Archive for April, 2014

Belton Announces for Lincoln/Union DA

04/30/2014

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Belton running for District Attorney

John Belton, an Assistant District Attorney in the Third Judicial District for over 22 years, officially announced that he is a candidate for the open District Attorney seat. Belton says it would be a privilege and an honor to serve both Lincoln and Union Parishes as District Attorney. “I have been encouraged to run because of my maturity and experience as a prosecutor as well as my business experience in the public and private sectors,” Belton said.

Belton says he considers it a high calling and a privilege to serve the community as a prosecutor and to hold offenders accountable for their actions. “As a career prosecutor, I have prosecuted thousands of felony and misdemeanor cases involving homicides, drugs, burglaries, home invasions, sexual assault, and crimes that are committed against those least capable of protecting themselves, like child abuse, domestic violence and senior citizen abuse. In doing so, I have and will continue to work with law enforcement to ensure our community is safe,” Belton said.

Equally important as prosecutorial experience, the position of District Attorney requires fiscal responsibility and administrative experience. Belton has a wealth of administrative experience in both the public and private sectors. He serves as a member of the Board of Directors for two local institutions: Lincoln Health System Foundation with assets in excess of $26 million dollars and First National Bank with assets of over $200 million dollars. He and his wife, Alana, own and operate a small business.

From 1999 to 2005, he served on the Southern University Board of Supervisors. In 2001, he was unanimously elected as Chairman of the Board and re-elected to a second term by a unanimous vote of his peers in 2002. This leadership post as Chairman included: five academic campuses, over 15,000 students, a $160 million dollar annual budget and approximately 2,800 employees.

He believes the next District Attorney must be able to not only help protect our community by prosecuting criminals but also must be able to help improve overall public safety for the residents of Lincoln and Union Parishes. “I have learned from my life and legal experience that incarceration is not always the best solution in certain situations, especially for non-violent youthful offenders. I am a proponent for the Drug Court Program and other programs currently in place that aid our youth and young adults. By giving our non-violent young adults a second chance, they can become productive citizens,” Belton said.

Belton has conducted legal seminars for law enforcement officers. He has served as an Adjunct Professor teaching criminal justice and business law at Grambling State University.

Belton received his Juris Doctorate degree from the Southern University Law Center in 1990 and his undergraduate degree in 1986 from McNeese State University. He is a member of the United States Fifth Federal District Courts, Louisiana Bar Association, Federal Bar Association, Lincoln Bar Association, and the Louis Martinet Society.

He is associated with numerous community and civic groups both past and present: Greater Grambling Chamber of Commerce; Ruston–‐Lincoln Chamber of Commerce; Boys and Girls Club of North Central Louisiana; Boy Scouts of America; Fellowship of Christian Athletes; Methodist Children’s Home; North Louisiana Legal Aid Council; United Way of Northeast Louisiana; and Ruston Jaycees. In December 2001, he was appointed to the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL). Belton also serves as the Chairman of the Eddie G. Robinson Museum Commission.

As a result of his leadership contributions and community service, Belton has received commendations from numerous organizations. In 2001, he was presented with one of Southern University Law Center’s highest honors, the Southern University Law Center Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2013, he received the Greater Grambling Chamber of Commerce’s Calvin Wilkerson Community Service Award. The Ruston–‐Lincoln Chamber of Commerce presented Belton with the Hospitality Award for the Eddie G. Robinson Museum in 2011. Belton also received the Ruston Peach Tourism Service Award, the Magnolia State Peace Officers Association Award for Commitment & Contributions, and the Ruston Jaycees’ Outstanding and Unselfish Service Award.

Belton and his wife, Alana (a former prosecutor) have been married for 23 years. They have served as a Christian marriage counselor team as part of their spiritual ministry. They are the parents of two children, Alexis (20) and Jon Randall (16). They share a strong commitment to their faith, family and service to the community.

For more information call 318-680-6904.

Ben Bleich to Run for Judge in Claiborne

04/29/2014

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Bienville Parish Assistant District Attorney Ben Bleich announced today that he is officially entering the race for District Judge for the 2nd Judicial District, Division “A” (Claiborne Parish). The district includes the parishes of Jackson, Bienville, and his home parish, Claiborne.

