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Slip and fall lawsuits don’t normally grab the media’s attention because they’re as common as those lawyer ads that give local TV news programs a reason to exist.

(And speaking of lawyer ads, we really have some beauties on the Baton Rouge stations. While the joke at one time was that TV news existed only to keep the lawyer ads from bumping together, that’s no longer a valid observation. Today, it’s not unusual to have three different lawyer ads back-to-back-to-back during local news programs. We have one with a talking dog that’s especially bad and another features a lawyer hiking in the woods – in wing-tip shoes. And the ones with paid shills giving testimonies about how much they got in their lawsuit but they fail to tell us how much of that so-called award went to attorney’s fees, expert costs, court costs, court reporter costs, etc.)

Oh, yes, slip and fall lawsuits. There was one in Hammond where a family was walking in a large chain store and Mama slipped and fell. And wouldn’t you know, Junior just happened to be recording the whole thing on his video camera – just in case Mama fell, I suppose. It took only a nano-second for that lawsuit to get thrown out.

But there’s an unusual slip and fall case pending in federal court in Lafayette that might bear closer scrutiny because of an existing policy of the defendant that makes the chain a target for future similar litigation.

Plaintiff Sharon Blanchard is suing Circle K convenience store after she slipped on standing water inside a story in Youngsville on Sept. 3, 2018, and struck her head and coccyx (tailbone), resulting in “traumatic brain injury, post traumatic headaches, multi-level lumbar disc injuries requiring surgery and psychological/emotional injuries.

Nothing out of the ordinary for such a lawsuit so far.

But then there’s the deposition of Circle K employee Corey Crochet on De. 1, 2020, that could conceivably attract more slip and fall cases like ants to a picnic. Shoot, it could even produce a class-action slip and fall action. Now a class-action slip and fall suit would truly be unique.

So, what did Crochet say in his deposition that would make it so… well, convenient to join in the fun of suing your friendly neighborhood Circle K store?

Besides Blanchard’s claim that Crochet knew of the accumulated water at the store entrance, Crochet’s testimony “detailed Circle K policy of not using mats or rugs at entrance areas and of his own personal experience of concern for the slippery condition of the floor at the store entrance,” the court noted.

Blanchard attempted unsuccessfully to amend Circle K Regional Director of Operations Olajuwan Alexander into her lawsuit as a defendant because, Blanchard says, Alexander was the “policymaker who implemented an oral policy of removing floor mats from stores within his region beginning in 2018.

“The uncontested evidence before this Court [is] that Alexander was tasked by Circle K with implementing a policy regarding the use of floor mats in stores within his region,” U.S. District Judge Patrick J. Hanna ruled. “Alexander determined that the use of floor mats, which often became warped, torn or otherwise unserviceable, created a trip hazard for guests and orally directed stores within his region to cease using mats for this reason. As an alternative, Alexander directed that stores would display ‘wet floor’ warning signs and periodically wet and dry mop floors on rainy days to mitigate slip and fall hazards,” Hanna wrote.

Though Blanchard’s attempt to amend Crochet and Alexander into her litigation as defendants wad denied, Judge Hanna said his denial would have no effect on her claim against Circle K.

Much media attention has been focused, and rightly so, on whistleblower Frances Haugen calling out Facebook for placing profits over integrity. But there’s a whistleblower lawsuit pending in Louisiana’s Middle District Federal Court in Baton Rouge that potentially could have a direct impact on the physical safety and lives of tens of thousands of people living in proximity to dozens of petrochemical plants in South Louisiana.

Johnny Taylor’s lawsuit, claiming that his termination by Union Pacific Railroad was in violation of the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) because he was fired for engaging in activities protected under that statute, is scheduled to be heard Nov. 1.

Basically, Taylor is claiming that he was fired because he took one rail line out of service and issued a slow order on another section of track because of safety concerns and refused orders to return them to service.

Union Pacific disagreed, contending that Taylor was terminated for disrespectful conduct surrounding those actions and that Taylor had “significant performance issues” and a history of “insubordination and outright refusal to alter his behavior.”

A motion for summary judgment (dismissal) by Union Pacific was denied by U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick, allowing the lawsuit to move forward.

