A local judge altered a court ruling in 2015 after the Fourth Judicial District Court’s administrator sent a previously confidential note warning the judge’s proposed ruling could tarnish the court, at a time when the pair were being sued for allegedly conspiring to conceal illegal activity in the same case, internal court documents show.
In a 2015 document obtained by The Ouachita Citizen, Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Carl Sharp—who has since retired—received advice about how he should rule in an ongoing racketeering lawsuit from the district court’s administrator, retired Judge Benjamin “Ben” Jones.
Based on The Ouachita Citizen’s review of court records, Sharp trimmed his four-page draft judgment to a one-page court order that appeared to heed the advice given by Jones, who had seniority at the court and was so highly esteemed by the judiciary that a portrait of him hangs on the walls at the Louisiana Supreme Court on Royal Street in New Orleans.
The pair also happened to be defendants in a related lawsuit in which they were each accused of conspiring to conceal law clerk Allyson Campbell’s alleged destruction or spoliation of court documents filed at the district court by Monroe businessman Stanley Palowsky III. Beyond Jones and Sharp, other Fourth Judicial District Court judges sued by Palowsky included Fred Amman, Wilson Rambo and Stephens Winters
Palowsky first levied his accusations against Campbell in late 2014 when his attorneys could not find certain documents they filed in a racketeering lawsuit against Palowsky’s former business partner, Brandon Cork. Palowsky’s lawsuit against Cork and others alleged a scheme to blackball his environmental remediation company and cheat it out of tens of millions of dollars.
The case, Stanley R. Palowsky III and others v. W. Brandon Cork and others, sparked an ultimately fruitless criminal investigation of Campbell for criminal misconduct as well as other related litigation. One of the spin-off lawsuits included Palowsky’s July 2015 lawsuit against Campbell, Jones, Sharp and the other judges.
Like the Cork case, Palowsky’s lawsuit against Campbell and the five defendant judges, Stanley R. Palowsky III and others v. Allyson Campbell and others, is ongoing as parties continue to hash out a timeline for taking depositions, or the giving of testimony in advance of a trial.
The Ouachita Citizen’s review of court records indicates neither Jones or Sharp notified the parties in the Cork case of their communications or shared them.
At the time when the communications took place, Jones had retired from the bench and had assumed his new job as the court’s administrator, though he has continued to occasionally serve as a pro tem, or temporary, judge at the district court.
When asked why he and Sharp did not notify the parties in the Cork case about their communications, Jones claimed that he simply offered the comments to his colleague as part of his administrative role at the court.
“Why not? Let me just say this. I’m the court administrator,” Jones began. “As court administrator, my duties are to handle the business of the court.”
Referring to requirements in the Code of Judicial Conduct that certain communications be shared with all parties, Jones told The Ouachita Citizen, “As a judge, in that capacity, I think that I would be bound to comply with what you’re talking about. But as a court administrator, I did not feel that applies to me.”
This newspaper was unable to reach Sharp for a comment.
1,300 court files
The internal court documents obtained by The Ouachita Citizen circulated after a recent cyber security incident at the district court. As reported last month, the Fourth Judicial District Court appeared to be the victim of a cyber attack, specifically through a ransomware known as “Conti.” Ransomware is malware deployed to seize someone’s data with the threat to either publish the data or hold it hostage until a ransom is paid.
After the incident at the district court, it was reported that hundreds of documents were published on the deep web by an unknown group of hackers as proof they had infiltrated computers belonging to Fourth Judicial District Court judges and/or court employees. The deep web differs from the open web because websites on the open web can be found through search engines like Google while deep web sites cannot be indexed or searched without additional utilities or software.
Last month, an unknown source provided The Ouachita Citizen with a USB drive containing some 1,300 files from the hackers’ file dump. Later, The Ouachita Citizen discovered that the same district court files had been published on an open web site, continews.best, where each of the some 1,300 files could be obtained by any member of the public, without the use of deep web utilities.
Among the 1,300 files obtained by The Ouachita Citizen was a five-page document containing a one-page note from Jones addressed to Sharp as well as Sharp’s four-page draft court judgment with Jones’ handwritten notes in the margins.
The allegations referred to by Jones in his notes appeared to relate to the allegations about Palowsky’s missing court documents, which became the center of the Campbell lawsuit filed one month before, in July 2015.
As of August 2015, Sharp was presiding over the Cork lawsuit, specifically over Palowsky’s motion to recuse en banc, or to recuse all judges at the court from presiding over the case.