“The focus of my candidacy will be Respect, Fairness, and Efficiency,” said Bleich. “A judge is not royalty and the people are not subjects. A judge is elected to serve, not anointed to rule from a throne. Humiliating and insulting people has no place in the courtroom. Fairness is grounded in respect. I believe in being open, honest, and fair. I also believe in being firm, but never rude or abusive. My candidacy offers a change for judge, one who will serve the people of our district.”

“With firmness and respect, I will bring dignity and impartiality to the court. The same rules will apply to everyone. Politics and bias will be kept out of the judiciary. I will listen to all parties. I will not ignore victims of crime or their families. I understand that their suffering does not begin or end in the courtroom. Their voice, too, will be heard during the legal process.”

Bleich said making the court more efficient will be a top priority.

“I will handle tasks during the judicial process promptly and without unnecessary delay to the best of my ability,” Bleich said. “I will work with law enforcement and other officials to expedite cases and be agreeable to special court sessions. My objective will be to take whatever steps are necessary, including the implementation of electronic procedures, such as electronic warrants and orders, to move cases along to completion. A quicker judicial process will save businesses and taxpayers money.”

Bleich has been an Assistant District Attorney for five years, and lives in Claiborne Parish. He also has a civil office. He has been practicing law for more than nine years, handling a large variety of cases. He is a graduate of Louisiana Tech University, the Mississippi College School of Law, and he received a Master of Law degree from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

“I believe in creating strong judicial ties to the community,” Bleich said. “North Louisiana is my home. I have deep roots in our district with a family history of service. My great-great grandfather was a mayor and state senator from the area. Both my grandfathers are World War II veterans, with one working as a doctor in this community. My father has served as a legislator and judge. I follow this spirit of service in my work and now ask to serve this community as judge.”

“The past several years, I have witnessed first-hand the problems that arise when a judge forgets her position is one of service, not entitlement. I want to change that. I want to serve as a judge who respects each citizen while efficiently administering justice and impartiality. I appreciate the responsibility that comes with the position and have seen the harms that arise when that responsibility is abused. It would be an honor to serve as judge for the Second Judicial District, Claiborne Parish seat. With respect, I ask for your vote.”

The election will be held on November 4. For more information call 318.480.0309 or email ben@benbleich.com.

About the “new” Lincoln Parish Court House

04/28/2014

Sunday’s Ruston Daily Leader says that it may be several years off before any ground is broken for a new Lincoln Parish Court House.

Reportedly, however, several Lincoln Parish Police Jurors have made a pilgrimage to see Bienville Parish’s new facility in Arcadia.

Having seen that new building for ourselves, it is indeed fancy. But the taxpayers need to know that about half of that new building is wasted space. There is a huge open atrium in the center, and the offices are located on either side, on the first and second floors. One can only imagine the cost to heat and cool that open area.

Mayo: It’s “Crap” That Southside Short-Changed

04/24/2014

The Washington Street Jazz Club wasn’t the only controversial issue at Tuesday’s meeting of the Monroe City Council. Several of the city’s secret “economic development” taxing districts reported on their activities, and Mayor Jamie Mayo wasted no time trying to refute the implication that Northside Monroe projects got priority over Southside projects.

Council Chair Eddie Clark (District 5) noted that Southside Economic Development District (SEDD) had only about $40 in the bank, while the two primary Northside districts (I-20 Economic Development District, Tower Drive Economic Development District) had many millions in available cash.

Otis Chisley, President of the I-20 Board, reported on the projects completed and underway, but had no documentation to present to the council. The Tower Drive report included a report of the funds expended and available.

See here the document.

Those two districts have sales taxes dedicated to them, while the SEDD has no funding source.

Mayo was quick to claim that Southside Monroe did get its share of economic development, even if it didn’t come from the entities that are supposed to provide funding.

