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LouisianaVoice has received confirmation that the Legislative Auditor’s office has served subpoenas on the New Orleans Roosevelt Hotel in connection with its ongoing investigation of Louisiana State Police (LSP) management practices under former Superintendent Mike Edmonson.

Confirmation was received first from one of the principals of the historic, 116-year-old hotel and subsequently from Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, who declined to provide any specifics as to what investigators were looking for.

But it’s not difficult to figure out.

Considering an Oct. 11 LouisianaVoice STORY about complimentary hotel rooms given Edmonson and other LSP command personnel and State Fire Marshal personnel by two other New Orleans hotels, a good bet would be that auditors are looking at one of two possibilities:

  • Were state police given complimentary rooms at the Roosevelt Hotel in violation of state ethics laws that prohibit state employees from accepting anything of value as a gift, or
  • In cases where the state may have paid for the rooms during events like Mardi Gras, did anyone other than LSP personnel stay in the rooms?

Questions are pretty much limited to those two options.

Of course, “anyone” could simply refer to wives or other family members, which would be a violation in itself, or it could be other “guests.”

Rumors have circulated for months that officials of both LSP and the State Fire Marshal’s office loved to party hearty in New Orleans and female companionship and booze often were parts of the equation.

One source, when LouisianaVoice only asked if the wives and girlfriends of fire marshal personnel were also allowed to stay at the hotels free of charge, volunteered, “Oh, yes. Wives, girlfriends and other female guests.” (Emphasis his.)

Because Purpera could not go into detail as to what his investigators were looking for, he naturally also declined to speculate as to who, if anyone, else may have stayed in rooms assigned to LSP personnel.

Nor would he offer any insight as to whether he was trying to make a determination as to identities of hotel guests or attempting to learn if LSP personnel simply accepted free rooms from the hotel.

On one hand, state employees may have been accepting free rooms, a clear ethics violation. On the other, the state may have paid for rooms for state employees who were on temporary duty in New Orleans but who then allowed others to share the rooms—on the state dime.

From our vantage point, there doesn’t appear to be much distinction between the two insofar as flouting the ethics rules for public employees is concerned.

Such was the attitude that was allowed to permeate LSP during Edmonson’s nine years as Louisiana’s top cop.

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There’s an old saying from back in the days of my long-lost youth that sometimes you have to hit a mule in the head with a two-by-four to get his attention,

And before I start getting bombarded by animal rights activists, I’m not advocating hitting mules or any other animal with anything.

And I’m not calling the good folks at WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge mules. But a $2.5 million preliminary default judgment levied against the station and its investigative reporter after the station failed to answer a defamation LAWSUIT against it and reporter Chris Nakamoto was the club that got the station’s attorneys’ attention.

The two-page JUDGMENT, signed in chambers by 21st Judicial District Court Judge Doug Hughes of Denham Springs, isn’t likely to stand for a number or reasons put forth by station attorney Stephen Babcock of Baton Rouge.

But the main point to be taken from this litigation is that it may well be the first volley fired across the bow of Baton Rouge media as part of a growing trend toward the filing of the so-called SLAPP lawsuits.

SLAPP is the acronym for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation and that’s precisely what it means: lawsuits filed not to win a judgment, but to discourage legitimate questions about official misconduct lest citizens asking the questions—or in this instance, the reporter and his news medium—be forced to shell out tens of thousands of dollars defending themselves.

In this case, WBRZ, as opposed to an ordinary citizen like Welsh City Alderman JACOB COLBY PERRY, has legal liability insurance and can well afford to defend itself. Still, such lawsuits call a station’s and reporter’s integrity and credibility into question and can conceivably injure the reporter’s career opportunities.

An editor in my professional past once told me, “If you haven’t been sued, you aren’t doing your job.” Well, that’s a form of validation I can live without. It’s not unlike being pecked to death by a duck.

