July 19, 2015
Many readers are carefully following and inquiring about my lawsuit against the Caddo Parish Commission. I sincerely thank all who are so supportive. This work may well prove to be the most consequential of any I have taken on against any governmental body in our state.
The subject is serial self-enrichment by most Caddo Parish Commissioners over at least the past fifteen years. The most outrageous example thus far proven is retirement benefits Commissioners gave themselves in “CPERS,” the Caddo Parish Employees Retirement System. In fact, however, several additional examples have been identified.
In summary, when Commissioners and top administrators voted the creation of CPERS for select other employees in March 2000, they simultaneously voted themselves in. They did so with full awareness that the Louisiana Constitution had been amended by a statewide election some three years earlier to completely bar that benefit for part-time elected officials, with parish commissions and police juries specifically included. The amendment passed with 70% of the vote statewide, and 69% in Caddo Parish.
Not all Commissioners who have served since March 2000 have officially acted to enrich themselves, but most of them have. Our work to confirm such specifics has failed as Commission attorneys refuse to respond to lawsuit “discovery.”
CPERS benefits to Commissioners are not only unconstitutional, they are also shockingly lucrative. For example, documents obtained earlier through Public Records Requests found that in 2013 and 2014, Commissioners paid themselves CPERS contribution “match” rates of 16.75%. A fair and usual rate, we have learned, is 4% to 6%.
In addition to the constitutionally banned CPERS benefit, we now know that Commissioners have for many years officially acted – in contravention of their own Home Rule Charter – to raise their salaries and vote themselves lucrative insurance, travel and other benefits. Though required by the Charter, no approvals of such benefits by Caddo voters were sought, much less obtained.
Why This Update, Now?
Bluntly put, it is my urgent hope that Caddo residents will particularly note how difficult it is proving to stop these Commission violations, much less recover for taxpayers the hundreds of thousands, or more, pilfered dollars.
— To our knowledge, only Whitney Pesnell / the Pesnell Law Firm and I are working to set all of this straight, doing so strictly in the public interest. (One citizen supporter of our effort graciously sent five hundred dollars to the law firm for help with court costs, for which I thank him on their behalf.)
— The Commission’s public responses have been only one political ruse, and the hiring of attorneys to preserve the benefits, if possible. In their February 5th regular meeting, six-of-twelve Commissioners read into the Minutes a non-binding statement that they would “withdraw participation” in the parish-funded portion of CPERS until “resolution as to its legality.” There has been no evidence that such ever occurred.
Later in the same meeting, but without a roll-call vote of Commissioners, Resolution No. 9 of 2015 hired Blanchard Walker Law Firm attorneys Tom Arceneaux and Jerry Edwards to litigate, regardless that two salaried attorneys for the Commission are available. Arceneaux quickly filed a lawsuit. Readers may note that between 1994 and 1998, he was the attorney for the Commission in a lawsuit filed against it to block what became CPERS. It was in 1996, during that litigation, that voters lopsidedly passed the constitutional amendment barring retirement benefits for Commissioners.
— One week after these Commission actions, on February 12th, Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera wrote Commission Administrator Woody Wilson to say elected members were not entitled to CPERS benefits. Purpera wrote, “… to continue to contribute public monies on behalf of Commissioners elected after 1997 is improper.” To our knowledge, Purpera’s letter (included here) is the only official act by any local or state authority in support of our effort.
— Quickly after the Commission lawsuit was filed by Arceneaux, Whitney Pesnell and I responded in opposition. Our lawsuit includes reversal of the CPERS haul as well as the many Home Rule Charter violations Mr. Pesnell discovered in his legal research. The lawsuits are in Caddo District Court. Ours is before Judge Ramon Lafitte.
The Arceneaux / Edwards lawsuit had been before Judge Mike Pitman, and sought to sue the State of Louisiana “into” the litigation. Last week, Judge Pitman ruled there was no legal basis for such. That suit is now set aside.
— The first hearing in our lawsuit was last Monday. Mr. Pesnell had to argue against a list of legal “exceptions” from Commission attorneys designed to protect the body, the Commissioners, and top administrators from any legal exposure. Judge Lafitte is now preparing his ruling.
— Obtained through a Public Records Act request, Commission documents confirm that Arceneaux / Edwards were paid $20,176.24 by taxpayers in February through May, at $225.00 per hour, each. Lengthy courtroom action did not begin until after that, so the bill to date is likely $30,000.00 plus.
— In March, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Shreveport upheld a Jackson Parish state court decision which casts a heavy shadow over this case. The facts in that criminal case against Jonesboro’s ex-Mayor Leslie C. Thompson are much the same as in this matter. Thompson gave city retirement and health insurance benefits to those legally barred from receiving them, and was convicted on three counts of criminal malfeasance. He was sentenced to five years in prison, plus repayment of the $57,793 in benefit payments.
I know of no one who believed such an egregious violation of the public trust would face such open and insistent resistance from the violators. To this point, the arc of this portion of our history ends with Caddo Parish besmirched far beyond the current understanding of most.
(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.)