RAYVILLE – Whether James “Jimbo” Stephens, the chief judge at Fifth Judicial District Court, continues to preside over a hazardous waste lawsuit in Richland Parish provoked an exchange of accusations between the judge and a Monroe attorney who represents the plaintiffs in the case.
Stephens said earlier this week he would not recuse, or remove, himself from David Dewayne Stowe Sr. and others v. Donald “Slade” Jordan and others in spite of a lengthy recusal motion filed against him last week by Sedric Banks, of Monroe, on behalf of the plaintiffs.
During a hearing Monday at the Richland Parish Courthouse in Rayville, Stephens filed a three-page explanation into the record about why he would not recuse. Stephens also offered several defenses of statements or relationships that Banks challenged.
“Plaintiffs' counsel has filed a Motion to Recuse this Court, which is about as surprising as getting heartburn from a gas station burrito,” wrote Stephens, explaining why he would not recuse from the Stowe lawsuit.
Stowe v. Jordan is an October 2015 lawsuit for damages, stemming from claims the plaintiffs were recruited from offices in Calhoun and West Monroe to unwittingly remediate hazardous waste on property owned in Texas by Anadarko Petroleum Corp.
After hearing Stephens' written reasons for not recusing, Banks rose and informed the court he planned to seek an emergency writ from the Second Circuit Court of Appeal, asking the appeal court to decide whether Stephens should recuse.
Stephens granted a continuance, or postponement, of the case until the Second Circuit rules on Banks' appeal, citing his belief that any further action on the case would be unfair to the parties while an appeal was pending. Stephens said a continuance was needed in the event that Banks' appeal was successful.
“I don't think you will be,” Stephens said.
Stephens files attorney complaint
Banks filed his motion to recuse Stephens June 2, basing his argument on several different fronts, including some arguments the attorney previously raised in a move earlier this year to recuse Fifth Judicial District Court Judge Terry Doughty from the same case. In response to Banks' efforts at that time, Doughty ultimately recused from Stowe v. Jordan, citing a business and personal relationship with a defendant and the defendant's wife.
In his written reasons for not recusing, Stephens characterized parts of Banks' motion to recuse him as simply a regurgitation of the recusal arguments previously flung at Doughty.
Most of Banks' motion to recuse Stephens, though, centered on a complaint Stephens supposedly filed against Banks with the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board on May 4 – the day after Stephens presided over a hearing to consider Banks' motion to recuse Doughty from a Franklin Parish lawsuit. On behalf of the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) handles the screening, investigation and prosecution of complaints against attorneys in the state. Depending on ODC's investigation and whether charges are filed, attorneys may face suspension and even disbarment or find the charges against them dismissed.
In light of the confidential nature of ODC's operations, it is rare that complaints against attorneys become public, but Banks attached the complaint against him as an exhibit to his June 2 recusal motion, though it should be noted the complaint which Banks attached to his motion was incomplete and represented only one part of the ODC complaint form.
Stephens did not say whether he actually filed the complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Stephens characterized the bar complaint attached in Banks' recusal motion as an “allegedly filed” complaint. Though he would not claim ownership of the complaint, Stephens defended the statements made in the “allegedly filed” complaint.
“While this Court is precluded from addressing any part or portion of said complaint due to the strict confidentiality of the matter, I am compelled to address the false statements made by Plaintiffs' counsel in its memorandum,” Stephens wrote in his written reasons. “Plaintiffs' counsel is attempting to place that matter in the public arena, not this Court.”
The ODC bar complaint accused Banks of unethical legal conduct, but Banks took issue with two accusations he considered to be false: that Banks had declared plans to violate a federal statute and that Banks was using The Franklin Sun to publish “unfounded allegations.”
“In any bar complaint, the person making the complaint has the duty to present facts which are true and correct to the best of his information and belief,” Banks wrote. “Judge Stephens is no different.”