Said Mayo, “There are a lot of positive things that are going on (on the Southside). So all this crap about treating people equally – this is not going on, that is not going on. It doesn’t set well with me when I hear this.” Mayo cited street paving, a several million dollar Public Safety Center, and the City Hall Annex on Jackson Street as evidence that money was being spent in South Monroe.

Another notable revelation from the meeting was that the Tower District has had no oversight board since it was created. Apparently, the City Council can serve as the districts governing board, or the council can appoint a board.

Washington Street Bar Licensed Without Paperwork

04/23/2014

The Washington Street Jazz Club, located across the street from Excellence Academy, was granted a Class A liquor license at last night’s meeting of the Monroe City Council, despite no documentation showing that the club meets the requirement that it be situated 300 feet or more from a “public playground or of a building used exclusively as a church or synagogue, public library, or school,” per Monroe Code of Ordinances Section 4-24.

However, Planning & Urban Development Director Chris Fischer said he had remeasured the distance, and that it was more than the required 300 feet. An original measurement done in February showed the distance, measured along the sidewalks, to be 264 feet.

See here that document.

Fischer supplied no documentation with his verbal assertion, nor did the council receive any documents in their information packets before the meeting. Fischer seemed to indicate that he also measured along the sidewalk, although his comments were unintelligible, both live and on our tape recording of the meeting. Betty Blakes (District Three) asked Fischer to repeat what he said, but that too was not plain. We did pick the word “sidewalk” from the reply. When asked if the distance was more that 300 feet, he said yes.

Asked by District One’s Ray Armstrong how the distance could be two different numbers, Director of Taxation & Revenue Tim Lewis said that his department had requested the initial report and that it came back negative. He noted that “We didn’t request the second distance report, that was done at Mr. Fischer’s request.”

Lewis added, “What I can understand from reading the distance report, they measured from the sidewalks, which created angles, which created more distance.”

The method of measurement is defined in Section 4-24(b):

This distance shall be measured as a person walks using the sidewalks, if available, from the nearest point of the property line of the church, synagogue, library, playground or school to the nearest point of the premises to be licensed or such method as may hereafter be prescribed by state law. In the absence of sidewalks, this distance may be conducted by measuring in a straight line from the nearest point of the property line of the church or synagogue, public library, playground, school, or full-time day care center to the nearest point of the premises to be licensed. Such alternative method of measurement shall only apply prospectively to the issuance of a new alcohol permit issued on or after May 23, 2006, the adoption date of Ordinance No. 10,592.

Voting no on the resolution was Armstrong, abstaining was Ezernack (District Two), voting yes was Blakes, Wilson (District Four), and Clark (District Five).

The bar was the subject of a controversy last year when Mayor Jamie Mayo was seen at the bar during a campaign event for erstwhile Shreveport mayoral candidate Sam Jenkins. At the time, the bar was unlicensed.

Mayo-Backed Shreveport Mayoral Candidate Pulls Down
Monroe Mayor Mayo Spotted at Illegal Bar

More reporting tomorrow.

Lafayette DA Update – 4/23/14

04/23/2014

Private attorney Armentor calls for Harson to step down

Personal injury attorney Glenn J. Armentor of the Lafayette law firm Glenn J. Armentor Law Corp. has called for the resignation of 15th District Attorney Mike Harson in a detailed letter sent Monday to members of the Lafayette Bar Association.

In his letter, Armentor called on his fellow lawyers to likewise oppose Harson, who is seeking reelection this year against his former chief assistant, Keith Stutes.

Harson’s office responded by email late Tuesday afternoon, saying he would not step down and that he believes he enjoys support among Lafayette’s lawyers.

Armentor based much of his criticism against Harson on what Armentor called “the DWI scandal” of two years ago, when a “favors for money” scam was revealed, resulting in bribery charges and convictions against some of Harson’s employees in the DA’s office.

Armentor’s office this morning confirmed the letter was from him and said it had gone out to almost a thousand attorneys Monday. The letter will be sent to other attorneys in the 15th Judicial District today.