In her ruling, Judge Dick noted cited a requirement of FRSA which said that a railroad or its representatives “shall not discharge, demote, suspend, reprimand, or in other way discriminate against an employee” for reporting in good faith a hazardous safety or security condition.

Taylor took the Avondale “Tail Track” out of service on March 28, 2017. Approximately 20 derailments had occurred in the Avondale yard during Taylor’s tenure. On Nov. 2, 2017, he took “No. 1 Mainline” track in Avondale out service, based on his impression that it was defective and could result in a derailment. Three derailments occurred at the “Switch 16” track in Avondale in October and November 2017, Taylor says.

Similarly, he took the “Switch 16” track at Avondale out of service on Jan. 10, 2018, because the track was “severely out of alignment” and ran the risk of causing a derailment. He issued a “slow order” on a track on White Castle on Jan. 22, 2018.

She further noted that an employee’s refusal is protected under several provisions which applied in Taylor’s case.

Taylor cited four examples of his claimed protected activity:

  • Taking tracks out of service;
  • Refusal to put “Switch 16” back into service;
  • Issuance of a slow order in White Castle, Louisiana (in an area along the Mississippi River in Iberville Parish where dozens of petrochemical plants are located), and
  • Cooperation with Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and of reports to Union Pacific’s EEO Department.

Taylor, who was employed by Union Pacific on Se.t. 12, 2007, said in his petition that he was responsible for railroad tracks from Avondale to Livonia.

On March 5,2014, Taylor says a supervisor threatened to fire him if he reported “any additional safety issues regarding tie clusters in the tracks under his management.”

Taylor says Union Pacific “falsely reported” the cause of several derailments to the FRA.

He says that he was cited for his attitude but otherwise received only positive evaluations and quoted from one evaluation in which his supervisor said, “You lead your team in a positive way from what I have seen so far. Make sure that everyone above you knows and understands the good things that you are doing. Don’t be afraid to brag on yourself.”

Taylor said he qualified for a performance bonus for 2017 and received a letter in October 2017 from Superintendent Cliff Bowman commending him on his “diligence, dedication, professionalism, and continued commitment to safety.”

The trial is scheduled for 9 a.m. in the Russell B. Long Federal Building in Baton Rouge.

Taylor is represented by J. Arthur Smith, III, and Robert M. Schmidt of the Smith Law Firm of Baton Rouge.

It was difficult to tell if it was just an artful dodge or sheer ineptness on the part of Stephen Russo when he appeared before the Joint Medicaid Oversight Committee to testify about the placement of nursing home patients in a Tangipahoa Parish warehouse but whichever it was, it was a pathetic performance by someone in his area of responsibility.

Russo is executive legal counsel for the Department of Health which regulates nursing homes. What’s more, he was appointed INTERIM SECRETARY of the department during the time between the resignation of Dr. Rebecca Gee and the appointment of her successor, COURTNEY PHILLIPS.

Despite his high level of authority, Russo danced the bureaucratic shuffle under questioning from legislators who, had they done their own research, could have – should have – known of Russo’s background well in advance. Instead, they preferred to appear outraged and infuriated as opposed to the more realistic and accurate ill-informed and grandstanding over the treatment of the 853 patients from seven nursing homes who were evacuated into that warehouse in Independence as Hurricane Ida approached.

If the legislators had done their homework, they would have known that Russo (1) got PERSONALLY INVOLVED in Dr. Gee’s efforts to retain her tenure at LSU  Health Science Center while simultaneously serving as DHH secretary – in apparent violation of the Governmental Code of Ethics (you may remember when we used to have an ethics board that actually meant something).

If the legislators had not been so intent on posturing for the TV cameras, they might have taken the time to learn how Russo had PROTECTED  Attorney Supervisor Weldon Hill by intimidating and humiliating – and demoting – the woman who complained of Hill’s sexual harassment – a complaint that eventually resulted in DHH’s quietly SETTLING with the complainant.

And while that settlement was “only” $45,000, a little deeper drive by legislators might have revealed how much taxpayers actually HAD TO PAY to defend that lawsuit.

