Parish legal team receives shakeupJul 16th, 2010 | By Frank McCormack | Category: news
By the time Plaquemines Parish Council Chairman Don Beshel gaveled the council’s July 8 meeting to a mid-afternoon close, the council had, with little fanfare, affected significant change on the makeup of the parish’s legal team.
In two votes, the council impacted three of the parish’s attorneys – terminating one, promoting another, and placing a third, Lead Parish Attorney Steve Braud, in limbo with regard to his employment status.
Plaquemines Parish Council Attorney Amos Cormier III, who formerly worked for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals was terminated, effective immediately, after serving in that capacity since January 2009.
Little public comment has been made with regard to Cormier’s termination. The council discussed the issue at length behind closed doors while in executive session during a special meeting in June. District 5 representative Anthony Buras introduced the legislation July 1.
At the July 8 meeting, the council was equally tight-lipped.
The only comment came from Buras: “On the advice of legal council we will not discuss a personnel issue in public.”
The council approved the firing with a 5-1 vote. Beshel cast the lone “nay” vote.
Cormier said he originally questioned the legality of the ordinance, because it did not name a successor. The resolution that originally hired Cormier appointed him council attorney “until a successor is appointed.”
But before the vote was cast July 8, Buras amended language into the ordinance to appoint Robert Barnett, whom the council has retained as special counsel since April 2009, to succeed Cormier as council attorney. A copy of the revised ordinance was not immediately made available to Cormier during the meeting.
Barnett was first hired by the council to review recommendations from the Charter Change Commission at an hourly rate of $175 per hour. On June 25, 2009, the council adopted a second resolution which greatly expanded Barnett’s legal responsibilities.
After the meeting, Cormier said his firing was purely political in nature.
“I never lost a case for the council,” he said. “That’s politics. I’m proud of my record. That was a political decision, and they have a right to make those political decisions as long as they’re done legally.”
But Buras said the firing was strictly performance related.
“It was politically motivated in Amos’ own mind,” Buras said. “I can only simply say, the young man was not doing his job.”
Cormier qualified Friday to run for judge on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, 2nd District, Division A.
Braud resolution fails
Last week, the council also considered a resolution to formally confirm Steve Braud as lead parish attorney for the parish.
Braud has served in that capacity since January 2009. Creating that position was discussed in November 2008, and the council included it in the 2009 budget, which was approved in December 2008.
However, a recent report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor cast some doubt on whether Braud had actually been legally hired by the parish. Section 5.02(a) of the parish charter states the parish president may employ a parish attorney “with the approval of the Parish Council.”
According to the Legislative Auditor’s report, Braud’s name was not specifically mentioned in either the budget hearings or the meeting when the 2009 budget was passed. Because of that, “the Parish Council may not have properly approved his employment as required by the Parish Charter,” the report reads. Though the council approved of the position, no resolution formally appointing Braud was ever considered.
The report suggests that parish officials seek an Attorney General opinion on the matter.
To settle the matter, District 7 representative Jay Friedman – a longtime outspoken Braud opponent – offered the resolution to confirm Braud as lead parish attorney. The resolution borrowed language from a Jan. 3, 1995, resolution that confirmed Braud to his first stint as parish attorney. Braud was parish attorney from 1995 to 1999.
This time, though, the resolution failed with a 3-3 vote. Beshel, District 3 representative Jerry Hodnett and Friedman voted against the resolution. District 2 representative Keith Hinkley, Buras, and District 9 representative Marla Cooper voted for the measure.
District 4 representative Stuart Guey and District 6 councilman Burghart Turner were absent from the meeting.
Banta, who was away from her seat at the time, did not cast a vote.
Although Braud’s name was not specifically mentioned in late 2008, a majority of the council said they knew he was the lead candidate for the job.
“We knew. We knew it was Steve’s job,” Guey said. “Everyone at that table knew that Steve Braud was going to be the parish attorney. My perception at the time was it was a slam dunk.”
Buras agreed: “Absolutely. Any council member that sat in those meetings and didn’t know Steve Braud was going to be parish attorney wasn’t paying attention. They were either absent or not paying attention.”
“Yes, absolutely,” Hinkley said.
Hodnett said he knew as well. Banta said she did not know Braud was the candidate. Beshel said he remembers Braud’s name being mentioned but, “As far as him being concrete, I couldn’t say that.” Friedman also said he remembers Braud being mentioned for the job.
Cooper and Turner did not respond to requests for comment.
Hodnett, who cast one of the crucial no-votes, admitted that he played a key role in recruiting Braud for the job in the first place. Hodnett offered two reasons for voting against the confirmation.
“If Mr. Nungesser would’ve brought it forward in January 2009 as the charter requires, I would’ve certainly supported it,” Hodnett said.
He also said his support for Braud had faded because he “never supported the views of the council.”
Friedman has had occasional conflicts with Braud ever since he assumed the role of lead parish attorney in 2009. That opposition reached a crest this past January when parish attorneys refused to represent Friedman in a lawsuit against Parish President Billy Nungesser. Friedman argued that, as a councilman, he was entitled to legal representation from the parish attorney’s office. But because the parish council had not passed a resolution authorizing Friedman to file suit, Braud argued his office could not represent Friedman. Judge Joy Lobrano of the 25th Judicial District Court dismissed the case, and a recent Attorney General opinion on the matter confirmed it would take an affirmative vote of the council for Braud’s office to represent an individual council member.
Despite that, Friedman said he remains opposed to Braud.
“It’s no secret how I feel about Mr. Braud. Everyone knows I don’t think Mr. Braud is the right man for the job,” Friedman said.
Beshel said, based on the negative vote, Braud should no longer be considered parish attorney.
“He is not approved and that’s in the charter,” Beshel said. “In effect he is not an employee of the parish.”
Still, Beshel directed at least two legal questions to Braud after the vote was cast. Beshel called that a “force of habit.”
Despite the negative vote, though, Braud put in a full day as lead parish attorney Friday.
In response to accusations that he favors the administration over the council, Braud pointed to the charter, which he quoted from memory: “I’ve made it a point to follow the dictates of the charter – providing ‘all legal services for the parish, parish council, the president and all other political subdivisions and districts situated within the parish,’ just as it reads in the charter.”
Braud said he will continue to serve as parish attorney while he works to determine his legal options. Nungesser, while admitting the oversight in 2009, maintained his support for Braud.
“It was an oversight by me not to put his name in it – but it was also an oversight by the council,” he said. “He’s been working there for over a year. Every council member has called him for help. I’m keeping him on the payroll. Let them sue me to fire him.”