Following is the text of Armentor’s letter:

Since the 10th day of October, 1977, when I was sworn into the practice of law, I have revered my profession and felt pride beyond measure in my opportunity to be a lawyer. Other than family and God, nothing has meant more to me than being a lawyer and trying to be a good and ethical practitioner. I am so very proud of what we do every day of our lives to protect the rights of the citizens of Louisiana and Acadiana. Lawyers do so many good things for their communities and in reality are the foundation of professional well-being for the people of Acadiana.

Perhaps it was because of my reverence for our privilege of practicing law that I was so completely taken aback and appalled two (2) years ago when I began to learn about the “DWI scandal” taking place in the office of District Attorney Mike Harson. As we have all come to know from reading multiple accounts and newspaper articles, Mike Harson’s closest administrative personnel and an assistant district attorney operated a “favors for money” scam in which well-to-do people who were arrested for DWI were allowed, essentially, to walk away from the charges by paying $5,000 in bribery money to the office investigator, Harson’s personal administrative assistant and one of his DAs, as well as support personnel from other agencies.

This was a criminal conspiracy centered in a special program Harson created and that required his approval in every single case! This cancer went beyond the District Attorney’s Office to other agencies involved in assisting the DA by providing community service opportunities for every other defendant in DWI cases to appropriately and fairly serve their sentences through community service at the order of the courts.

This undeniable, inexcusable and gut-wrenching scandal has provided one more opportunity for our citizens to perceive members of our profession as crooked, uncaring advantage-takers of the general public. It is one of the biggest black eyes in a long chain of black eyes perpetrated upon our profession that I can remember.

This scandal went on “full bore” for approximately three years directly under the nose of our chief law enforcement prosecutor, Mike Harson. At no point did he ever notice that hundreds of thousands of dollars were being spent by dozens of wealthy people to walk away from their DWI convictions and not have to pay the fair price exacted by a fair society. In his recent responses, Harson has pointed out that the federal prosecutor investigating his office did not find any hard evidence that he was involved or knew of the scandal. Such a defense brings little comfort to those of us who love and care about our profession. In the best case scenario, district attorney Mike Harson has allowed this horrible, full bore, big money, criminal scandal to go on directly under his nose for three (3) years, and defends himself by saying he simply knew nothing about it. That is not a good enough response! That is not an acceptable explanation!

Regrettably, that is not the potentially worst aspect of this horrible scar on the practice of law. If in fact district attorney Harson were aware of the scandal, despite the fact that there is no current proof of that, then he would be guilty of criminal activity while holding office, which would be much worse than his admitted ignorance.

Neither of these incredibly unfortunate possibilities brings any comfort to any of us who love the practice of law and our noble profession. What has happened in the district attorney’s office in the last several years has caused thousands of people in Acadiana to question once again whether lawyers are truly honest, good people. I am so very tired of defending the profession that I love from those who question it because of scandals, scams and the ugliness of those few amongst us who act in terrible ways to disparage the practice.

Long-time first Assistant District Attorney Keith Stutes has declared his intention to run for the office of District Attorney! All of us in the practice in Lafayette in the last 30 years have come to know Keith Stutes as the penultimate professional, the completely competent and trustworthy Number 1 Assistant DA, a man we have watched successfully prosecute the most important criminal cases in the history of our community and the gutsy practitioner that we have admired because of his unalterable determination to obtain convictions of criminals who commit horrible crimes and who deserve to be jailed. We have come to depend on the fact that Keith Stutes will be in court in the most serious cases to make sure that the right thing happens. He has brought us all great comfort in that regard. And he has done it for 30 years without the slightest hint of scandal, stain or inappropriate behavior.

