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I was in attendance at one of my grandchildren’s school Veterans’ Day programs on Thursday and unable to attend the first meeting of the Louisiana State Police Commission (LSPC) in several months but suffice it to say something major is brewing with this newly-made over body.

And whatever it is doesn’t to appear to bode well for the Louisiana State Troopers’ Association (LSTA).

It was the first meeting of the commission since August which, coincidentally, was also the last meeting for former Chairman State Trooper T.J. Doss and former Vice Chair Monica Manzella. Both have since resigned and Doss, LouisianaVoice is told, has been on extended sick leave.

Doss was succeeded to the chairman’s position by Baton Rouge attorney Eulis Simien, Jr. and Dr. Michael W. Neustrom of Lafayette replaced Manzella as vice chairman.

But most puzzling was the executive session entered into by the commission.

When the motion was made to go into closed session the belated reason given was to discuss pending litigation—even though there is no pending litigation at the present time against the commission.

Upon exiting, however, commission legal counsel Lenore Feeney amended that reason, saying the executive session was for the discussion of “allegations of misconduct,” according to some in attendance.

And upon returned from behind closed doors, commission members were said to be in a much fouler mood than when they went in, an indication there may have been something a little more intense taking place out of sight of attendees.

Simien, normally an amiable sort, immediately launched into a lecture to those there about how business would be conducted differently in the future and that decorum would strictly adhered to.

If there is to be any investigation of “alleged misconduct,” it could be on one or both of two issues: that San Diego trip taken by State Police in October of 2016 and which resulted in disciplinary action against three troopers who have appealed their discipline to the commission.

The commission voted to consolidate the three appeals into one case and also decided to discard the non-report of Natchitoches attorney Taylor Townsend who was paid $75,000 to investigate and report on possible illegal campaign contributions by the LSTA to various politicians.

The campaign contributions were actually made through the LSTA’s executive director David Young’s personal checking account. Young subsequently billed the association for reimbursement in an apparent effort to circumvent state law prohibiting political activity by state classified employees.

Taylor’s contract, for which he was paid $75,000, called for him to investigate the matter and submit a report of his findings to the LSPC. Instead, he simply told the commission that he recommended “no action” be taken on the matter and the board, which had a completely different makeup at that time, accepted his report.

Since then, the entire board membership, as well as its executive director, has changed dramatically, with almost all the members resigning for various reasons.

Townsend has yet to submit a report the board even though he has been asked to do so on several occasions.

Now, apparently, with a new board in place—with the exception of two positions which remain vacant—a change of heart has taken place and the commission is at least acting like it is serious about investigating the contributions.

One thing is for certain, however:

If the commission was unsure of the real reason for Thursday’s executive session, that can only mean its purpose was illegitimate to begin with. There are specific reasons for executive sessions and the law is narrowly written so as to prevent abuse of the state’s open meeting laws.

To give one reason going into executive session only to change the reason upon exiting is subterfuge in its most blatant form and an action that thumbs its nose at the law itself—from an agency whose very purpose is to ensure compliance with the law.

If there is to be an executive session, public bodies in Louisiana are required to give notice in advance, as an agenda item—in other words, in writing—and to give the reason. Anything else is a lie. They can’t make up the rules on the fly. And they certainly can’t go into closed session and decide the reason for the secrecy after the fact.

Any legal counsel who advises a public agency, body, board, or commission should know the state’s open meetings law (R.S. 42:11) and the Executive Session provision (R.S. 42:16) forward and backward. That requirement comes with the job. http://parlouisiana.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Open_Meetings_Law.pdf

We thought they had learned that in one memorable meeting several months ago when Townsend suggested an executive session and when asked the reason, said—with a perfectly straight face—“We don’t have to give one.”

Uh…yes you do. And it’s more than a little disturbing that it took a layman to inform him of the law at that meeting.

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You would think a room full of lawyers wouldn’t have to be told the legal definition of a public meeting as it pertains to cameras. But then again, members of the Louisiana State Law Institute’s Children’s (LSLI) Code Committee aren’t used to media coverage.

So, it might be somewhat understandable that they were a little surprised when blogger Robert Burns showed up with a video camera. But freaked out to the point that members demanded that Burns turn off his camera? Seriously?

