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Archive for the ‘Transparency’ 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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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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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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There is an interesting story in today’s Baton Rouge Advocate (click HERE to read the story) about former Secretary of State Tom Schedler.

It seems that in addition to being forced from office by his settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit, his successor, Kyle Ardoin, diverted $90,000 in state funds earmarked for computer upgrades to pay Schedler’s portion of the settlement.

That’s questionable use of public funds by practically any definition I know but beyond that little indiscretion lies a more fundamental question and that is just why was the state on the hook for the bulk of the payout for his behavior in the first place?

Schedler resigned in May of this year in the wake of accusations that he had sexually harassed a female employee for years.

The woman filed suit against Schedler and the state and the case was settled in August for $167,500, plus another $35,000 in attorney fees.

Of that $202,500 total, Schedler personally paid only $18,425 with state taxpayers picking the remaining $184,075–$90,450 covered by the secretary of state’s office and $93,625 by the Office of Risk Management, the state office that insures all state agencies in cases of legal liability.

But why would taxpayers be called upon to foot the bill for nearly $185,000 for personal actions committed by Schedler?

That was the question posed by a reader who said, “We need somebody to pass a law that anybody settling a sexual harassment case related to their employment with the state has to pay ALL of it from their own pockets. If Schedler wasn’t 100 percent responsible for this, who was, the state? And who, in this case, is the state?

Good questions all and an observation that cuts the heart of the legal issue.

To our reader’s advocacy that a law needs to be passed, he’s correct—except the law is already in place. It’s just not applied by judges who preside over these cases.

There is even a legal term (Latin, what else?) that addresses this very case.

RESPONDEAT SUPERIOR is the Latin phrase for “Let the master answer.” While it is an English Common Law doctrine (Louisiana’s laws are based on the Napoleonic Code), it would still apply in Schedler’s—and others’—cases if only the judges would apply the principle.

Established in the 17th century, the doctrine was adopted in this country and has been broadly applied in agency law. Literally, Respondeat Superior means the employer (in this case, the state) is liable for the injuries caused by an employee who is working within the scope of his employment relationship (emphasis mine). The person who does the work for the employer is the agent and the theory behind the law says the principal (employer, or agency) controls the agent’s behavior and must then assume some responsibility for the agent’s actions.

It means that if, as a state employee, your supervisor or legal counsel directed or advised you to do something later determined to be illegal, then the state would be liable for any fines, courts costs, etc. If, however, you did something illegal at work that was not work-related (harassment or assault of a subordinate, stealing from the coke machine, extortion, etc.), then you and you alone should be held liable for any damages imposed. If, the first case, the court had imposed a $50,000 fine, the Office of Risk Management would be responsible for paying the penalty. In the second case, if you were fined (whatever amount), the full responsibility for payment should fall upon you because what you did was not job-related, or within the scope and authority of your job responsibilities.

The question then becomes was the employee (Schedler) acting within the scope of employment during his off-the-rails behavior. The answer, of course, is certainly not.

That is the sticking point here and, in a case involving LouisianaVoice a few years back. We sued Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols over her failure to provide public records in the time prescribed by law. LouisianaVoice won the case and Nichols was personally assessed financial penalties. But she appealed, lost and eventually settled with LouisianaVoice. But the state paid for all her attorney fees at the state and appeal court levels as well as for the settlement itself.

The judge held her personally liable because she did not rely on the advice of the DOA legal counsel in dragging out her response to our records request. She was not, the court deemed, acting “within the scope of her employment” by delaying production of the records. Still, when push came to shove, it was the state, i.e. taxpayers, that paid in the end.

Same with Schedler. Sexual harassment certainly is never within the scope of anyone’s employment. Therefore, what Schedler did, he did as a freelancer, not as part of his duties as an employee (or in this case, the very head of the agency). Accordingly, he should have been held personally liable for all damages and legal costs.

That he was not speaks to the inexcusable laxity exercised by the court system in this case. This was the ideal chance for the judiciary to send a clear message to public servants—and employees in the private sector—that acting outside the boundaries of their job descriptions has consequences.

Sadly, that opportunity was missed.

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A state district court last week knocked down action taken by the Vermilion Parish School Board for violations of the state’s Open Meetings Law. In what must surely be a first, I find myself in agreement with Attorney General Jeff Landry on the whole affair.

Suffice it to say, however, that Landry waited until there was a judicial ruling to take his courageous stand, a ruling 10 months in the making, while LouisianaVoice took a similar position on the removal of a teacher from a board meeting immediately.

