debbie Breaux and the affidavits of Guillory and Priscilla Goodwin, most probably convinced the city to settle Lehman’s case before it got to an open courtroom. It was Goodwin who revealed that D’Albor’s attitude toward Lehman changed after complaints that he was photographing vehicles on his street he suspected of being involved in drug dealings in the trailer at the end of the street.

Negotiated settlements in the conference room of a law office, after all, can keep a lot of embarrassing testimony from the public’s eyes and ears.

And a confidential settlement, as this was, helps keep the lid on the actual amount of the settlement and keeps any admission of fault out of the official record, as well.

Which is precisely why we’re seeing more and more confidential settlements of lawsuits that should be very public. It is, after all, public money that is being negotiated in these settlements and the public has a right to have every cent accounted for.

Instead, realizing it was about to get burned severely, both financially and in a public relations sense, the city decided to capitulate—as it should—with a confidential settlement—as it should not.

And the settlement amount does not even include the thousands and thousands of dollars spent on Douget Court Reporters for no fewer than 10 sworn depositions, attorney fees for Baton Rouge attorney Erlingson Banks, representing the city, as well as the cost of numerous court filings—all because D’Albor, who displayed a sign on his desk that read, “I am the alpha male—I am the Lion,” told Guillory when Lehman persisted in trying to expose suspected drug deals on his street, “I’m getting rid of our token nigger.”

D’Albor is no longer heading up the Jennings Police Department. He is now Police Chief of New Iberia, a city with its own law-enforcement problems, thanks in no small part to Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal.

Meanwhile, the drug deals continue, the murders of the Jeff Davis 8 remains unsolved, and the benefit money raised for officer Benoit remains unaccounted for.

And the circle just keeps going ‘round.

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The hits just keep coming.

Another victory in a public records lawsuit—sort of—while a state tax official goes and gets himself arrested for payroll fraud, and three members of the Louisiana State Police Commission (them again?) find themselves on the hotseat for apparent violations of state regulations that already cost some of their predecessors their positions.

All in a day’s work in Louisiana where the sanctimonious, the corrupt, the unethical, and the unbelievable seem to co-mingle with a certain ease and smugness.

The Lens, an outstanding non-profit news service out of New Orleans, has just won an important fifth with the Orleans Parish District Attorney when the Louisiana Supreme Court DENIED WRITS by the district attorney’s office in its attempt to protect records of fake subpoenas from the publication.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal in October had AFFIRMED a November 2017 ruling by Orleans Civil District Court which had ordered the DA to turned over certain files pursuant to a public records request dating back to April 2017.

As in other cases reported by LouisianaVoice, the court, while awarding attorney fees to The Lens, stopped short of finding that the DA’s denial of records was “arbitrary and capricious,” meaning the DA’s office would not be fined the $100 per day allowed by law for non-compliance with the state Public Records Act.

And because the district attorney was not held personally liable for non-compliance, he will not have to pay the attorney’s fees either; that will be paid by the good citizens of New Orleans.

And, in all probability, the next time the DA’s office or any other public official in New Orleans decides to withhold public records from disclosure, he or she will also skate insofar as any personal liability is concerned with taxpayers picking up the costs.

Until such times as judges come down hard on violations of public records and public meeting laws, officials will have no incentive to comply if there is something for them to conceal.

The records requests were the result of the practice by the DA of issuing FAKE SUBPOENAS (and this preceded Trump’s so-called “fake news”) to force reluctant witnesses to speak with prosecutors—a practice not unlike those bogus phone messages from the IRS that threaten us with jail if we don’t send thousands of dollars immediately.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune described the practice as an “UNDERHANDED TRICK.”

Meanwhile, former Livingston Parish Tax Assessor and more recently Louisiana Tax Commission administrator CHARLES ABELS has been arrested on charges of payroll fraud, improper use of a state rental vehicle and for submitting unauthorized fuel reimbursement requests for the vehicle.

Abels was elected Livingston Parish assessor, an office held up until that time by his grandfather, with 51 percent of the vote in 1995. He served only one term, however, being defeated by current assessor Jeff Taylor in 1999.

In 2002, he was hired as a staff appraiser by the Louisiana Tax Commission. He said at the time that he was a recovering alcoholic who was trying to turn his life around. He was promoted to administrator of the commission during the tenure of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

He was arrested last march on a domestic violence charge but the case was never prosecuted.

One LouisianaVoice reader, a longtime critic of the Louisiana Tax Commission, said Abel’s arrest came as no surprise and that the entire agency is long overdue a housecleaning. “Let’s hope that the State of Louisiana doesn’t wind up on the hook financially for any misdeeds,” he said.

And then there is the Louisiana State Police Commission (LSPC) which just won’t go away.