In his letter of March 31, 2014, attached hereto, Mike Harson seeks to cast aspersions on Keith Stutes for “unfair criticism of the over 100 employees of the DA’s office”. The serious lawyers of our community know that that is not what has happened in the Stutes campaign over the last several months. When he learned of the scandal, Keith Stutes launched his own personal investigation to determine who was at fault. He has cast no aspersions and made no accusations to anyone in any office other than those who committed crimes. He was crestfallen to learn that Harson was so inattentive, spent so much time away from the office and cared so little about the DA’s operations that he had never noticed multiple events of scandal on a daily basis for over three years in and about his own office conducted by his closest associates. Perhaps it was that lack of attention to detail and that complete inability to really understand what is going on in his own office that leads Harson, at this point, to write a letter where he accuses Keith Stutes of criticizing the innocent employees of the District Attorney’s office. It is Mike Harson that Keith Stutes has criticized for allowing this scandal to go on for years, criminally paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars to prevent guilty criminals from paying their debt to society. Even then, Keith Stutes stopped after his investigation without accusing Mike Harson of criminal activity, since there was no proof that Harson knew what had occurred. Is it not enough that this went on in Mike Harson’s office for this amount of time without his ever having a clue that it was happening? Can we really rely on an officeholder of 19 years’ duration, who is so inattentive, absentee and uncaring as to allow this egregious behavior to go on for years? Is this the kind of officeholder we truly need in the most important law enforcement office in our three parish 15th Judicial District?

In his letter to our citizens, Mike Harson offers his apology for the scandal in his office. I respectfully submit that the appropriate offer to come from Mike Harson to the people of Acadiana would be the offer to resign from his position as district attorney and thereby allow someone with the credentials, confidence and the dependable ethics of Keith Stutes to take over that position so that we can all know that the right thing will be done even when no one is watching.

I am hopeful that the lawyers of Acadiana will stand up and proclaim that what Mike Harson has failed to do in discovering, investigating and ending the scandal in his office over the last several years is enough for them to call for his resignation from office. I care about my profession and how it is viewed by our community, and I call for Mike Harson’s resignation by writing this letter, a copy of which will be hand delivered to him on this date. Please search your souls, lawyers, and determine for yourself how you feel about what has happened in the District Attorney’s office in the last several years. Please consider what it has done to the reputation of your profession in the eyes of our citizens. Then please take a stand!

OPPJ Last Night

04/22/2014

Perhaps the most newsworthy occurrence at last night’s meeting of the Ouachita Parish Police Jury (OPPJ) was who attended.

Present was City of Monroe Interim Engineer Kim Golden. Golden is a former police juror from District E. Presumably, she was there to answer questions about the city’s acquisition of right-of-way from the parish. That property is to be used to enhance the Ticheli Road entrance of the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo.

We cannot recall ever seeing the Monroe City Engineer at an OPPJ meeting in the five years we’ve covered the body.

Also at the meeting was another Jamie Mayo acolyte, Monroe Chamber of Government President Sue Nicholson.

Perhaps Mayo plans to involve himself in next year’s police jury races, and has his scouts out keeping tabs on things.

The jury had a relatively short meeting, approving a request from the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO) Tax Division for an appropriation to buy new computers. About 40% of the $10 thousand required will come from the police jury, with the balance coming from other taxing entities in the parish.

Also, District D’s Ollibeth Reddix asked the public works department to see if anything could be done to help drainage at the J. S. Clark Cemetery.

Bogalusa Money Jam – It’s Not Just North Louisiana Towns

04/22/2014

From the Louisiana Legislative Auditor (LLA).

The city of Bogalusa must devise a “detailed action plan” to address its fiscal problems and submit it to Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office by May 16, according to a letter made public Monday by the state auditor’s office.

“This letter summarizes the results of our assessment which indicated that there are significant concerns about fiscal operations of the city,” Purpera wrote to Bogalusa Mayor Charles Mizell. “Because of the severity of the issues” the action plan must be submitted by May 16.

The letter pointed out seven areas that must be addressed, including a $12.7 million-plus unfunded actuarial accrued liability in the City of Bogalusa Employees’ Retirement System. Funding levels for the system have dropped from 57 percent in 2003 to 36 percent in 2012.

Actuarial consultants told city officials that the financial condition of the retirement system “will continue to deteriorate if the recommended annual contributions are not timely made. . . . If the recommended contributions are not made, the retirement system will eventually become insolvent.”

The letter recommended the mayor and the Bogalusa City Council work together to develop a comprehensive plan to address the system’s problems, including looking at options to provide adequate funding and pension plan reform.

City officials must also address a $1.1 million negative fund balance in the general fund because the shortage is causing “operating cash shortages and fiscal stress.”