It’s a poor reflection on a committee, whose membership includes a judge and a ton of lawyers, to even suggest, let alone demand, that Burns, who publishes the video blog Sound Off Louisiana, shut his camera off during its meeting on Friday. And it’s even more astonishing that one member, an attorney, would tell Burns that his interpretation of the open meeting laws entitled him to record the meeting on video was incorrect.

Judge Ernestine Gray, a judge of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court since 1984, should certainly know better than to chirp, “As an individual, I have a right not to be on there (the video).”

Um…sorry, your honor, but you do not have that right. This was an open meeting of an official state government body and the open meetings statutes clearly contradict your claim. And it’s a sad indictment of our judicial system that you, a sitting judge, should lay claim to such blatantly inaccurate privilege.

The committee was meeting pursuant to House Concurrent Resolution 79 of the 2016 legislative session in which State Rep. Rick Edmonds (R-Baton Rouge) requested that LSLI “study and make recommendations to the legislature regarding abuse of incentives in the adoption process.”

The full text of HCR 79 can be seen HERE.

LSLI was to have a report to the legislature “no later than 60 days prior to the 2018 regular session of the legislature.” That would put the committee’s deadline somewhere around Jan. 18, 2018 and more than a year after passage of HCR 79, nothing had been done by the committee, which found itself up against an imposing deadline when it convened last Friday.

In fact, member Isabel Wingerter kept repeating during the meeting that there was no way the committee could have a report completed in time for proposed legislation to be introduced in 2018.

Edmonds, however, told members that while he had gone through the committee out of respect, there would be legislation filed for the upcoming session and that he already had a number of co-sponsors for his anticipated bill.

Abuses in the child adoptive process is a subject that Burns has already done extensive work on and, with his assistance, LouisianaVoice is going to be taking a long look at those who broker adoption deals between birth parents and adoptive parents and how those individuals can sometimes become part of a “bidding process,” playing one set of adoptive parents against another in order to broker a better deal.

It’s a murky area, virtually unknown outside the immediate circle of those families actually involved in the process of adoption and frankly, those involved would like to keep it that way. While LouisianaVoice is coming in a little behind the curve already established by Burns, we feel strongly that the entire process deserves a thorough investigation—from the aforementioned so-called “bidding process,” to the shirking of responsibility for investigating same by various state agencies who consistently punt when the subject of a possible criminal enterprise is brought to their attention.

All that probably explains the sensitivity to video on the part of the committee members but it certainly does not excuse either their attempted evasion of the open meetings law or of their trying to make up new law on the fly.

The meeting started with LSLI staff attorney Jessica Braum can be heard on the video whispering to Burns to turn his camera off. “It’s a public meeting,” Burns responds, “and I’m going to videotape it.

Burns said Braum made her request after being prodded to do so by fellow LSLI member attorney Todd Gaudin.

Moments later, Burns was again confronted, this time by committee member Isabel Wingerter who asked if he was videotaping the meeting to which Burns responded, “Clearly, yes.”

“We are not sure that’s appropriate,” Wingerter said. “What would you do with the film?”

Burns responded with a question of his own: “Is this or is this not a public meeting of a public body?”

“Yes, it is.”

“That’s all I have to explain,” Burns said, “and I’m not going to explain any further.”

It was at this point in the exchange that Judge Gray said she had a right not to be on video. “Not if you’re part of a public body,” Burns said. “Not if you’re attending a public meeting.”

Baton Rouge attorney Todd Gaudin inquired of Wingerter if Burns would be publishing the video. When Wingerter relayed the question to Burns, he again responded, “Is this a public meeting?” When she again affirmed that it was, Burns said, “It has every right to be republished.”

And this was when it really got interesting. Gaudin, whose practice primarily is in the area of adoption services and who served as the attorney for a prospective adoptive couple who ended up losing the child to another couple at the last minute, told Burns, “I don’t agree with your interpretation of the statute.”

That’s quite a statement coming from someone who is supposed to know the law.

Burns, digging his heels in, told the committee, “I have a right to videotape these proceedings and short of law enforcement coming in here and dictating it be turned off and escorting me out, the camera stays on.”

The camera stayed on.

And for Gaudin’s erudition, it can be found in R.S. 42:13. Here is the link: Public policy for open meetings.