Almost three years ago, two members became the second and third to RESIGN after reports that they had contributed to political campaigns in violation of the Louisiana State Constitution.

So, you’d think their successors would’ve learned from their indiscretions, right?

Nah. This is Louisiana, where prior actions are ignored if inconvenient and duplicated if beneficial.

But then again, this is the LSPC that paid Natchitoches attorney Taylor Townsend $75,000 to not issue a report on a non-investigation into political contributions by the Louisiana State Police Association (LSTA), contributions that were not paid directly to candidates (including John Bel Edwards and Bobby Jindal), but funneled instead through the personal bank account of LSTA Executive Director David Young so as to conceal the real source of funds.

And now, we have three of the commission members who combined to contribute more than $5,000 to political campaigns during their terms on the LSPC), either personally or through their businesses.

Whether the contributions were justified as having be made by a business (as claimed by State Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington) or whether the money was contributed to a political action committee as opposed to an individual candidate appears to make no difference; they are all strictly prohibited under state law.

Despite his earlier obfuscation on the issue, Townsend did provide some clarity on the legality of political activity. Quoting from the Louisiana State Constitution, Townsend said, “Members of the State Police Commission and state police officers are expressly prohibited from engaging in political activity. More specifically, Section 47 provides that ‘No member of the commission and no state police officer in the classified service shall participate or engage in political activity…make or solicit contributions for any political party, faction, or candidate…except to exercise his right as a citizen to express his opinion privately…and to cast his vote as he desires.’”

But the real kicker came from a headline in the Baton Rouge Advocate, which proclaimed, “Three State Police commissioners under probe for possible unlawful political donations.”

Buried in that STORY was a paragraph which said LSPC Chairman Eulis Simien, Jr.” tasked the commission’s Executive Director Jason Hannaman to conduct an investigation into the allegations and report back with the findings. Hannaman, a civilian administrator for the board, said Thursday he hoped to complete the report by next month’s meeting.”

Oh, great. An in-house investigation. That should do it. Get a subordinate to investigate his bosses. At least Taylor Townsend carried out the appearance of an outside, independent investigation—until he proved by his inaction that it wasn’t.

What are the odds of this being truly independent and candid?

 

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Until judges begin holding public officials personally liable—and making it hurt—for their continued disregard of Louisiana’s public records law, there’s simply little incentive to get them to change their habit of attempt to conceal information that could prove embarrassing or even incriminating.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who is on record via his own press release, as saying he was committed “to continue diligent enforcement of our Open Meetings Law,” recently attempted to deny access to public records to an Indiana woman on the shaky argument that as a non-citizen of Louisiana, she was not entitled to the records—never mind the fact he had already turned over 6000 pages of records to her and never mind that the state’s open meetings and public records laws go hand in hand to the public’s right to know what public officials are up to.

Apparently, she was starting to make him a bit uncomfortable so he cut her off and she FILED SUIT in an attempt to get the information she sought.

On Thursday, State District Judge William Morvant, thoroughly pissed at both sides over the numerous—and voluminous—filings in connection with an otherwise cut and dried matter, delivered a smack-down to Landry by refusing to dismiss Scarlett Martin’s suit.

Martin is seeking records concerning Landry’s perceived coziness with the oil and bas industry, including his travel, vehicle purchases, speaking fees and contracts, prompting Landry’s public information officer Ruth Wisher to say, “We can only hope it is not a political witch hunt (wonder where she got that term?) distracting from the important work of our office.”

Funny, but the state’s Public Records Act makes no mention of any requirement of state citizenship as a requisite for obtaining records nor does it cite motives, including “political witch hunts” as reasons to deny access to public information. Even funnier that such a lame line of reasoning would be advanced by the office of the state’s attorney general, presumably the premier legal authority to whom public agencies go for counsel.

Melinda Deslatte, In an Associated Press STORY, said Morvant in making his ruling, said he would not impose overly severe penalties on Landry for the lengthy time it took his office to turn over the records requested by Martin.

Instead, he said, he would only hit Landry’s office with attorney’s fees, fees that Martin’s attorney, Chris Whittington, estimated in the neighborhood of $25,000. And that doesn’t even include the cost of the state’s attorney fees for defending the indefensible.

And there’s the fly in the ointment.

Louisiana Revised Statute 44:35(E)(1) says the following.

If the court finds that the custodian arbitrarily or capriciously withheld the requested record, it may award the requester any actual damages proven by him to have resulted from the actions of the custodian. It may also award the requester civil penalties not to exceed $100 per day, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays and legal public holidays, for each such day of such failure to give notification (emphasis mine).