I’ll leave it to WBRZ, Nakamoto and their legal team to explain why they never bothered to answer the lawsuit filed by Livingston attorney Wyman Bankston on behalf of State Police Lt. Robert Burns of Livingston Parish—if they care to put forth an explanation. But I will say from my layman’s viewpoint, it’s unwise to ignore litigation. People are trying to get into your pocket and it’s prudent that you defend yourself.

In this case, Nakamoto had done a perfectly legitimate STORY, which it based in its entirety on public records obtained from LSP, on the 64-hour suspension imposed on Burns by Louisiana State Police (LSP) following an Internal Affairs investigation into his conducting 52 illegal computer searches on his ex-wife, her fiance and a former boyfriend over a period of almost three years—from November 2013 to October 2016.

Burns, in his defense—which LSP investigators, by the way, didn’t buy—said that in 46 of those occasions, he was conducting a search of his own license plate and that the “spin-off” searches of his wife were a result of “unintended inquiries generated by an automated system.”

That explanation, however, does not explain the two searches on his former wife’s current fiance and the four searches on her ex-boyfriend. Those searches, besides vehicle and driver’s license records, also included computerized criminal histories on the two men. You can’t explain that away by saying you were doing a search on your own license number. And the obvious question: why was it necessary to conduct 46 searches of his own license number anyway?

Nor does it explain why he subsequently disseminated some of the information he had found (according to WBRZ’s belated response) or why he texted his ex-wife to request that she not report his actions because he “could get fired for doing so.”

Why could he have been fired? Because the searches were “for non-law enforcement purposes, in violation of (LSP) department policy and federal law,” according to a letter from LSP notifying him of an impending suspension.

When neither WBRZ, Nakamoto, nor their legal counsel filed an answer to the lawsuit and when they failed to appear in court on Sept. 28, and without the plaintiff’s submitting any evidence of his claims that Nakamoto had not read the entire LSP report as Burns claimed in his petition, Judge Hughes—in chambers—ruled that the station and Nakamoto were at fault and awarded $1.5 million to Burns and $1 million to his wife, Hilary Burns.

That got WBRZ’s attorney’s rear in gear. On Oct. 12, Babcock filed a 19-page (10 pages longer than Burn’s original petition) MEMORANDUM in support of a motion for a new trial.

In that motion, the station’s attorney argued that a default judgment can be handed down only if the plaintiff presents “competent evidence that convinces the court that it is probable that he would prevail on a trial on the merits” and that he “must prove each element of his claim as fully as if each of the allegations of the petition had been specifically denied by the defendant.”

“Plaintiff is required to adhere to the rules of evidence despite there being no opponent to urge objections,” Babcock wrote in his motion, and that the “trial judge should be vigilant to assure that the judgment rests on admissible evidence.”

Babcock cited a decision by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in which the court said:

  • Judges, acting with the benefit of hindsight, must resist the temptation to edit journalists aggressively. Reporters must have some freedom to respond to journalistic exigencies without fear that even a slight, and understandable, mistake will subject them to liability. Exuberant judicial blue-penciling after-the-fact would blunt the quills of even the most honorable journalists.

On Monday, Judge Hughes signed a one-page ORDER setting 9 a.m. Monday, Dec. 11, as the time and date that Burns must show cause why a new trial should not be granted.

Burns would probably be wise not to buy that beachfront property in Gulf Shores just yet.

And WBRZ, you just got scooped on your own story.

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Do State Fire Marshal Butch Browning and his top deputies, including Chief Deputy Brant Thompson and others, prevail upon French Quarter hotel management to comp them and their entourage rooms when they frequent New Orleans’ night life—as often as “several times a year?”

Browning and Thompson, through a State Fire Marshal spokesperson, say no.

But three independent sources say otherwise and moreover, there are times the free hotel rooms aren’t restricted to the French Quarter. Sometimes, they are in such places as New Orleans suburb Metairie in Jefferson Parish.

And the free rooms often have little or nothing to do with official state business—like, for example, free rooms for the softball recruiters of one deputy fire marshal’s daughter and softball tournament promoters, at the deputy fire marshal’s request.

