Court: Activist can't demand that Caddo repay CPERS money

Updated: Apr. 10, 2017 at 11:11 AM CDT
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CADDO PARISH, LA (KSLA) - A government watchdog activist has the right to sue the Caddo Commission but does not have the right to demand action by the commission, according to a 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal ruling.

The ruling issued Friday is in response to an appeal brought before the court in early January by attorney Whitney Pesnell and government watchdog activist Elliott Stonecipher.

Stonecipher sued Caddo Parish and the commissioners in 2015, alleging it is illegal for commissioners to participate in the parish retirement system known as CPERS.

The ordinance creating the system violated state law that prohibits part-time public officials from participating in a public retirement system, Stonecipher alleged.

A Louisiana legislative audit later 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 commissioners who received CPERS money to reimburse the parish.

However, Caddo District Judge Ramon Laffitte ruled last year that Stonecipher lacked the right to sue the commission as a whole and individual commissioners or the right to demand the parish pay back money.

Stonecipher appealed to the 2nd Circuit.

The appellate court held a hearing in January.

Its decision was handed down April 7.

The three-judge panel upheld a portion of the lower court's ruling and reversed another portion.

According to the opinion, the court reversed the trial court's decision that the Caddo Commission cannot be sued and lacks procedural capacity, meaning 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 can't do something.

However, the court upheld the trial court's ruling that a citizen cannot force the commission to take action, meaning Stonecipher cannot force the parish to collect money that may be owed to the parish.

The appellate court judges disagreed with Stonecipher's assessment that the Caddo Parish Charter gives him the basis to seek the recovery of funds.

"Nowhere in Section 6-06(A) does it provide for the right of a private citizen or taxpayer to step into the shoes of the Parish and recover illegal payments. In addition, Stonecipher has not shown that the Parish has granted him authority to file suit on its behalf."

The appellate court explained its opinion in a 21 page ruling.

Stonecipher released this statement about the opinion:

"The 2nd Circuit Court has now done two powerfully important things:

First, it has acknowledged Commissioners are in possession of money taken from taxpayers by unlawful self-pay.

"Second, and unbelievably, the Court decided no taxpayer has a legal right to force Commissioners to return to public coffers that which was stolen from us.

"Caddo Commissioners have had more than two years to do the right thing and return our money, but have instead spent even more of it to hire outside lawyers to protect their ill-gotten gains.

"So, Caddo taxpayers lose again and still at issue is unquestionably criminal behavior ... official malfeasance, felony theft ... and those remedies now take center stage."

Tom Arceneaux, the attorney representing Caddo Parish, released the following statement:

"The parish is considering what its options are with respect to the ruling. The parish was very pleased with the two items that were affirmed and believe that was the right decision.

"The other two items are matters the parish needs to consider to determine whether or not any further action by the parish is warranted or desired."

Both sides have until April 21 to request a rehearing by the 2nd Circuit.

If granted, an additional two judges will hear the case.

If a rehearing is not requested, both parties have 30 days from when the opinion was filed to appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Aside from the portions of the lawsuit already ruled on, the Stonecipher v. Caddo Parish Commission lawsuit 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.

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