Additionally, LRS 44:35(E)(2) says:

The custodian shall be personally liable for the payment of any such damages and shall be held liable in solido with the public body for the payment of the requester’s attorney’s fees and other costs of litigation, except where the custodian has withheld or denied production of the requested record or records on advice of legal counsel representing the public body in which the office of such custodian is located. In the event the custodian retains private legal counsel for his defense in connection with the request for records, the court may award attorney’s fees to the custodian (emphasis mine).

In this case, Landry was the legal counsel and the custodian of the records. Accordingly, he should have been held personally liable and hit with a penalty of $100 per day—except for the fact that Judge Morvant decided to go easy on him.

The ruling prompted a Lafayette reader to say, “Ironically, this is the same issue (ignoring public records requests) that brought… Lafayette City Marshal (Brian) Pope down. And similar favoritism was shown to Marshal Pope until media pressure was brought to bear on the issue. The judge of record, Judge Jules Edwards, showed considerable favoritism to the marshal as DA Keith Stutes. The elite protect the elite.”

And those attorney fees? Whether Morvant does award $25,000 or something less, rest assured that Landry won’t be paying it. Instead, you, Mr. and Mrs. Louisiana Taxpayer, will be the ones picking up the tab for that Landry’s little misapplication of a law any sixth-grader should be able to understand. You have already paid Landry’s attorneys and now you’ll pay the other side’s, as well.

Landry? He’s not out one red cent.

And until these judges, pissed or not, start holding public officials personally accountable for their blatant disregard of state law, nothing is going to change. The next official who finds public records requests hitting a little too close to home will try the same tactics of delay and deny, knowing that if he is sued and loses, the state’s taxpayers, not him or her, will pay the piper.

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Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

A variation of that adage might be, “If your intentions are pure, you don’t have to worry about consistency.”

Jeff Landry might want to remember both statements.

But, on the other hand, sometimes it’s good entertainment to watch a politician more concerned with advancing his own career than the interests of his constituents get boxed in by his own words and actions.

Case in point: A self-serving press release from the attorney general on Nov. 19 which addressed a ruling by a state judge which said the Vermilion Parish School Board violated Louisiana’s Open Meeting Law for forcefully removing a teacher who was critical of the superintendent’s pay raise.

“I applaud Judge Smith for remedying this injustice,” Landry pontificated, “and I pledge to continue diligent enforcement of our Open Meetings Law.” (emphasis mine)

Well, Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law and the Public Records Law just happen to go hand in hand, but you’d never know that from the lawsuit pending in State District Court in Baton Rouge scheduled for trial next Thursday.

Landry is a defendant in a LAWSUIT filed by an Indiana woman who is seeking admittedly voluminous records relating to correspondence between Landry’s office and various oil and gas interests in the state as well as records of his travel to conferences, speaking engagements, lodging and meals.

Here is a copy of her request for the records and her lawsuit.

Landry’s public information officer Ruth Wisher said, “We can only hope it is not a political witch hunt distracting from the important work of our office.”

And even though he has already turned over more than 6000 PAGES of documents, the woman, Scarlett Martin of Indianapolis, has sued Landry because she says he has failed to fully comply with her request and that he is holding back additional records.

Now Landry has offered up a rather unique defense by CLAIMING that Louisiana’s public records law applies only to citizens of the gret stet of Looziana.

That doesn’t exactly square with Opinion 17-0044 of last May 18 in which he wrote in an opinion pursuant to a legislator’s request, “The public’s right to public records is a fundamental right guaranteed in the Louisiana Constitution. ‘No person shall be denied the right to observe the deliberations of public bodies and examine public documents…”

(Note there is no mention of any restriction of that right to Louisiana citizens. And also note how he conveniently ties public meetings and public records together in a nice little bow for us.)

In the next paragraph of that opinion, he says, “Any person of the age of majority may inspect, copy, or reproduce, any public record” and “any person may obtain a copy or reproduction of any public record.”

That sounds a tad definitive for a man who is now trying his best to protect certain records from disclosure.

Kinda makes one wonder what he’s trying to hide.

Oh, and in response to Ms. Wisher’s little comment about hoping the request isn’t some kind of “witch hunt” (wonder where she picked that phrase up from?), state law also expressly says, “The purpose for the document request is immaterial, and an agency or record custodian may not inquire as to the reason…”

Moreover, in further addressing Landry’s water-thin residency claim of exception, the Louisiana Supreme Court in Title Research Corp. v. Rausch (450 So.2d933,937 (1984) opined:

The legislature, by the public records statutes, sought to guarantee, in the most expansive and unrestricted way possible, the right of the public to inspect and reproduce those records which the laws deem to be public. There was no intent on the part of the legislatures to qualify, in any way, the right of access. [Citations omitted]. As with the constitutional provision, the statute should be construed liberally, and any doubt must be resolved in favor of the right of access.