And just in case he’s too busy to read the entire statute, here are the relevant parts:

  • “Meeting” means the convening of a quorum of a public body to deliberate or act on a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power. It shall also mean the convening of a quorum of a public body by the public body or by another public official to receive information regarding a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.
  • “Public body” means village, town, and city governing authorities; parish governing authorities; school boards and boards of levee and port commissioners; boards of publicly operated utilities; planning, zoning, and airport commissions; and any other state, parish, municipal, or special district boards, commissions, or authorities, and those of any political subdivision thereof, where such body possesses policy making, advisory, or administrative functions, including any committee or subcommittee of any of these bodies enumerated in this paragraph.
  • Every meeting of any public body shall be open to the public unless closed pursuant to R.S. 42:16, 17, or 18. (R.S. 42:16, 17, and 18 give very specific reasons under which a public body may enter into executive session—that that is a moot point since the committee never entered into executive session.)

And there is this statute which addresses the right to video record public meetings:

23. Sonic and video recordings; live broadcast

  • A. All or any part of the proceedings in a public meeting may be video or tape recorded, filmed, or broadcast live.
  • B. A public body shall establish standards for the use of lighting, recording or broadcasting equipment to insure proper decorum in a public meeting.

Again, it’s worth mentioning that the members of the LSLI Children’s Code Committee are law school graduates.

Could it be that Gaudin, Wingerter, Judge Gray, and Braum were all absent on Videotaping Public Meetings day?

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Former Director of the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control Murphy Painter was acquitted of all the dubious charges brought against him by the Jindal administration after Painter refused to bend the rules for granting alcohol permits to a vendor for Tom Benson’s Champions’ Square in New Orleans. (See our original story HERE.)

But now, three years after his hard-fought battle to clear his name, events are only now coming to light that illustrate just how far the Jindal administration was willing to go in violating Painter’s Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure in order to build what it thought would be a slam dunk criminal case against him.

Instead, the state ended up having to pay Painter’s legal fees of $474,000.

Documents obtained by LouisianaVoice also show that investigators lied—or at least distorted the truth beyond recognition—about Painter and that the state tampered with and/or destroyed crucial evidence, much of it advantageous to Painter’s case.

Benson, after all, was a huge contributor to Jindal campaigns and the state’s agreeing to lease office space from Benson Towers at highly inflated rates apparently was not enough for the owner of the Saints; that liquor permit needed to be approved, rules notwithstanding, and when Painter insisted on playing by the book, he was called before the governor and summarily fired and federal charges of sexual harassment were doggedly pursued by an administration eager to put him away for good.

But he fooled them. He was acquitted, and he filed a civil lawsuit against his accuser, which he won at the trial court level but lost on appeal (See story HERE). He currently has another civil lawsuit pending against the Office of Inspector General (OIG).

Now the state is dragging that litigation out in the hopes that with his limited finances and the state’s ability to draw on taxpayer funds indefinitely, he can be waited out until he no longer has the financial resources to seek the justice due him.

Briefs, motions, requests of production of documents, interrogatories, continuances—all designed to extend the fight and to keep the lawyers’ meters running and the court costs mounting—are the tactics of a defendant fearful of an adverse ruling. If that were not the case, it would be to the state’s advantage to try the case ASAP.

And never mind that every brief, every motion, every interrogatory, every request for production, and every continuance means the state’s defense attorneys are getting richer and richer—all at the expense of taxpayers who are the ones paying the state’s legal bills.

But all that aside, LouisianaVoice has come into possession of documents that clearly show the state was in violation of Painter’s constitutional rights and that an investigator for OIG simply colored the truth in the reports of the OIG “investigation” of complaints against him.

That investigator, who now works for the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner’s office, was inexplicably dismissed from Painter’s civil lawsuit against the state by the First Circuit Court of Appeal. Painter has taken writs on that decision to the Louisiana Supreme Court as that civil litigation rocks on in its sixth year of existence. I’ll get back to him momentarily.

The events leading up to Painter’s firing and subsequent federal indictment began innocently enough with a March 29, 2010, letter to Painter from then-Department of Revenue Secretary Cynthia Bridges. She was writing pursuant to a complaint lodged by ATC employee Kelli Suire who would later the catalyst in Painter’s firing. Bridges, however found no violations by Painter regarding the complaint of “unprofessional” behavior toward Suire, but said concerns about his management style would be left “to the proper authority to discuss with you at a later date.”