Sharp had taken up the Cork case after Rambo was recused from the lawsuit in late 2014. Palowsky’s individual motion to recuse Rambo from the Cork case was successful after Palowsky’s attorneys noted their court filings went missing while Campbell clerked for the judge.
Palowsky’s June 2015 memorandum also listed the handful of documents that the Fourth Judicial District Court failed to include in the sealed record sent to the Second Circuit when the appeal court asked for duplicate certified copies of certain pleadings filed by Palowsky.
Judge doesn’t want
allegations ‘on record’
The note obtained by The Ouachita Citizen was written by Jones in blue ink on a memo page bearing his letterhead as “Judge Benjamin Jones, Court Administrator.” In his note, Jones suggested that allowing Palowsky’s motion to stand—as indicated in Sharp’s draft judgment—could pose a problem for the court by making the allegations part of the court record.
“Carl, I made some comments that respect your decision to allow the en banc motion to recuse to stand,” Jones’ note began. “However, I think it is a mistake to allow that motion to stand and treat it as a motion to recuse you individually. Why? Because all the awful allegations contained in that motion will be on record.
“The effect may be that a judge hearing the motion would see all the allegations that do not have anything to do with you and be influenced. Frankly, I think that unauthorized motion should be dismissed. If they think they have grounds to recuse you, they should file a more narrow motion.”
Jones and Sharp were each in charge of investigations of Campbell at the court in response to complaints about her work and missing documents. For example, a Monroe attorney submitted a complaint to Sharp in 2014, claiming Campbell had bragged at a local bar that she had taken “great pleasure” in shredding a judgment he proposed for the court’s consideration. According to correspondence between court officials and the attorney, Sharp told the attorney his concerns about Campbell were “reasonable” but told Campbell it was not a “serious matter” and that she “never shredded anything.”
In an interview with The Ouachita Citizen last week, Jones initially said he did not know what the newspaper was speaking about and denied having sent anything to Sharp.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Jones, who referred to his lack of recollection. “I don’t know how you could have what you say you have.”
Later, Jones told the newspaper he had incorrectly understood the newspaper to say it possessed a recent court document. If the note to Sharp was written five years ago, it was not something he could remember, according to Jones.
“I don’t recall, I have no memory of what happened five years ago in terms of what I may have written,” Jones said.
Jones later confirmed the notes corresponded to his personal legal view and confirmed the document appeared to have been written by him as well.
“If it has my name, on my letterhead, it might be mine, but I can only say what my legal view is,” Jones said.
Later, he added, “I don’t deny if you have something in my handwriting, in my letterhead, and my name on it.”
‘There will be
Jones’ note was not the first time he allegedly tried to steer developments in the controversy trailing the court to benefit the judges. In early 2015, the district court sued The Ouachita Citizen to prevent the newspaper from obtaining Campbell’s personnel file. Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Sharon Marchman—who later unsuccessfully sued Campbell, Jones, Sharp and others, claiming they alienated her for blowing the whistle on their activities—said she would testify that the judges held a meeting in early 2015 to discuss how they could limit what documents were viewed by the special appointed judge who would decide whether the public’s right to know about Campbell’s activities outweighed her right to privacy. According to Marchman, in advance of a hearing in the court’s case against The Ouachita Citizen, Jones told the other judges that, “There will be no testimony. Testimony will not be good for us.”
Retired Judge Anne Simon, the special appointed judge in the court’s case against The Ouachita Citizen, ultimately ruled to block the newspaper’s access to Campbell’s personnel file, though the newspaper later obtained the law clerk’s file through a Louisiana State Police report. The State Police report contained documents showing Campbell was reprimanded for concealing 52 writs in her office and for receiving pay for hours she did not work. Campbell, who is not a licensed attorney, continues to clerk for the judges at the district court.
In the copy of Sharp’s pending judgment obtained by The Ouachita Citizen, the word “DRAFT” is stamped across the page and the copy bears red ink in Jones’ handwriting where he made notes.
For example, one sentence in Sharp’s original order stated, “No such blanket ‘en banc’ recusal of the entire Court is contemplated; only that of the Judge to whom the case is assigned.”
With his red ink pen, Jones corrected Sharp’s order to say “authorized” instead of “contemplated” and “allotted” instead of “assigned.” The order Sharp issued on Aug. 25, 2015 included each of Jones’ corrections.
Sharp adjusted his court order to meet Jones’ typographical edits and abandoned the thrust of his draft judgment to later rule in a manner that appeared to agree with Jones’ notes.