Section 31 provides that any person may obtain a copy or reproduction of any public record, except as otherwise provided. A person over 18 has the right to inspect and copy or get a copy of a public record that is not exempt from examination, and the custodian has the burden of proving that the record is not subject to inspection. The person may apply in person to the custodian of the public body, to inspect, to copy or to reproduce a public record; however, in Elliot v. District Attorney of Baton Rouge, (1995) 664 So.2d. 122, the court opined that a person could make a request by letter. (emphasis mine)

Mr. Landry is going to have a helluva time getting around all that and he just might have to write a pretty big check (state check, of course, not personal) in penalties assessed by the court.

Editor’s Note: A conscientious attempt was made by LouisianaVoice to access that attorney general’s opinion cited in this story. Previously, the attorney general’s web page had a menu that users could use to access opinions on any subject. That menu no longer exists.

We did, however find in the Media Room, a menu labeled “More Resources” which provided:

biography  of Jeff Landry;

An introduction to Jeff Landry;

portrait of Jeff Landry;

candid portrait of Jeff Landry;

capitol photo of Jeff Landry;

Another capitol photo of Jeff Landry.

I’m certain he gladly provide those for Ms. Martin.

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Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Scott Angelle appear to have made media buys during their respective 2015 campaigns through a political consulting firm affiliated with a shell company said to be at the center of an alleged illegal coordination scheme with the NRA, according to an investigation by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

Read the full story HERE.

Donald Trump’s campaign funneled money to ad buyers which in turn set up illegal coordination between the campaign and the NRA by routing funds through a secretive shell company for the 2016 campaign and has continued to use the same individuals working for the same firms for his 2020 campaign. The payments were made through Harris Sikes Media, LLC, a company that appears to exist only on paper but which shares a mailing address with several other companies.

Three of the companies—National Media Research, OnMessage, and Harris Sikes—list their address as 817 Slaters Lane in Alexandria, Virginia. Three others—American Media & Advocacy Group, Red Eagle Media Group, and Purple Strategies, LLC, give their address as 815 Slaters Lane in Alexandria.

Funny thing is, there is no such street as Slaters Lane in Alexandria, Virginia.

And one of those companies, OnMessage, is headed up by none other than Bobby Jindal’s very own political guru, Timmy Teepell of Baton Rouge.

National Media, American Media & Advocacy Group (AMAG), and Red Eagle Media Group are all facing allegations of illegal coordination of campaign funds because besides sharing identical or similar addresses, they also share staff and resources.

The analysis of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) records by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) found that Trump campaign ad disclosure forms on file with stations across the country have continued to include signatures and names of individuals working for National Media, despite no mention of National Media or its affiliates on required federal disclosures. Those individual ad buyers’ names simultaneously continued to be included in ad documents for the NRA and America First, but with the ad buyers’ affiliation listed as National Media or one of its affiliates.

The three ad buyers whose names have popped up the most on political ad records for all three groups are Ben Angle, Megan Burns and Jonathan Ferrell, CRP says. And even though their names appeared on filings from Harris Sikes Media, all three are listed as employees of National Media and its affiliates. Their names and/or signatures have appeared on FCC political ad filings for AMAG, Red Eagle and National Media.

NRA’s relationship with Purple Strategies is obscured through a network of affiliated companies. Documents filed with the FCC indicate that the NRA routinely does its ad buys through American Media & Advocacy Group and Red Eagle Media. Both companies give the same Alexandria, Virginia, address—815 Slaters Lane.

Court records reveal, however, that like the address, Red Eagle Media does not actually exist, but rather is a fictitious business created and owned by National Media.

Harris Sikes Media’s registered agent, attorney Joel Dahnke, is also the registered agent for National Media.

The Trump practice of routing funds through Harris Sikes Media —a previously unreported shell company that was not known to be affiliated with National Media — appears to be a new tactic, and Trump is the first major federal candidate known to have been a part of it, according to CRP’s review of FCC records.

The only other political ad disclosures in FCC records dating back to 2015 that mention Harris Sikes Media are for former U.S. Rep. and current Attorney General Jeff Landry and Louisiana Rising, the political action committee associated with Scott Angelle’s failed gubernatorial campaign.

“Using shell entities to circumvent campaign coordination rules is hardly a new concept, and something that often occurs without consequence — giving consultants free rein to exploit these tactics,” the CRP report said.

Just another way in which so-called “dark money” is used to usurp the democratic process in this country, effectively stifling the voice and the will of the people. Instead of focusing on the all-too-real issues facing us, we are instead seduced into voting for the candidate with the sharpest, most appealing TV ads.

We now vote the candidate who can make the best use in a 30-second spot of catchy phrases like “border wall,” “drain the swamp,” “make America great again,” “I believe love is the answer but you oughta own a hand gun just in case,” and “I’d rather drink weed killer.”

Real depth of thinking that addresses myriad problems, right?

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