Employees of two French Quarter hotels have come forward to say that Browning, Thompson, and others come to New Orleans during Mardi Gras “and several other times” each year and their rooms are comped at either of two separate hotels that LouisianaVoice was able to identify through sources who work at the two facilities.

LouisianaVoice is not identifying either the employees or the hotels that employ them because they fear for their jobs but both say it is common practice for the hotels to provide free rooms to fire marshal employees, “their wives and/or their girlfriends.”

Louisiana State Ethics RULES have specific guidelines, rigidly enforced against rank and file civil servants but rarely, if ever, against elected or appointed personnel, which prohibit the acceptance of anything of value as a gift. Some examples, taken verbatim from Ethics Commission rules, of prohibitions:

  • No PUBLIC SERVANT shall receive any thing of economic value, other than the compensation and benefits to which he is entitled from his governmental employer, for the performance of the duties and responsibilities of his office or position.
  • No PUBLIC EMPLOYEE shall solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, anything of economic value as a gift or gratuity from any person who conducts operations or activities which are regulated by the public employee’s agency.
  • No PUBLIC EMPLOYEE shall solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, anything of economic value as a gift or gratuity from a person who has substantial economic interests which may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the public employee’s official job duty(ies).
  • No PUBLIC SERVANT or OTHER PERSON shall give, pay, loan, transfer, or deliver or offer to give, pay, loan, transfer, or deliver, directly or indirectly, to any public servant or other person anything of economic value which such public servant or other person would be prohibited from receiving by any provision of the Ethics Code.
  • Persons who give prohibited gifts to public servants violate §1117 of the Code and are subject to the enforcement proceedings and penalties for their violation.

Hotels fall under the regulatory umbrella of the State Fire Marshal’s Office by virtue of their having to undergo fire safety and fire code inspections by the office. Free rooms given the fire marshal and his deputies could conceivably be interpreted as some sort of quid pro quo whereby deputy fire marshals might be inclined to look the other way when encountering fire code violations.

quid pro quo

kwid ˌprō ˈkwō/

noun

  • a favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something.
  • something given or received for something else; a deal arranging a quid pro quo.

One hotel employee said he was not personally aware of any such arrangement but added that would be out of his area of work at the hotel. “I wouldn’t know about that,” he said. In addition to the claims of comped rooms for Browning and his deputies, a hotel bartender in the French Quarter has also come forward to claim that he witnessed two fire marshal supervisors drinking alcoholic beverages while on call during the recent Hurricane Nate response. Fire Marshal personnel are paid while on call.

“(Fire Marshal Captain Bobby) Pellegrin and (Senior Deputy Fire Marshal Trevor) Santos have also used their fire marshal status to coerce hotel owners into free hotel stays in the French Quarter and Metairie,” one source said, adding, “Pellegrin used connections to strongarm hotel owners to give him free rooms for his daughter’s softball recruiters and promoters.”

A hotel employee at a second French Quarter hotel said he had worked at the hotel for “a number of years,” and fire marshal personnel have stayed there “many times.” He said it generally is Lt. Santos, who works in New Orleans, who books the rooms and that he always said at the time of booking the reservations that it was “important” that the rooms be “taken care of.”

Asked if wives and girlfriends also stay at the hotel free of charge, the employee said, “Oh, yes. Wives, girlfriends and other female guests.”

He said former Superintendent of State Police Mike Edmonson and some of his top aides were also the frequent recipients of comped rooms at the hotel.

LouisianaVoice emailed Santos, Pellegrin, Thompson and Browning to give them an opportunity to address the claims and while receipts were received from all but Browning that indicated that that had opened the email, none of the four responded.

The only response was through a spokesperson who issued a blanket denial. While pointing out that fire marshal personnel do patrol the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, she did not say why they were armed, since deputy fire marshals are not police officers and have no duties other than fire prevention and the investigation of fires. “That’s another issue,” she said.