Then on Aug. 13, 2010, more than four months following Bridges’s letter, Baton Rouge television station WBRZ reported that Painter “resigned” and the OIG’s office simultaneously raided ATC offices, seizing Painter’s state desktop and laptop computers, three thumb drives, notes, affidavits, reports, maps, ATC documents, telephone reports, and a 2010 Dodge Charger assigned to Painter.

 

There was only one problem with the timing.

Bonnie Jackson, 19th Judicial District Judge, did not sign the search warrant authorizing the raid and search of Painter’s office until Monday, Aug. 16.

That would appear to have made the previous Friday’s raid—pulled off three days before a judge had signed the search warrant—illegal and a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment which says, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” (Emphasis added.)

The second violation, the destruction of evidence was not learned until three years later when Painter’s computer was finally returned and he found that some 4,000 files had been deleted. Much of that, of course, would have been routine state business related to ATC operations but there was other information contained in the files, Painter says, that could have helped exonerate him from the charges that were lodged against him by the Jindal administration. It is not only illegal to destroy evidence, but also to destroy state documents—even if they do not constitute evidence.

The third violation, this one by OIG, involved the apparent misrepresentation of testimony given in interviews by an attorney and his assistant who had experienced difficulty in obtaining a liquor license on the part of his client, a business with multiple out-of-state owners, a situation which made the licensure procedure more involved.

The attorney, Joseph Brantley, and Painter had exchanged emails whereupon Painter invited Brantley to come to the ATC offices so that the problem could be worked out. “Why don’t you come by here around 3:00 p.m. or 4:00 if that works for you tomorrow and we will go over ours versus yours,” Painter said in his email at 12:26 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 14, 2008. Brantley responded three minutes later, asking, “Is it OK if I bring the lady that has been doing the primary work (on the file)?”

OIG investigator Shane Evans, who now works for the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner’s office as its chief investigator, then laid the groundwork for the sexual harassment charges to be brought against Murphy when he wrote in a report of his interview with Brantley on Oct. 13, 2010:

“Mr. Brantley advised that Toby Edwards was a former assistant (paralegal) of his, that she is an attractive woman, and that after the meeting in late 2008, Mr. Painter granted the permit immediately.”

In his report of his interview with Edwards, also on Oct. 13, 2010, Evans wrote:

“During the meeting with Mr. Painter, he told Ms. Edwards that he had run her driver’s license and looked at her photograph. He said that was the only reason that he had granted them the meeting. (That is blatantly false: Copies of the Dec. 14, 2008, email exchange between Painter and Brantley obtained by LouisianaVoice clearly show that Painter invited Brantley to a meeting before he ever knew of Edwards’s existence.) She took his statement as the only reason he decided to meet with them is because he thought she was attractive. Ms. Edwards said his statement and demeanor made her very uncomfortable. She said she was very glad Mr. Brantley was present.

“She also said that she found it unusual that the permit had been repeatedly turned down but once she met with Mr. Painter face-to-face, her client immediately received the permit.”

Another report by OIG, the result of a second interview with Edwards on Nov. 5, 2012, described both Brantley and Edwards as “uncomfortable” during the meeting with Painter.

A second interview of Brantley on Nov. 7, 2012 produced yet a fourth OIG report that said, in part, that Edwards wore a “professional,” semi-low-cut shirt. “Mr. Brantley noticed that Mr. Painter noticed and glanced at Ms. Edwards’s chest during the meeting.

“…According to Mr. Brantley, Mr. Painter ‘clearly looked at’ Ms. Edwards’s chest,” the report says. Mr. Brantley even told Ms. Edwards that Mr. Painter was attracted to women, maybe more ‘than the average guy.’ Although Ms. Edwards would have attended the meeting anyway, Mr. Brantley took her to the meeting ‘for effect.’ He thinks that the meeting was more successful than it would have been otherwise if Ms. Edwards had not attended.

Pretty damning stuff, right?

Well, it would be except for affidavits signed and sworn to by Brantley and Edwards (now Pierce), which provide quite a contrasting version of events.