The federal statute alleged to be transgressed by Banks concerned the attorney's plans to take depositions from U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, and Abraham's chief of staff, Luke Letlow, of Start. Banks previously tried to depose the two men but could not while the Congress was in session, prompting the attorney to say he would subpoena them for testimony in the future when their schedules allowed. There was no federal statute prohibiting subpoenas of Abraham and Letlow, Banks argued, claiming Stephens was making up facts and evidence to poison ODC's impression of the complaint against him.
In his June 5 written reasons, Stephens acknowledged he incorrectly referred to a “statute” as the reason for prohibiting Abraham and Letlow from testifying.
Banks v. Stephens
According to Banks, the allegedly false statements in Stephens' ODC complaint were sufficient grounds to indicate Stephens could not continue as judge in Stowe v. Jordan, since Stephens was now in a position where he could not both defend the statements in his complaint while also remaining fair and impartial to Banks' clients.
“To put it bluntly, Plaintiffs' counsel submits that no average judge is going to file a false bar complaint against an attorney in case pending before him and remain neutral,” Banks said. “Thus, there is an unconstitutional potential for bias in the matter at hand, and Judge Stephens should be recused....The false bar complaint filed by Judge Stephens is nothing short of a deliberate attempt to chill, intimidate and coerce Plaintiffs to abandon their rights to petition for recusal.”
In his written reasons, Stephens also accused Banks of trying to bully and intimidate, since it appeared Banks' recusal motion laid the groundwork to possibly launch a civil rights lawsuit against the judge. Stephens expressed his concern with Banks' insinuations, since Banks employed that intimidation strategy in a Friday filing before Monday's hearing to recuse Stephens from the case.
“It is at this point that Counsel goes waaaay [sic] out of bounds,” Stephens wrote. “Plaintiffs' Counsel cites boiler plate language used in virtually every USCA; 1983 Civil Rights Suit to insinuate that he may launch a civil suit against this Court, personally. This is an overt attempt to bully and intimidate the Court and will be addressed at a later hearing.”
In his written reasons, Stephens referred to another judge's criticism of Bank's recusal strategy as a “scorch the earth” attack, which has been described by some area judges as Banks' volley of allegations against a judge when the jurist refuses to recuse.
Stephens said he “didn't fall” for Banks' recusal tactic, what he referred to as Banks' “M.O.”: “...you rule against me, you're biased.”
The “scorch the earth” phrase recalled by Stephens referred to Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Carl Sharp, who is currently being sued in Ouachita Parish by another of Banks' clients, Monroe businessman Stanley Palowsky III. Palowsky is suing Sharp, several judges and law clerk Allyson Campbell for allegedly tampering with his lawsuit against a former business partner. Stanley R. Palowsky III v. Allyson Campbell and others includes several allegations of scandal at Fourth Judicial District Court, including a conspiracy among court officials to conceal public payroll fraud and the destruction of court documents. Palowsky's lawsuit spawned other lawsuits as well as investigations by the state Office of Inspector General, the Attorney General and Louisiana State Police.
Banks' relationship with newspaper
In his motion to recuse Stephens, Banks said the judge floated another falsehood by claiming the attorney enjoyed “considerable influence” with the editor of The Sun (or its sister newspaper, The Ouachita Citizen in West Monroe).
“In the weeks leading up to the Hearing, Mr. Banks has used his considerable influence with the Editor of the local newspaper to print multiple front page articles disparaging Judge Doughty and making unfounded allegations against the Judge,” stated the ODC complaint allegedly filed by Stephens.
The reference to an “Editor” is left unidentified, but it is likely a reference to Sam Hanna Jr., who serves in an editorial and management capacity at The Franklin Sun and serves as publisher of The Ouachita Citizen, both of which have neither “disparaged” Doughty nor made “unfounded allegations” but simply reported the claims – by plaintiffs and defendants and judges alike – as detailed in open court sessions as well as in documents obtained from the clerk of court's offices in Franklin and Richland parishes.
“The obvious must be pointed out,” Banks wrote. “Make no mistake, Judge Stephens' false statements about Plaintiffs' counsel are made under color of law, outside any judicial immunity, and with intent to harm, defame, libel, slander and discredit Plaintiffs' counsel, if not the local newspaper as well.”
Banks explained the limited extent of his interactions with Hanna.
