The Caddo Parish government has spent tens of thousands of dollars defending a suit filed by a local government watchdog activist.
Documents received through a public records request reveal Caddo Parish government officials have paid $113,116.60 to Blanchard Walker O'Quin & Roberts and $40,198.19 to Kean Miller LLP for their legal services fighting the Stonecipher v. Caddo Commission lawsuit since 2015.
The two firms are defending the parish and individual commissioners along with Caddo Parish Administrator Woodrow "Woody" Wilson and Human Resources Director Erica Bryant, all named in the suit.
The suit was filed by government watchdog activist Elliott Stonecipher, alleging it is illegal for commissioners to participate in the parish retirement system known as "CPERS" because they are part-time employees.
A Louisiana legislative audit has since found that 16 commissioners received $258,655.78 of taxpayer money in their CPERS accounts since it was established in 2000.
The commission voted to opt out of the system and the pay raises in February 2016.
Stonecipher wants the commissioners who did receive CPERS money to reimburse the parish.
However, Caddo District Judge Ramon Lafitte ruled in 2016 Stonecipher does not have that power to demand the commissioners return money that may be owed to the parish.
Stonecipher appealed that decision, among others. The matter was heard by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in late 2016.
A three-judge panel released their opinion April 7 and upheld the lower court's decision, but reversed the decision that the Caddo Commission cannot be sued and lacks procedural capacity, meaning they ruled citizens like Stonecipher have the right to sue the Caddo Commission.
The judges also reversed the district court's ruling that a citizen can't seek "prohibitory injunctive relief" against the commission, which essentially means a citizen like Stonecipher has the right to sue to get a judge to decide whether the Caddo Commission has to refrain from doing a particular act.
The 2nd Circuit Court also upheld the district court's ruling when it sustained the commissioners', administrator's, and the director of human resource's exception of no cause of action, meaning Judge Lafitte dismissed the plaintiff's claims against them and released them from the suit.
To date, the parish government has paid $40,198.19 in legal services defending the individual commissioners', the administrator, and director of human resources.
The more than $100,00.00 paid so far to defend the commission as a whole, will continue to mount as the suit is still making its way through Caddo District Court.
At question in district court is whether Caddo commissioners' participation in CPERS was illegal. There are no hearings currently scheduled in district court on the matter.
There is also still time for both sides to request a rehearing in appellate court and/or appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Stonecipher released the following statement about the court costs:
What these attorneys are 'making' in this awfulness is the good-government equivalent of blood money. To raise the cost to taxpayers even higher above the Commission's heist amount is something I will never be able to understand. The Commission has two attorneys on staff. IF they wanted to "defend" this corruption AT ALL, they should have done it with attorneys we are already paying.
I - even two years after we filed the lawsuit - still cannot imagine anyone caring to profit off official malfeasance.
Caddo Parish Attorney Donna Frazier offered this statement about the costs to fight the litigation:
The parish’s cost to litigate this suit cannot be considered in isolation, but one must consider the effects of the litigation on future matters. The Parish is not only defending the set of circumstances in this case, but will also gain judicial rulings on how the charter should be interpreted in the future. Additionally, two other things should be noted about the legal fees in this case:
1) All of the fees paid to Kean Miller were a direct cause of the plaintiff’s improper joinder of commissioners and administrative staff as individual defendants, as shown by the rulings of both courts.
2) At least half of the fees paid to Blanchard Walker, to date, were a direct cause of plaintiff’s suing on issues he did not win or issues that were moot. A) the Commission voted not to make CPERS payments and pay raises and thus, did not need to be enjoined from doing so; B) the plaintiff does not have standing to recover any funds that were allegedly paid in violation of law, which has been the Parish’s position all along.
In short, the majority of the legal fees have been incurred due to claims by the plaintiff that cannot be legally substantiated.
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