Brantley, after reviewing the OIG reports, flatly denied ever telling Evans or any other OIG investigator that Edwards took part in the meeting with Painter because Painter was fond of females.

“I brought her because she had more knowledge about the file than did I and she was more capable of answering any questions that may have arisen.”

Edwards pointedly noted that the meeting took place in a room “with all glass windows and doors.” She said she also learned at the meeting that Painter was a long-time acquaintance of her father, a former deputy sheriff in East Feliciana Parish and joked to her that he didn’t know her dad “had a daughter that was so pretty.” She said he then excused himself for a few minutes and later returned with a license for Brantley’s client.

Here are both of those affidavits:

 

So, with a little tweaking of the facts, a man’s career was ruined, his occupation stripped from him and his finances gutted—all because he insisted that a major campaign contributor submit the proper forms before obtaining a liquor license for his Sunday parties outside the New Orleans Superdome.

This is Louisiana at its worst, folks, and it’s a clear example of how the political establishment can crush you if you don’t have the right contacts and sufficient financial resources to match those of the state’s taxpayers.

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The most recent audit (August 2017) of the Foster Care Program of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) found that:

  • DCFS did not conduct proper criminal background checks on non-certified foster care providers;
  • DCFS allowed nine certified providers with prior cases of abuse or neglect to care for foster children during fiscal years 2012-2016 without obtaining required waivers.
  • DCFS does not have a formal process to ensure that caseworkers actually assessed the safety of children placed with 68 non-certified providers.
  • DCFS did not always ensure that children in foster care received services to address physical and behavioral health needs.
  • State regulations require DCFS to expunge certain cases of abuse or neglect from the State Central Registry, which means those records are not available for caseworkers to consider prior to placing children with providers.

(See the DCFS audit summary HERE.)

So, the question now is this: What steps will the state take to protect these children now that the Legislative Auditor has pointed out these serious deficiencies?

If the results of a 2012 audit of the Louisiana Department of Economic Development’s Enterprise Zone Program is any indication, then the answer is nothing.

Under state statute, Louisiana’s Enterprise Zone (EZ) program is designed to award incentives to businesses and industries that locate in areas of high unemployment as a means of encouraging job growth. (The summary of that audit can be viewed HERE.)

That audit found that:

  • Approximately 68 percent of the 930 businesses that received EZ program incentives from the state were located outside of a designated enterprise zone. These businesses received nearly $124 million (61 percent) of the $203 million in total EZ program incentives during calendar years 2008 through 2010.
  • Approximately $3.9 billion (60 percent) of the $6.5 billion in capital investment by businesses receiving EZ incentives was located outside a designated enterprise zone.
  • Approximately 12,570 (75 percent) of the 16,760 net new jobs created by businesses granted EZ incentives were located outside an enterprise zone.
  • Four other states with which Louisiana was compared exclude retail businesses from EZ incentives. Louisiana does not, allowing such businesses as Walmart to take advantage of the incentives.
  • None of the four neighboring states allows businesses to count part-time employees among the new jobs created. Louisiana does.
  • Louisiana state law prohibits disclosure of the amount of incentives received by businesses.

Little, if anything, has been done to rectify these deficiencies in the oversight of the EZ program.

There has been precious little reaction from this year’s audit of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries which found that thousands of dollars in equipment had been stolen, a story LouisianaVoice called attention to last year. Go HERE for a summary of that audit report or HERE for our story.

Some remedial steps have been made in addressing a multitude of problems exposed in a 2016 audit of the Department of Veterans Affairs (See audit summary HERE).

Yet, we can’t help but wonder where the oversight was before a critical audit necessitated changes. Among those findings:

  • Payment of $44,000 to a company for improperly documented work without the required contract.
  • The use of $27,500 in federal funds specifically earmarked for the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Cemetery in Slidell for the purchase of a Ford Expedition for the exclusive use of headquarters staff.
  • The failure to disclose information of potential crimes involving veteran residents at several War Veteran homes.
  • The possible falsifying of former Secretary David Alan LaCerte’s military service as posted on the LDVA website.
  • LaCerte’s engaging in questionable organizational, hiring, and pay practices that led in turn to a lack of accountability.