While the representative stated emphatically that the complimentary rooms “did not happen,” she gave nothing to substantiate the denial other than to say, “People can say anything but that doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Exactly.

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Call it the hangover effect, but the saga of Louisiana State Police (LSP), particularly Troop D in Lake Charles, just won’t go away.

A state district judge, basing his decision in large part on a series of LouisianaVoice stories, has ordered LSP to produce personnel records “within 10 days” of two Troop D State Troopers for a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought against State Police.

Emily Landers filed suit against LSP through the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Entergy Gulf States Louisiana and PPG Industries in connection with a Dec. 1, 2010, auto accident on I-10 in Calcasieu Parish.

Landers was driving on I-10 when her vehicle was struck by an electrical line that had fallen across both sides of the interstate. LSP already had several troopers onsite, she says in her petition, but they were sitting on the shoulder of the road with lights activated.

The troopers identified as potential witnesses included Jimmy Rogers, Derrick Cormier, Zack Matt and Paul Brady and Landers said that the credibility of each was at issue.

A second person also involved in a separate accident, John Heurtevant, said that Trooper Rogers’s testimony as to the location of his and Trooper Cormier’s units were situated and what the state knew at the time of the accident.

Landers requested the LSP policy and procedure manual, personnel files, including reprimands and internal investigations of Rogers, Cormier, Matt and Brady, and any information in the state’s possession regarding any road closure because of the electrical line.

LSP objected to the release of personnel files, claiming that the files did not relate to any matters involving the litigation. Landers’s attorney, Thomas Townsley, however, said in a Sept. 11 motion to compel that the credibility of the officers “is very relevant, and go to some of the core issues in this case.”

MOTION TO COMPEL

Townsley said that while the state would be relying on Rogers’s testimony to support its position that the state handled the emergency properly “despite the fact that most evidence discredits his testimony.”

Townsley said he had obtained information from LouisianaVoice “that demonstrates (sic) that Trooper Rogers has severe credibility, character, and integrity issues.”

https://louisianavoice.com/2015/08/17/state-police-headquarters-sat-on-complaint-against-troop-d-trooper-for-harassment-captain-for-turning-a-blind-eye-to-it/

Townsley also cited a second LouisianaVoice story which discussed State Police investigations of Capt. Chris Guillory, Brady and Rogers.

“Although the LouisianaVoice was denied access to Rogers’s records because the Louisiana State Police did not complete its investigation due to his resignation, sources report Rogers resigned after it was discovered he was committing payroll fraud on parish-funded overtime details known as Local Agency Compensated Enforcement (LACE).

“Rogers was reported issuing citation on his regular shift, but claiming them on different dates in order to accrue overtime,” Townsley said.

https://louisianavoice.com/2015/09/05/state-police-launch-internal-affairs-investigation-of-troop-d-commander-after-public-records-requests-by-louisianavoice/

Townsley said he was also aware “of Trooper Jimmy Rogers filing a incident report with false information on it. Consequently, this information is very relevant regarding the character, honesty, and integrity of major witness/employee of the state who was allegedly negligent in this accident that led to the plaintiff’s accident and injuries.”

Judge Ronald Ware of the 14th Judicial District agreed.

In a two-page ruling dated Sept. 26, Judge Ware first denied the state’s motion for summary judgment (dismissal) and then granted Landers’s motion to compel.

JUDGMENT

Ware ordered that the troopers’ personnel files “which are to include, but not limited to, reprimands and internal investigation…to the court for an in camera (confidential) inspection within 10 days of the hearing. Upon the court’s review, a decision will be given on what should be redacted and what should be given to the plaintiff’s counsel.”

 

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The fallout from last October’s cross-country drive to San Diego via the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam and Las Vegas in a state police vehicle has resulted in the demotion of two state troopers who took part in the drive.

Lt. Rodney Hyatt was demoted to sergeant, and Capt. Derrell Williams was bumped down to lieutenant. Both troopers received corresponding reductions in pay along with their demotions.

Both men have the option of appealing their respective disciplinary actions.