Perhaps they might have taken the time to peruse Russo’s DEPOSITION  in that case – just to get a little background going into those hearings so they might anticipate how he would respond under questioning.

What Bob Dean allowed to take place in his nursing homes was deplorable. He’d already had one facility shut down by inspectors and now he has lost his license for the seven involved in the evacuation that resulted in at least 12 deaths. His cavalier attitude about the “acceptable” number of deaths didn’t help his public image – if, indeed, he was ever worried about his public image.

And, true enough, Russo wasn’t the one on trial for the unspeakable tragedy. But his agency is the one charged with nursing home oversight so, the buck must stop there. And he is the executive legal counsel for DHH.

So, why the hell did he refuse to answer some of the questions put to him “on the advice of counsel”

What counsel? He IS the counsel.

And he WAS, for a time, at least, secretary of the entire agency.

If Russo can’t – or won’t – answer questions, who, then, will?

His performance was wholly unsatisfactory and unacceptable.

Legislators need to press on with their inquiry.

And they need to do their homework in advance so they won’t look so addle-brained.

Faux indignation doesn’t play well anymore.

The headline on page 17 of the June 5, 2015, New Orleans Times-Picayune proclaimed, “Texas man reaches plea in scheme,” and a sub-headline informed readers that the person in question would pay $600,000 in restitution.

The story said that Richard Sharp had misrepresented himself as a petroleum engineer to Jared Caruso-Riecke and GDH International in August 2011 when he met with GDH shareholders and intimated he could obtain lucrative contracts for the company to provide housing in oil fields in the Middle East.

But there was more to the story than that. Much more. For one thing, Sharp says he was threatened and coerced into a plea bargain in order to get out of jail and the cast of characters surrounding his circumstances would seem to support that.

The first meeting of GDH International shareholders was held on that same date. Sharp attended by telephone.

The initial directors of the corporation named at that meeting included:

  • Riecke: Chief Executive Officer
  • Bruce Cucchiara: Chief Financial Officer
  • Sharp: Chief Operating Officer
  • Dudley Geigerman, III: Director of Housing
  • Daniel E. Buras, Jr.: Director

Cucchiara, who previously served as President of Resource Bank in Mandeville, had been prohibited by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) from participation in banking in July 2005. He would be murdered in New Orleans East on April 24, 2012, less than a year after formation of the GDH operation. His killer has never been found.

Another officer, Geigerman, has been linked to organized crime figure Anthony Tusa, who in turn, was affiliated with Carlos Marcello. Geigerman’s grandfather was New York gangster Frank Costello’s brother-in-law and the elder Geigerman worked as a collector for Costello’s slot machines installed in bars across Louisiana.

Sharp admitted at the time of his plea agreement, perhaps under extreme duress, that he embellished his resume and “distorted facts, spread rumors, and engaged in libelous, defamatory and slanderous actions” in relation to Cucchiara’s death, but in a federal lawsuit against Riecke, the Covington Police Department and others in October 2012, he indicated that he agreed to the plea bargain and made those concessions under duress.

Sharp filed his own lawsuit in federal court in Louisiana’s Southern District on Oct. 8, 2012, naming Riecke, 22nd Judicial District Judge Peter Garcia, then-District Attorney Walter Reed (who would later go to prison on unrelated charges – another unsavory character in this drama), GDH International, and several others, claiming collusion on the part of the defendants to extort money and property from him.

First of all, he said, the arrest warrant was signed by Garcia, who Sharp said signed an injunctive relief order attaching and seizing Sharp’s personal property in Plaquemines Parish in order to prevent Sharp from making bail which resulted in his being held for 81 days on what he says were “fabricated charges” despite an apparent conflict of interest on Garcia’s part.

Garcia was not present for Sharp’s plea but was involved in the certification of Riecke’s civil suit against him and did not allow Sharp to have an attorney present when he certified the lawsuit, Sharp said.

Garcia failed to recuse himself, Sharp said, even though he had a close personal relationship with Riecke and Cucchiara and had officiated at Riecke’s wedding on Aug. 22, 1998.

Garcia and Cucchiara also had purchased property together, Sharp said, further solidifying the cozy relationship between the judge and the defendants and seemingly stacking the deck against Sharp.