Likewise, some positive steps have been taken in shaping up the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) trusty oversight programs but that resulted as much from a thorough investigative report by Baton Rouge Advocate reporters as a 2016 audit (see HERE) that found:

Because the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola’s trusty policy, 1,547 (an astounding 91 percent) trusties at Angola were not eligible for the program and even after the policy was revised, 400 (24 percent) of 1705 trusties were ineligible. All 400 were considered by DOC to be eligible as a result of having an undocumented, implicit waiver for a sex offense or time served less than 10 years.

Equally troubling, the audit found that 14 of 151 (9 percent) of trusties assigned to work in state buildings in Baton Rouge were not eligible because of crimes of violence, including aggravated battery, manslaughter, and aggravated assault with a firearm. The report further found that if those 151 were required to comply with the requirements in place for Level 1 trusties, 49 (32 percent) would be ineligible.

Indicative of the monumental waste brought about by the proliferation of boards and commissions in state government, a 2017 audit (see HERE) of “Boards, Commissions, and Like Entities) noted that the number of boards and commissions had been reduced from the 492 in 2012 to “only” 458 in 2016. Texas, by comparison, has 173, Mississippi about 200. The appointment of members of those boards and commissions take up a lot of time as the governor’s office supposedly vets each new member.

Four boards did not respond to the auditor’s request for data in 2017 and 2016.

There were 11 inactive boards which were not fulfilling established functions, five of which were also inactive the previous year.

Some of these boards, as illustrated on numerous occasions by LouisianaVoice, often go rogue and there seems to be no one to rein them in. These include the Louisiana State Police Commission, The Louisiana Board of Dentistry, the Auctioneer Licensing Board, the State Board of Cosmetology, and the State Board of Medical Examiners, to name but a few.

Take, for example, the 2016 audit of the Louisiana Motor Vehicle Commission (see HERE):

  • The commission did not have adequate controls over financial reporting to ensure accuracy.
  • The commission did not comply with state procurement laws requiring contracts for personal, professional and consulting services, failing to obtain approval for contracts for two vendors totaling $80,000.

The point of this exercise is to call attention to the one office in state government which, with little fanfare and even less credit, goes about its job each day in attempting to maintain some semblance of order in the manner in which the myriad of state agencies protects the public fisc.

The Legislative Auditor’s Office, headed by Daryl Purpera, performs a Herculean, but thankless job of poring over receipts, contracts, bids, and everything related to expenditures to ensure that the agencies are toeing the line and are in accordance with established requirements and laws regarding the expenditure of public funds.

Thousands of audits have been performed. We pulled up only a few random examples: there are others, like the Recovery School District, the Department of Education, Grambling State University (only because it has so many audits with repeated findings), levee districts and local school boards and parish governments. Untold numbers of irregularities have been uncovered—only to be largely ignored by those in positions to take action against agency heads, who, because of political ambitions, allow attention to be diverted from their responsibilities of running a tight ship.

In cases of egregious findings, the media will jump on the story, only to allow it to fade away and things soon return to normal with no disciplinary action taken against those responsible.

If all elected officials and members of the governor’s cabinet were held accountable for their sloppy work or the outright dishonesty of their agency heads, it would send a message throughout state government and this state might well save hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted expenditures and theft.

It calls to mind the lyrics of a 1958 Johnny Cash song, Big River, recorded when he was still with Sun Records:

“She raised a few eyebrows

And then she went on down alone”

Through it all, Purpera and his staff trudge ever-onward, raising a few eyebrows and then continuing (alone) to do their jobs even as those above them do not.

They—and the taxpayers of Louisiana—deserve better.

 

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Were political considerations behind separate decisions by a state district judge to prohibit a contractor from seeking public records or a Second Circuit Court of Appeal judge to overturn a $20 million judgment against the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD)?

While definitive answers are difficult, there does seem to be sufficient reason to suspect that the lines between the judicial and administrative branches of government may have been blurred by the Second Circuit Chief Judge’s decision to negate the award to a contractor who a 12-person jury unanimously decided had been put out of business because he refused to acquiesce to attempts of bribery, extortion and conspiracy.

Judge Henry N. Brown, by assigning the case to himself and then writing the decision despite the fact his father had been a DOTD civil engineer for more than 40 years, may have placed federal funding for Louisiana highway projects in jeopardy.