Originally, Sharp’s draft judgment indicated he planned to allow Palowsky’s recusal motion to proceed, though in a more limited fashion.
“However, since Petitioners have stated and have firmly indicated that they desire to pursue recusal, this Court is of the opinion that, in the interest of efficiency, the Petitioners’ En Banc Recusal Motion should be treated as a motion to recuse the Judge currently assigned to the case,” stated Sharp’s draft judgment.
Apparently, after receiving Jones’ notes, Sharp decided not to allow Palowsky’s recusal motion to proceed. Instead, in his Aug. 25, 2015 order, Sharp denied Palowsky’s recusal motion, relying on the edited language provided by Jones in the notes to him.
In his draft judgment, Sharp conceded the point that denying Palowsky’s en banc recusal motion, as he ultimately did, would place a “wasteful and useless burden” on the plaintiff.
“Since such a motion could be filed any time prior to trial, to require the Petitioners to file another motion would put a wasteful and useless burden on them,” stated Sharp’s draft judgment. “They have indicated their intentions clearly enough. Therefore, this Court will consider that a demand for recusal has been lodged against the Judge currently assigned.”
During the interview last week about his notes to Sharp, Jones told The Ouachita Citizen how the legal position detailed in his note corresponded to his personal legal opinion.
“It was my view, what I would’ve done, that is what I would have done” Jones said. “But I will tell you it was and is my legal view that there is no en banc recusal, and procedurally, each judge should be recused personally or individually.”
Palowsky did not file his separate lawsuit against Campbell and the five defendant judges, including Jones and Sharp, until the month after he filed his en banc recusal motion in the Cork case. At the time when Jones and Sharp corresponded about the draft judgment, they had already been personally sued by Palowsky. Sharp pointed out that development in his draft judgment in his admission that the state’s Code of Civil Procedure would normally mandate his immediate recusal because he was a defendant. Instead, Sharp argued his recusal was not mandatory because the new lawsuit against him, Campbell, Jones and others was simply an “improper” recusal tactic.
“A lawsuit, having been filed after the filing of the En Banc Motion to Recuse was amended to add this Judge [‘and five other judges,’ Jones wrote in red ink] as [a] Defendant[s] and the Petitions issued a subpoena to the trial Judge, seeking to make him a witness in his own case,” stated Sharp’s draft judgment. “To this Court, it appears that the Petitioners were attempting to generate grounds for recusal. This is improper.”
The new Campbell lawsuit alleging that the judges conspired to cover up the concealment or destruction of court documents was not obvious “valid grounds” for the judge’s recusal, Sharp argued.
In his draft judgment, Sharp articulated his reasoning for staying, or postponing, any further proceedings in the Cork case in language that corresponded to his remarks in open court during the Aug. 20, 2015 hearing. In his draft judgment, Sharp ordered a stay, or postponement, of any further action in the Cork case until the new Campbell lawsuit was resolved. Sharp issued the same ruling in open court on Aug. 20, 2015, as reported by The Ouachita Citizen at the time.
“Because this Court strongly suspects that the Campbell lawsuit (or at least the action of the Petitioner in adding, as defendant parties, several Judges of this Court) is part of the Petitioners’ strategem to achieve the desired recusal, the Court is of the opinion that further action in this case should be stayed until the other [‘Campbell,’ Jones’ red ink stated] lawsuit is resolved,” stated Sharp’s draft judgment.
Later, the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in Shreveport ruled that each action Sharp had taken as a judge in the Cork case was an “absolute nullity” because he had no power to act as soon as the plaintiff had questioned his fitness to preside on the case through a recusal motion. Actions deemed to be an “absolute nullity” included Sharp’s Aug. 25, 2015 order staying the Cork case and denying Palowsky’s en banc recusal motion with language provided by Jones.
In its Oct. 22, 2015 order, the Second Circuit ordered the district court to request a specially appointed judge to resolve Palowsky’s en banc recusal motion.
In November 2015, Sharp and all the other judges at Fourth Judicial District Court recused from the Cork case. Two of the ad hoc, or special appointed, judges assigned to the Cork case have since left the case. A third independent judge, retired Judge Ronald Cox, of Lafayette, was assigned to the Cork case on Aug. 19.
In the interview last week, Jones appeared to dismiss the relevance of his notes to Sharp in light of the Second Circuit’s ruling and other developments in the case since then.
“That’s water under the bridge,” Jones said.