Sharp also contended in a formal complaint to the Judiciary Commission of Louisiana on Aug. 13, 2012, that Garcia held ex parte conversations with Riecke and associates about Sharp’s criminal and civil matters.

Predictably, the Judiciary Commission did not act on Sharp’s complaint.

Even more ominous, Sharp claimed in his petition that he was threatened with direct physical harm “in order to extort his consent to settle the civil suit they had filed against him.”

Sharp said that Riecke and Geigerman visited him in jail and told him they would drop all the criminal charges if he would settle the civil case in their favor. “Riecke and Geigerman told Sharp that if he did not sign the settlement agreement, he would not get out of jail and hinted that Sharp just might be harmed while incarcerated,” Sharp’s lawsuit said.

The detective who appeared before Judge Garcia to seek the arrest warrant on Sharp was Stephen Culotta who would experience his own problems after becoming chief of police for the city of Covington. Culotta resigned as chief in May 2021 when his deputy chief, Joseph “Trey” Mahon was arrested on five counts of child pornography. He said his resignation had nothing to do with Mahon’s case.

Garcia and Reed’s motion for dismissal from Sharp’s lawsuit was granted in a 16-page ruling by 22nd Judicial District Judge Sarah Vance on Nov. 8, 2013.

Five months later, she “discovered” that her husband, an attorney with the New Orleans law firm Jones Walker, “has represented and continues to represent GDH International in bankruptcy litigation in Texas, which involves parties in this case, as well as subject mater that could overlap with an issue in this case.”

Having made that late “discovery,” she recused herself and ordered the clerk of court to reallot the case to another judge.

In another head-scratcher there’s the case of E-Housing Solutions, LLC, et al versus GDH International filed in 22nd JDC on February 19, 2016, which included the following default judgment claims:

  • E-Housing Solutions v. GDH International: $32,204.25;
  • GDH Housing Solutions v. GDH International: $23,017.50;
  • Global Disaster Housing v. GDH International: $48,708;
  • Dudley Geigerman v. GDH International: $39,636;
  • Jared Riecke v. GDH International: $36,396.

GDH International, of course, is the company with which Sharp was involved with Riecke, Cucchiara, Geigerman, and a Covington lawyer named Daniel Buras, Jr.

And here’s where it gets a bit sticky and you’ll probably need a program to decipher it all. Records on file with the Secretary of State’s office show:

  • Dudley Geigerman and Patrick Gros are the only E-Housing officers and Jared Riecke is the only officer of GDH International. He is also GDH’s registered agent.
  • JD2 Industries, Inc. is the only officer of GDG Housing but Jared Riecke and Step Three Ventures are listed as officers of JD2. Gros is the registered agent and an officer for Step Three Ventures.
  • E-Housing Solutions and Iron Construction are the listed officers of Global Disaster Housing and Jared Riecke is the registered agent for Global Disaster Housing and is both the registered agent and the only officer for Iron Construction.
  • David Buras or the Buras Law Firm, LLC, meanwhile, is the registered agent for E-Housing Solutions, LLC, GDH Housing, and JD2 Industries;
  • Geigerman, Riecke or a company with Riecke’s name on it shows up in the corporate records of each of the entities above.

A default judgment is when a defendant does not bother to respond to the initial lawsuit which in this case, was filed on October 22, 2015.

But with everyone suing themselves, it’s not surprising that no one filed an answer.

But 22nd JDC Judge Allison Penzato smelled a rat. Apparently suspecting a ruse of some sort in which the court would be complicit, she wrote in longhand across the face of the filing for the default judgment on March 17, 2016: “Denied – insufficient evidence. Oral testimony required.”

The intent of the legal maneuver by E-Housing, GDH, Riecke, et al, is unclear. Court awards in a case such as this one are not tax exempt, so a tax dodge can be ruled out, especially since the total of the sought-after judgments was only $180,000.

Again, the total of the judgments is comparatively small if the intent was to liquidate the assets of GDH International.

But, as the cheesy TV commercial says, there’s more.

