June 14, 2015
The malfeasance conviction of a Jackson Parish official has opened the door to possible criminal sanctions against Caddo Parish Commissioners and top administrators who have taken the same official actions.
The 2013 state district court conviction of Leslie C. Thompson, ex-Mayor of Jonesboro, has been upheld by the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal in Shreveport. Re-sentencing was ordered, and Thompson’s appeal to the state Supreme Court has been filed.
As KNOE Television and The News-Star in Monroe, Louisiana, reported at the time of his trial, Thompson was convicted on three criminal counts, and sentenced to five years in prison, plus six years of probation and monetary restitution.
Thompson was sentenced to pay $57,793 back to the Town of Jonesboro in retirement and health insurance benefits he illegally paid to some employees. Those payments were key in Counts II and III against Thompson, for which he was convicted and sentenced to three years at hard labor.
Directly Comparable Official Acts at the Caddo Parish Commission
In March 2000, Caddo Commissioners voted themselves into a retirement system they fought for years to create – the Caddo Parish Employees Retirement System. Referred to as “CPERS,” the plan is exclusively managed and controlled by the Caddo Commission. It established the plan regardless that in 1996, 69% of Caddo voters and 70% of voters statewide, amended the Louisiana Constitution to end retirement benefits to part-time elected officials.
Along with some other officials, Article X. Section 29.1 of our Constitution specifically bars retirement benefits for members of a “policy jury, or parish council.” (SEE January 27 & February 2, 2015 articles linked below.)
Current Commissioners John Escude and Ken Epperson, Sr., were among prohibited members unanimously voting themselves into CPERS at its creation. The Parish Attorney who executed the official documents approving retirement pay for Commissioners is Dannye Malone, now attorney for the Port of Caddo-Bossier. And, at least one attorney who litigated for the Commission in the 1994-1998 civil action to create CPERS has now been hired to preserve the benefit for those officials.
A few Commissioners have made (re-election year) statements about foregoing CPERS benefits, but no documentary evidence of such has been made public. No Commissioner has opposed the body’s lawsuit intended to preserve benefits.
A Finding of Theft
In the Appeals Court ruling which upheld Thompson’s conviction, Judge Frances Pitman, writing for a three-judge appellate panel, cites (on Pages 57 and 58) the Louisiana theft statute – La. R.S. 14:67 (A) – in characterizing Thompson’s payment of prohibited employee benefits:
“… the misappropriation or taking of anything of value which belongs to another, either without the consent of the other to the misappropriation or taking, or by means of fraudulent conduct, practices, or representations. An intent to deprive the other permanently of whatever may be the subject of the misappropriation or taking is essential.” (Emphasis mine.)
The intent of Caddo Commissioners and top administrators in their fifteen years of CPERS benefits is very clear: they intend to have and keep these benefits. Judge Pitman underscores “intent” in Thompson’s case:
“Several witnesses testified that they notified Defendant of the improper payment of retirement contributions for ineligible employees. Defendant’s position to continue using the Town’s public funds to pay retirement contributions for ineligible employees, even after being notified of their ineligibility, indicates his intent to permanently deprive the Town of those public funds.” (Emphases mine.)
It is obvious that the 1996 statewide Constitutional Amendment election was dramatic “notification” to Commissioners, as was the directly related four-year lawsuit Commission attorneys fought between 1994 and 1998. Most recently, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, Daryl Purpera, wrote to Commission Administrator Woody Wilson on February 12, 2015, saying in pertinent part:
“… it appears to us that for Caddo Parish to continue to contribute public monies on behalf of Commissioners elected after 1997 is improper.”
In spite of these and other “notifications,” the Commission has hired at least four outside attorneys at taxpayer expense, to preserve these illegal benefits.
The yet rising taxpayer losses are many hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.
Here is the full Opinion of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
Background and Research
Beginning in July 2013, working pro bono to defeat Commission ballot propositions before Caddo voters in 2013 and 2014, my research found broad evidence of unconstrained self-enrichment by Commission members and top staff. Many of these actions were deliberately hidden from the public.
The articles I have written on these subjects are listed below. The official documents detailing the violations were obtained by use of the Louisiana Public Records law requests. (Click article titles.)
On March 16, 2015, in response to a lawsuit filed earlier by the Commission, I sued the body, the Commissioners, and some top administrators. My pro bono attorney partner is Whitney Pesnell of the Pesnell Law Firm. The first hearing in Caddo state district court is set for June 29th.
Our suit asks the Court to invalidate the Commission’s unconstitutional inclusion of elected members in CPERS, and stop many other prohibited benefits those officials are giving themselves.
The additional benefits include prohibited salary increases, $15,000 annual unrestricted “education and travel” pay, life and health care benefits, and others. (SEE March 16, 2015, article.)
Selective Prosecution? Corrupt Influence?
Assisted by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, the case against ex-Mayor Thompson was conducted on behalf of Jackson Parish citizens by their Sheriff and District Attorney.
More recently in Caddo Parish, the U. S. Attorney’s office, with Caddo Sheriff Steve Prator investigating, has indicted Caddo Commissioner Michael Williams for theft of $2,000 from Caddo Commission coffers.
Unlawful, official acts by the Caddo Parish Commission will most assuredly continue. The Thompson conviction and Williams’ indictment prove how cases of official malfeasance can and must be prosecuted.
The absence of same in other known instances, the Caddo Commission specifically included, raise urgent questions of fairness, selective prosecution, and corrupt political influence.
(Elliott Stonecipher is in no way affiliated with any political party. He has no client or other relationships which in any way influence his selections of subjects or the content of any article. His work is strictly in the public interest, with no compensation of any kind solicited or accepted. Appropriate credit to Mr. Stonecipher in the sharing – unedited only, please – of his work is appreciated.)