The letter said city officials do not have “an up-to-date plan to eliminate the deficit and begin operating on a fiscally sound basis.” The state auditor recommended that Mayor Mizell and the council update the city’s “cost savings and revenue enhancement plan” adopted in 2008 and “focus on the elimination of this significant deficit in fund balance” by cutting expenses, raising revenues, or both.

Purpera said Bogalusa officials should review all expenditures and focus “on the economic sustainability of continuing to pay existing salaries and benefits.” The letter said that approximately 75 percent of the city’s general fund goes to pay salaries and fringe benefits – including 100 percent city-paid health premiums for all full-time employees. The city budgeted $7.4 million for pay and benefits in 2013.

The letter said the city should review its organizational structure for possible savings and “conduct a comprehensive salary and fringe benefits review.”

Bogalusa officials should also:

Ÿ Develop and implement back-up procedures in the event its main computer system fails. In May of 2013, the letter said, the city sustained a computer system failure which city officials were not able to get fully operational for accounting functions the rest of 2013.

Ÿ Strengthen controls over the use of credit cards. The letter said some employees are not turning in itemized receipts or documenting the business purpose of purchases made on city credit cards.

Ÿ Work to repay $610,000 of the $811,000 the city general fund improperly borrowed in 2006 and 2007 from the debt service fund and the street overlay fund.

Ÿ Ensure sufficient cash is transferred into bond reserve accounts to eliminate deficits. The letter said a total shortage of almost $466,000 exists in reserve accounts.

See here the report.

See here the latest audit (2012).

Monroe City Council Tuesday

04/21/2014

The Monroe City Council will meet Tuesday, April 22, 6:00 P. M., Monroe City Hall, 400 Lea Joyner Expressway.

Here is the agenda.

Audit Cites Monroe Findings

04/21/2014

An audit released this morning cites several findings at the City of Monroe uncovered by contract auditor Luffey, Huffman, Ragsdale & Sognier.

From the press release by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor (LLA).

An employee of the City of Monroe allegedly misappropriated almost $2,700 in Monroe Regional Airport parking lot receipts in December 2012, according to an audit report of the city for the year ending April 30, 2013 made public Monday by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office.

The audit, done for the state auditor by Luffey, Huffman, Ragsdale and Soignier, a Monroe certified public accounting firm, said that the missing $2,690 in receipts covered a five-day period and “were not deposited into the bank. The employee prepared deposit slips, daily receipt reports and journal entries to record the receipts, but none of the funds were deposited and the deposit slips were not validated by the bank.”

Auditors said the Monroe Police Department arrested the employee on charges of felony theft and malfeasance in office. The report said the case is ongoing and the district attorney’s office is seeking full restitution of the parking lot funds taken.

The report pointed out that Monroe officials discovered the missing funds “in a timely manner through their normal controls.”

The report also said Monroe had five capital projects funds involving street and airport projects with deficit fund balances totaling $384,367 at the end of the 2013 fiscal year. The deficits will be cleared by future grants, according to the report.

In another finding, auditors said that employees of the B.J. Washington Boxing and Fitness Community Center apparently are not collecting fees for the facility’s use.

“In fiscal 2013, boxing and fitness revenues at the center amounted to $50, a decline of $235 or 470 percent in comparison to the prior year,” the report said. “We observed the center’s sign-in sheets for all months of fiscal year 2013 and noted several instances where adults received membership privileges free of charge. For instance, one of the adults was not charged membership fees for six consecutive months” although he signed in on 61 days.

Auditors also found that the city of Monroe is owed $16,800 in lease payments by a corporation that leased the Forsythe Park Municipal Golf Course. The lease was to run from May 1, 2006 through April 30, 2010.

“However, only $1,200 has been billed to the tenant since May 2010,” according to the report. “No rental payments have been received by the city since August 2012.”

The report also said that the lease contains terms for an extension beyond 2010 but “no such renewal was executed.”

At the recommendation of the accounting firm, city officials said in their response to the finding that it will initiate legal proceedings to collect the outstanding debt.

See here the complete report.