For that matter, why the hell did it take 15th Judicial District Court Judge David Smith 10 months to issue a ruling on a matter that is supposed to be fast-tracked: the issue of public meetings of governmental bodies? To take 10 months to decide what was obviously a violation of state law is somewhat ludicrous.

Be that as it may, Smith not only ruled the school board violated the Open Meetings Law by having a teacher, Deyshia Hargrave, a Kaplan middle school English teacher, arrested and removed from the meeting because she questioned the board action of awarding Superintendent Jerome Puyau a $30,000 raise, from $110,190 to $140,188, while teachers have gone years without a pay increase.

Puyau, in an interview with a Lafayette television station, said, “By the time the teacher stood up in the audience to the time she was at the door, it was 53 seconds. During that 53 seconds, she was asked to sit multiple times, the gavel struck multiple times.”

Yes, she was asked to sit and yes, the gavel was struck multiple times in a desperate effort to keep Hargrave from further publicly embarrassing the board and Puyau. When the raise for Puyau came up on the agenda, Hargrave, the parish’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year, attempted to ask how the board could award Puyau a raise “when you’re basically taking from the teachers.”

Board President ANTHONY HARGRAVE, an Abbeville attorney who should have known better, rapped his gavel while informing Hargrave she was not on the agenda and the item being discussed was the superintendent’s contract.

Hargrave was quick to point out that she was addressing the very issue the board was considering, his gavel-rapping notwithstanding. “This directly speaks to what you’re voting on,” Hargrave said as a city marshal moved in to slap handcuffs on her and lead her from the meeting.

To view the complete video, click HERE.

The video prompted a flood of outrage from throughout the country. News organizations, from the Charlotte Observer, to The Washington Post, to The New York Times, to US News & World Report, to NPR, to NBC, to the La Crosse (Wisc.) Tribune, and even the Baton Rouge Tiger Droppings picked up on the school board’s action.

Meanwhile, Fontana, referring to Hargrave as “the poor little lady,” said, “If a teacher has the authority to send a student, who is acting up and she can’t control, out of the classroom to the principal’s office, under our policy we have the same rules.” Apparently, Fontana believed he could treat teachers as children and that getting arrested is the equivalent to being sent to the principal’s office.

And perhaps Fontana, after 25 years on the board, should have retired before deciding he was the final authority on open meetings and freedom of speech First Amendment rights.

And while Judge Smith took his time in issuing his ruling, he did take it to its ultimate conclusion in negating the school board’s approval of Puyau’s contract and his $30,000 raise—because the action was taken in what Smith said was a meeting held in violation of the Open Meetings Law.

Puyau, obviously feeling he had been grievously wronged by the ruling (never mind the manner in which the board treated Hargrave—one of its teachers, no less), told Lafayette TV station KATC reporter Chris Wetly that he would appeal the decision.

“It has ruined myself and my family,” he sniffed. “It has broken me personally. It has changed me as a person…to understand that politics is ugly and they (whoever “they” is) will do anything they can to get rid of me as Superintendent.”

Hey, Puyau, trying getting arrested, being handcuffed, and led out a public meeting—for simply exercising your First Amendment right of free speech. Then you can talk about your life being “ruined” and your life “changed.”

And of course, there is Landry, always ready and willing to pick the low-hanging fruit. Here’s the headline from his news release on Monday:

Vermilion Ruling A Victory for Teachers, Public Declares Jeff Landry
AG Landry Pledges Continued Enforcement of Open Meetings Law 

“I applaud Judge Smith for remedying this injustice,” Landry said of the ruling, adding that Hargrave and her fellow teachers, “who have not received a pay increase in many years despite growing class sizes, should have absolutely been heard.”

Of course, that was an easy call to make for Landry, ever the politician on the prowl for votes wherever and whenever he can find them. “And I pledge to continue diligent enforcement of our Open Meetings Law,” he said.

That’s a curious “pledge” for him to make. The Louisiana Constitution prohibits his intervention in parish affairs unless specifically requested to do so by the local district attorney. And as attorney general, he represents state boards, commissions, and agencies, meaning he is mandated to protect their interest, not ours. That means that in litigation over open meetings or public records, rather than enforcing the law, he defends state boards, commissions and agencies.

As ample illustration of that important distinction, observant readers will note that while LouisianaVoice WEIGHED IN on the controversy immediately, Landry, once a ruling had been made, had an opportunity to characteristically grab the spotlight with his news release. Prior to Judge Smith’s ruling, however, he had absolutely zero to say about the matter.

Nothing.

Nil.

Zilch.

So much for “diligent enforcement.”

 

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