But they didn’t go down without a fight and without throwing former State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, who was forced into retirement over the trip that also included a dozen other state police personnel, under the bus. It all comes down to “who do you believe?”

And Hyatt, so sure was he that he was blameless in the circuitous route taken by the four, recently applied for promotion to captain despite his pending demotion.

Moreover, Williams was cited for receiving a semi-nude photograph from a female friend on his state police email account via his state-issue cell phone and for transmitting a suggestive photo of himself to that same female friend on his state email account.

Both men fired off lengthy letters defending their actions to the State Police Internal Affairs Section that Williams once headed. In Hyatt’s case, his letter was 12 pages in length while Williams’s letter was 10 pages.

Hyatt, in particular, attempted to shift the blame for driving the state vehicle (which was assigned to then-Assistant Superintendent Charles Dupuy, for overstating his overtime, for staying in expensive hotels, and for visiting Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam along the way, to Edmonson.

Williams, for his part, said simply that “None of the (other) officers in the state vehicle were in my chain of command,” and that upon his return to Baton Rouge, Edmonson “signed off on my state credit card expenditures showing the prices and places where we stayed.”

The disciplinary letters from State Police Superintendent Col. Kevin Reeves to Hyatt and Williams were each 10 pages in length but the letter to Hyatt appeared to pack the most punch and its entire 10 pages were summed up in a single sentence:

“Your response merely attempts to shift responsibility for your actions to others,” Reeves said.

Still, it’s difficult to imagine that the four would have gone off on a sightseeing trip in a state vehicle without Edmonson’s knowledge and blessing.

Reeves also said that Hyatt not only submitted padded time sheets for hours not worked but that he forwarded copies of his time sheet to Troopers Thurman Miller and Alexandr Nezgodinsky, who also made the trip in the state vehicle, “to show them how to claim their time for the travel and training.”

Hyatt, in his letter said he was initially asked by Edmonson if he wanted to attend the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference that was held in conjunction with the State and Provincial Police Planning Officers Section (SPPPOS) meeting. Hyatt said he told Edmonson he did wish to attend both conferences at which point Edmonson said, “If you go, you have to drive.” He said Edmonson then said, “Take your wife and have a good time.”

“I have never taken my wife in my entire 20-year career to any work-related conference,” Hyatt said. “Had Edmonson not told me to, I would not have brought her. However, being a paramilitary organization, I took his order to mean that I am going to the conferences in San Diego, California with my wife, and we were to have a good time and drive there. Additionally, I followed his order because I did not want to violate Louisiana State Police Policy and Procedure, which states that I shall obey and execute all lawful orders of a superior officer.”

Moreover, Hyatt said it was Edmonson who suggested that the four troopers and Hyatt’s wife take the “northern route” because there was “nothing but desert along I-10.” That was the route that included the side trips to the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam and Vegas.

Edmonson was quoted earlier this year when news of the trip first became public that he did not sign off on the side trip but Williams backed Hyatt’s version of events by saying he had “no doubt” that Edmonson knew the whereabouts of the four “at all times” during the trip.

On telling part of Hyatt’s letter as well as Reeves’s letter of demotion to Williams was the issue of text messages and emails on state cell phones.

LouisianaVoice requested copies of all such messages and photos, particularly those between the four troopers in the state vehicle and Edmonson months ago but was told by State Police Legal Affairs that no such messages existed.

Yet Hyatt, in his 12-page response alluded to emails, text messages and photographs sent by Hyatt’s wife to Edmonson throughout the trip.

And Reeves, in his letter, cited the sexually explicit photo sent to Williams’s state email account by a female friend and received on his cell phone and Williams’s photo of him straddling a cactus that he texted to that same lady friend.

Because the disciplinary letters and the responses are so lengthy, it has been decided that rather than try to relate what they said, it would be better to simply publish the links to the respective documents.

So here is the disciplinary letter to RODNEY HYATT, along with his response.

And here is the disciplinary letter to DERRELL WILLIAMS, followed by his response.

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