U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and his chief of staff cannot be deposed at this time in a controversial Winnsboro lawsuit because the Congress is currently in session, a lawyer for the U.S. House of Representatives said.
Monroe attorney Sedric Banks issued subpoenas to Abraham, R-Alto, and his chief of staff, Luke Letlow, of Start, last month as part of a 2014 lawsuit: KT Farms and others v. Citizens Progressive Bank and others.
The lawsuit spawned subpoenas for depositions and testimony concerning Fifth Judicial District Court Judge Terry Doughty.
Abraham and Letlow, among others, were subpoenaed to testify in a May 3 hearing to determine whether Doughty should be recused from presiding over the KT Farms lawsuit for allegedly exhibiting bias or prejudice against Banks, who represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
In response to Banks’ subpoenas, legal counsel in the the House — acting on behalf of Abraham and Letlow — challenged the statutory grounds for the subpoenas, threatening to seek the annulment of the subpoenas in federal court. If that were to happen, Abraham’s legal counsel also planned to seek sanctions, or penalties, against Banks, according to Todd Tatelman, associate general counsel in the House.
“Accordingly, requiring Congressman Abraham and Mr. Letlow to testify would interfere directly with their official responsibilities as a Member of the House of Representatives and Chief of Staff,” Tatelman wrote in his April 24 letter to Banks. “These federal defenses permit the removal of your subpoenas to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana for the purpose of seeking their quashal.”
Banks replied to Tatelman in an April 26 letter and acknowledged the unsuitability of drawing Abraham and Letlow away from their responsibilities in the Congress. (Earlier this week, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and his allies were still whipping votes to approve an Obamacare replacement plan through new legislation, which Abraham supported, according to published reports.)
Banks said he would not drop any plans to depose Abraham or Letlow, though. If the congressman and his chief of staff tried to dodge depositions, they would be issued new subpoenas, Banks said.
“First, please know that while I am amenable to withdrawing the subpoenas with respect to the May 3 hearing date due to the fact that Congress is in session that week, I still fully intend to depose Messrs. Abraham and Letlow,” Banks wrote. “If we cannot agree on a mutually convenient date for same, (then) I will unilaterally issue new subpoenas for their depositions.”
Among his reasons for issuing subpoenas to Abraham and Letlow, Banks said he planned to ask whether they had talked with Doughty about him, specifically whether they had claimed Banks was hindering Doughty’s chances of becoming a federal judge. (A member of the House, such as Abraham, could have influence on who might be recommended for a federal judgeship, though that final recommendation would be made by a state’s U.S. senators to the president of the United States, who makes the nomination.)
Tatelman’s letter claimed any involvement by Abraham or Letlow in the federal judicial nomination process was protected from disclosure.
“Finally, to the extent that your subpoena seeks to elicit testimony regarding activities within the legislative sphere — including potential information provided by Congressman Abraham’s office as part of the federal judicial nomination process — your subpoena potentially runs afoul of the Speech or Debate Clause...which provides Congressman Abraham with an absolute immunity from being ‘questioned in any other place,’ ” Tatelman wrote.
According to Tatelman’s letter, the subpoenas to Abraham and Letlow were “unenforceable” because Banks sought to “compel information about their respective official duties as a Member of Congress and Chief of Staff.” Tatelman’s letter detailed other federal defenses, or legal arguments: the pair enjoyed the protection of sovereign immunity for federal officials, and Tatelman argued there were no extraordinary circumstances which would require a “high-ranking government official” such as Abraham to testify in a lawsuit in which he is not involved.
Banks took aim at Tatelman’s arguments, dismissing them as standard responses contained in a “form letter.” Banks also questioned the specific cases cited in Tatelman’s letter, claiming the House attorney “omitted key language” from certain cases.
Banks’ arguments were based on the presumption Abraham or Letlow had conversations or discussions with Doughty, in which disparaging remarks about Banks or his clients were made.
“These discussions were not in the context of any official congressional duties of Messrs. Abraham or Letlow and/or staff members, so I do not understand how any of the cases you cited (in what appears to be a form letter sent to whomever dares to subpoena a member of Congress) prevent me from deposing said witnesses,” Banks wrote. “For example, the cases you cited on the doctrine of sovereign immunity clearly only apply when federal officials have acted in their official capacities. That is not the situation here.”
Banks noted he did not subpoena Abraham or Letlow to question their “reasons for taking any official actions.” If their alleged conversations were “official actions,” case law could “protect them from having to testify,” but Banks argued such conversations could not be considered “official actions” under Tatelman’s arguments.
“Although you would like for me to believe otherwise, the fact is that Messrs. Abraham, Letlow and staff member are not protected from having to testify regarding their interactions with Judge Doughty and/or others merely because they are ‘high-ranking government officials,’” Banks wrote. “Accordingly, I look forward to receiving dates on which they can be deposed shortly.”
Banks suggested Tatelman’s legal arguments could land Abraham or Letlow in a lawsuit.
“So, either their actions were taken in their official capacities under the color of law, and they are subject to a civil rights violation suit for same, or their actions were not taken in their official capacities and do not concern any official actions taken, and they are subject to being deposed just as any other lay witness is,” Banks wrote.
Other individuals who were issued subpoenas by Banks for the May 3 recusal hearing included Doughty, Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Sharon Marchman, Delhi tax preparer David Stephens, and Stephens’ wife, Michelle Stephens.
The subpoenas issued by Banks are the second batch of subpoenas. The first set of subpoenas did not include pertinent details as required under state law, according to a court order by Fifth Judicial District Court Judge James “Jimbo” Stephens, who is presiding over Doughty’s recusal hearing.