And the RULING by 14th Judicial District Court Judge David A. Ritchie prohibiting Breaux Bridge contractor Billy Broussard from making legitimate public records requests of the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury or of the Calcasieu Parish Gravity Drainage District 8 would appear to be patently unconstitutional based solely on the state statute that gives any citizen of Louisiana the unfettered right to make public records requests of any public agency.

In Broussard’s case, he was contracted by Gravity Drainage District 8 to clean debris from Indian Bayou following Hurricane Rita in 2005. Work done by his company was to be paid by FEMA. Gravity Drainage District 8 instructed Broussard to also remove pre-storm debris from the bottom of the bayou, telling him that FEMA would pay for all his work.

FEMA, however, refused to pay for the pre-storm cleanup and Gravity Drainage District 8 subsequently refused to pony up. Broussard, represented then by attorney Jeff Landry, since elected Attorney General, filed a lien against the drainage district.

When Broussard lost his case before Judge Ritchie, he continued to pursue his claim and submitted this PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST to the drainage district and to the police jury. Those efforts resulted in a heavy-handed LETTER from attorney Russell J. Stutes, Jr., which threatened Broussard with “jail time” if he persisted in his “harassment” of Calcasieu public officials.

And the injunction barring Broussard from future records requests, instead of being filed as a separate court document, was sought under the original lawsuit by Broussard, which presumably, if Stutes’s own letter is to be believed, was a final and thus, closed case. That tactic assured that Broussard would be brought before the original judge, i.e. Ritchie, who was already predisposed to rule against Broussard, no matter how valid a claim he had.

That was such a blatant maneuver that it left no lingering doubts that the cards were stacked against Broussard from the get-go. Everything was tied up in a neat little package, with a pretty bow attached. And Broussard was left holding a $2 million bag—and assessed court costs of $60,000 to boot.

In Jeff Mercer’s case, federal STATUTE U.S. Title 49 specifically prohibits discrimination against Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBE). It further requires that all states receiving federal funding for transportation projects must have a DBE program.

Mercer, a Mangham contractor, sued DOTD after claiming that DOTD withheld more than $11 million owed him after he rebuffed shakedown efforts from a DOTD inspector who demanded that Mercer “put some green” in his hand and that he could “make things difficult” for him.

Mercer suffers from epilepsy, which qualified him for protection from discrimination under Title 49.

His attorney, David Doughty of Rayville, feels that Brown should never have assigned the case to himself, nor should he have been the one to write the opinion. Needless to say, Doughty does not agree with the decision. He has filed an APPLICATION FOR REHEARING in the hope of having Brown removed from the case.

LouisianaVoice conducted a search this LIST OF CASES REVERSED BY 2ND CIRCUIT and the Mercer case was the only one of 57 reversals decided by a jury.

So it all boils down to a simple equation: how much justice can you afford?

When an average citizen like Broussard or Mercer goes up against the system, things can be overwhelming and they can get that way in a hurry.

Because the government, be it DOTD, represented by the Louisiana Attorney General’s office, or a local gravity drainage district, represented by the district attorney, has a decided advantage in terms of manpower and financial resources, giving the individual little realistic chance of prevailing.

In Broussard’s case, he did not. Mercer, at least, won at the trial court level, but the process can wear anyone down and that’s just what the state relied upon when it appealed.

With virtually unlimited resources (I worked for the Office of Risk Management for 20 years and I saw how an original $10,000 defense contract can balloon to $100,000 or more with few questions asked), the government can simply hunker down for the long haul while starving out the plaintiff with delays, interrogatories, requests for production, expert costs, court reporter costs, filing fees and attorney fees. Keeping the meter running on costs is the most effective defense going.

The same applies, of course, to attempts to fight large corporations in court. Huge legal staffs with virtually unlimited budgets and campaign contributions to judges at the right levels all too often make the pursuit of justice a futile chase.

And when you move from the civil to the criminal courts where low income defendants are represented by underfunded indigent defender boards, the contrast is even more profound—and tragic, hence a big reason for Louisiana’s high incarceration rate.

The idea of equal treatment in the eyes of the law is a myth and for those seeking remedies to wrongdoing before an impartial court, it is often a cruel joke.

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