“Undersigned counsel (Banks) represents to the Court that he knows the Editor (Hanna) of the local newspaper very casually, and has had absolutely no social relationship with the Editor, let alone 'considerable influence,'” Banks wrote.
Banks said Doughty – during May 3 hearing to recuse him from a Franklin Parish lawsuit, KT Farms and others v. Citizens Progressive Bank and others – had previously “insinuated while testifying that Plaintiffs' counsel was leaking information to the local newspaper which appeared in 'multiple front page articles.'”
In response to Doughty's testimony that day, Banks informed the bewildered Doughty that this reporter was present at court hearings in court where the reporter gathered quotes and information. The quotes and information did not come from Banks but from open court and court filings, not a news “leak.”
“Because Plaintiffs' counsel introduced the source of the news 'leak,' namely Mr. (Zach) Parker, in open court at the May 3 recusal hearing in the KT case, Judge Stephens knew the falsity of his allegation that Plaintiffs' counsel has exerted 'his considerable influence with the Editor of the local newspaper to print multiple front page articles disparaging Judge Doughty and making unfounded allegations against the Judge,'” Banks wrote.
In his written reasons, Stephens defended the statement in the ODC bar complaint, arguing that the number of news reports published by The Franklin Sun and The Ouachita Citizen about Banks' cases indicated a “special relationship” between the attorney and the newspapers.
“Regarding the actual statement attributed to this Court, a recent Google search of Hanna Publishing (the company which owns The Sun and The Citizen) revealed that in the last 30 months, it has featured at least 74 different articles regarding Mr. Banks' cases,” Stephens wrote. “This is more than even the D.A. Now this can be attributed to only one of two things: 1) Counsel has a special relationship with the Papers, which he uses to try to influence the Public's perception of his litigation and thereby shape the potential jury pool, or 2) Mr. Banks IS [sic] the most interesting lawyer in the world, and should pursue a career selling beer on television.”
Most of the news reports published The Ouachita Citizen mentioning or concerning Banks refer to the Palowsky litigation or other lawsuits related to the Palowsky litigation, all of which center on controversial claims of criminal activity at the Ouachita Parish Courthouse. Allegations of scandal at Fourth Judicial District Court led to The Ouachita Citizen seeking public records from the court but finding them sealed from the public, the newspaper's submission of a criminal complaint against Fourth Judicial District Court, as well as a legal dispute between the newspaper and the court over whether the public should have access to certain records which were later made public during a criminal investigation of Campbell, the court's law clerk. The criminal investigations found insufficient evidence to secure a lasting conviction of Campbell, though two civil lawsuits seeking damages from Campbell and other court officials are ongoing. (The burden of proof in a civil case requires only a preponderance of evidence while a criminal prosecutor must prove facts beyond a reasonable doubt.)
Stephens' claim that the newspapers have featured “74 different articles regarding Mr. Banks' cases” echoed a similar statement made by Monroe attorney Brian Crawford on behalf of Crawford's client, Campbell, who filed a lawsuit in July 2016 against Banks and his client, Palowsky, in Fourth Judicial District Court.
“For example, Ms. Cambell has been either the primary or sole subject of more than 70 articles on the front page of the weekly Ouachita Citizen for the past year and a half,” stated Campbell's lawsuit, referring to the Palowsky litigation and the investigations of her conduct which followed.
Campbell never served her July 2016 lawsuit to Banks, Palowsky or Palowsky's other attorney, Joe Ward of Covington. She ultimately dismissed the lawsuit before any action was taken against Banks, Palowsky or Ward.
Crawford also is one of the attorneys accused of conspiring with Campbell, Fourth Judicial District Court judges and area attorneys to conceal criminal activity at the court in a federal lawsuit filed by Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Sharon Marchman. Marchman's lawsuit was dismissed, though she plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Stephens' relationship with locals
In his motion to recuse Stephens, Banks tried to draw a large map of possible connections among Doughty, Stephens, Abraham, Delhi tax preparer David Stephens (a defendant in Stowe v. Jordan) as well as with Delhi farmer Thomas “Tommy” Dickerson (the subject of several lawsuits in state and federal court alleging fraud, check kiting and more) and area banks including Citizens' Progressive Bank of Columbia, Caldwell Bank & Trust Co. of Columbia, Commercial Capital Bank of Delhi and others.