On Feb. 29, less than two months before her revelation of a possible conflict, Judge Vance ruled on another matter involving a business associate of Riecke when she denied a motion by Slidell businessman Bay Ingram to quash five grand jury subpoenas issued in connection with a criminal investigation of Ingram’s attempt to defraud BP following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010 (more about that in our next installment).

Another litigation case demonstrated how risky doing business with Riecke can be.

Electrical Engineer Kenneth Dutruch was retained by letter dated Nov. 15, 2004, to act as “exclusive agent to secure a sale for SELA (Southeastern Louisiana Water & Sewerage Co.),” but the agreement ended up in court when Riecke failed to pay Dutruch after SELA was sold.

In a deposition taken on Aug. 9, 2011, Riecke was asked to read a sentence from the agreement which said, “Should a commitment to purchase be obtained by you or by us from any source you introduce, SELA agrees to pay your fee on the total amount of the sale price.”

Asked to read the next sentence, Riecke did so: “For these services, you are to be paid five percent of the total amount of the sale.”

On Jan. 13, 2010, SELA’s assets were sold to the parish of St. Tammany for a total price of $39 million, well below the $50 million to $55 million that Riecke wanted for the company but nevertheless a potential $1.95 million commission for Dutruch, a commission Riecke did not pay because, he said, the sale was consummated after the contract with Dutruch expired.

“So, in your view,” asked attorney Alex Peragine, “if an agent earning a commission working for you brings you a firm commitment to purchase, you fire him the next day, you close two weeks later, you don’t have to pay him? That’s your view, correct?”

Peragine asked Riecke later in the deposition if he recalled in January 2007, he offered Dutruch $500,000 at the closing of the deal “in an effort to renegotiate the contract that you signed in November 2004?”

Riecke said that he did attempt to renegotiate the contract because the price received for SELA was far below what he’d anticipated and because the sale to the parish wasn’t consummated until two years after Dutruch’s contract had expired.

The 22nd JDC granted Riecke’s request for a summary judgment (dismissal), saying that Dutruch had failed to establish that his efforts were the procuring cause of the March 2010 sale of SELA’s assets. A three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court decision, meaning Dutruch received nothing for his work.

Five years, some 175 stories by LouisianaVoice , at least two beatings. one death and a slew of retirements since I first started writing about Louisiana State Police and we finally get our first – and only – indictment.

And it was a federal indictment at that – over the beating of a Black man with a metal flashlight in Ouachita Parish in May 2019, more than two years ago. The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing of officer Derek Chauvin took less time than that.

District Attorney John Belton, an announced candidate for attorney general, didn’t see fit to bring an indictment in the Greene death, even though it occurred in Union Parish, which is part of his 3rd JDC, along with Lincoln Parish.

Nor did Attorney General Jeff Landry dirty his hands in either case. He is, after all, the “law and order” AG, so why would he go after a state trooper who hit a Black man in the head 18 times with a metal flashlight in a span of 24 seconds?

It appears that a tight, well-constructed “wall of silence” was erected around the Bowman and Greene beatings, a conspiracy of sorts that required the cooperation of two district attorneys, a state attorney general, Louisiana State Police administrative personnel and, to an extent, if not participation in a coverup, at least an uneasy silence from the governor’s office.

I’m currently working on another book about sheriffs and one of the things I keep coming across is the idea of the so-called CONSTITUTIONAL SHERIFF,” who is the final authority on law enforcement in a given county or parish. That being the case, where were the sheriffs in the investigations of these incidents? They seem to have been MIA.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Luke Walker seems to have at least taken his job seriously. He’s the one who will be prosecuting the case after today’s announcement that former State Trooper Jacob Brown had been INDICTED by a federal grand jury for using excessive force against an arrestee.

Brown was a member of the trouble Troop F, headquartered in Monroe and once commanded by Kevin Reeves who was serving as Superintendent of State Police at the time of both the Ronald Greene fatal beating and the AARON BOWMAN beating less than three weeks after Greene’s death at the hands of troopers.

Odd that Louisiana State Police didn’t get around to investigating the two beatings for more than 500 days and then only after the incidents were brought to the attention of media.

But then again, after 175 stories about problems in the agency, maybe it isn’t so odd.

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