“Moreover, bank minutes, attached as Exhibit 'C,' filed of record in the (Franklin Parish lawsuit, KT Farms and others v. Citizens Progressive Bank and others) show in conjunction with KT pleadings that while Caldwell Bank and Citizens Progressive Banks' directors were intentionally manipulating Plaintiffs into foreclosure and financial ruin, Caldwell Bank 7 Trust Co., Citizens Progressive Bank, and Commercial Capital Bank were intentionally violating Plaintiffs' written credit agreement subject of the Franklin Parish suit,” Banks wrote. “Further, verified pleadings filed in the above mentioned lawsuits aver that names of Dickerson's farm managers were forged in loan documents, checks, powers of attorney, and minutes of farming entities organized by David Stephens in order to finance Dickerson's racketeering enterprise.”
Specifically, Banks claimed Jimbo Stephens should not have been presided over Doughty's recusal hearing in the KT Farms lawsuit in light of Jimbo Stephens' relationship with Brian Wilson, a loan officer at Caldwell Bank & Trust Co. The bank is one of three banks involved in the KT Farms lawsuit in Franklin Parish.
“Judge Stephens' homestead adjoins Brian Wilson's homestead,” Banks wrote. “Judge Stephens and Brian Wilson maintain a close social relationship.”
Jimbo Stephens said it was “totally ludicrous” to raise the judge's relationship with Wilson in the matter of Stowe v. Jordan, a separate lawsuit in Richland Parish.
“We take recusals very seriously and we have to, because we are a rural District where everybody knows everybody and we are faced with it almost daily,” Stephens wrote. “If we were to recuse ourselves because we know a party, or know the cousin of the uncle of a party, we'd never have to go to court.”
Though Jimbo Stephens ridiculed the complaint about his relationship with Wilson, the judge proceeded to declare his and his wife's ownership of stock in Caldwell Holding Co., the parent company of both Caldwell Bank & Trust Co. and Citizens Progressive Bank.
“Had Mr. Wilson been a named Defendant, this Court would have refused the appointment,” Jimbo Stephens wrote. “The Court does want to take this opportunity to state for the record that Faith and I own a minimum number of shares in Caldwell Holding Co., the parent company of Citizens' Progressive Bank.”
Jimbo Stephens also declared his relationship with some of the plaintiffs in the KT Farms lawsuit.
“Furthermore I am a friend of the Plaintiffs, Thad and Denise Herron, having coached their daughter in tennis, while Denise taught my son in school,” Jimbo Stephens wrote. “Furthermore, I have bought no less than 5 vehicles from Mr. Herron's father-in-law, Dennis Crain, over the years. The bottom line is, when you are born, raised and live in a community for 59 years, you know people. You interact with people and they are the same people who elected you to hear their cases and settle their disputes.”
Banks argued that Jimbo Stephens' and Doughty's social ties stacked the deck against any plaintiff who was not as well-connected, socially.
“Accordingly, it appears in the 5th JDC, if an unlucky plaintiff sues a bank and its director who is the next door neighbor of the judge and enjoys a long-standing close personal relationship with the judge, the unlucky plaintiff is, indeed, unlucky, even if he/she somehow discovers such undisclosed potential grounds for recusal,” Banks wrote.
In conclusion to his written reasons, Jimbo Stephens said none of Banks' objections would deter him from a “fair and impartial” hearing of the accusations and defenses of plaintiffs and defendants.
“This case is not about Mr. Banks, or this Court,” Jimbo Stephens wrote. “It's about the parties, and their right to have their day in Court, on a fair and level playing field. This is what I swore to do when I took office, and if I thought, for a second, that I couldn't give each side a fair and impartial hearing, I would be out of here so fast, you'd think the building was on fire.”
Jimbo Stephens is a declared candidate for a seat on the Second Circuit Court of Appeal, for which an election will likely be held this fall.