The Fourth Judicial District Court in Monroe filed for a declaratory judgment last week in a dispute with The Ouachita Citizen on the heels of the newspaper filing a criminal complaint against the district court for refusing to release public records.
Those records concern a district court law clerk who was accused in a civil proceeding of withholding and destroying documents filed with the court.
Jon Guice, with Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, a Monroe law firm representing the district court, filed the declaratory judgment on Friday on behalf of Judge Stephens Winters, chief judge for the Fourth Judicial District Court.
The district court's petition asks that an ad hoc judge be appointed to hear the court's request for declaratory judgment on whether the court has any legal grounds to bar the public's access to certain court records.
The Louisiana Supreme Court is expected to appoint an ad hoc judge to preside over the matter. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Supreme Court had not acted on an appointment. Once a judge is appointed, a hearing will be scheduled in which attorneys for the district court and The Ouachita Citizen will present their reasons for why the records should or should not be released to the newspaper.
On Thursday, March 19, The Ouachita Citizen filed a criminal complaint against the district court with Fourth Judicial District Attorney Jerry Jones over the court’s failure to comply with several public records requests. Pursuant to Louisiana Revised Statute 44:1 et seq., it is unlawful for any public body or public official to refuse to adhere to a public records request.
On the public's behalf, the newspaper is seeking several documents concerning law clerk Allyson Campbell in light of allegations that Campbell may have shredded court filings and delayed numerous writ applications.
“Information surfaced of Judge (Wilson) Rambo’s law clerk (Campbell) withholding and shredding court documents and causing delays in the present litigation,” stated court documents from late 2014. “Still, other information surfaced about Judge Rambo’s law clerk delaying scores of writ applications and had, actually, used such court records as an end table in her office.”
The records sought by The Ouachita Citizen include: any commendations or reprimands contained in Campbell's personnel file; reports of any disciplinary actions or reprimands taken against any employees who received pay or leave time for which they were not entitled; any documents showing the reasons why Campbell was absent from work during May 2014; and any document filed by a local attorney at the request of Judge Wendell Manning concerning missing files or the destruction of court records by Campbell.
Though Guice, on behalf of the district court, admitted the court possesses the document filed by the local attorney, it would not turn the record over to the newspaper.
In a March 11 written response to The Ouachita Citizen's public records request, Guice said the district court believed the document concerning Campbell's possible destruction of court records formed “part of a personnel matter,” and thus was “not subject to release.”
The district court reiterated its position against releasing the document in a March 18 letter as well as in the petition for declaratory judgment filed on Friday. The district court has repeatedly cited court cases Trahan v. Larivee and East Bank Consolidated Special Service Fire Protection District v. Crossen. However, both cases involve the release of employee evaluation documents among other personnel file documents such as “disciplinary actions, reprimands, apologies” and others.
“Campbell's situation is unlike that in the Trahan case or in any other case you (Court) have cited to The Ouachita Citizen,” said Scott Sternberg, an attorney retained by the newspaper. “In the Trahan case specifically, the records were used for the evaluation of all employees as part of routine course of business. These requested records are not the same in genus or species.”
Sternberg, with the New Orleans law firm of Baldwin, Haspel, Burke & Mayer, is representing the newspaper in its dispute with the court over public records. Baldwin, Haspel, Burke & Mayer also represents the Louisiana Press Association on public records issues and First Amendment matters.
Sternberg stated in a letter to Guice on March 12 that the public’s right to know in the matter involving Campbell outweighs any privacy issues because it is a subject of legitimate news interest, of value and concern to the public. The matter concerns the possible “destruction of public records and obstruction of judicial processes performed while in the employ of the taxpayer,” Sternberg’s March 12 letter stated.
In response to public records requests submitted by the newspaper since February, the district court has only released Campbell's time sheets, job description, hire date, attendance records and annual salary among similar information for other law clerks employed by the district court.
After The Ouachita Citizen began investigating allegations that Campbell had destroyed court records, the state’s Legislative Auditor’s Office released a financial audit stating some court employees may have collected paychecks for unworked hours during the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Such actions represent a violation of state law.
“Some employees may have received compensation when they were not working,” the audit stated. “It appears that hours reported to payroll on time sheets might have been misclassified as time worked instead of leave time used.”
Campbell is the highest paid law clerk among four employed by the district court though she is not a licensed attorney. Campbell's annual salary is $50,400. She has been a law clerk for 14 years. Ann Files, another law clerk at Fourth Judicial District Court, is a licensed attorney with nearly 15 years of experience with the court. Her annual salary is $47,333.
Campbell’s 2014 time sheets show she did not work and was not paid during the month of May, but the court refuses to release any information or state why she was absent from work that month.
Campbell and a co-writer, Gregory Hudgins, write a social column for The News-Star called “On the Town.” In a May 25, 2014, column, Hudgins wrote that Campbell “unexpectedly” got the month off and that she was traveling with him to “far flung reaches of the country.”
Campbell’s time sheets for 2014 show she kept her time in handwriting through April. She was out during May and, when she returned in June, she was punching a time clock.
In its criminal complaint against the district court, the newspaper asked Jones as district attorney to investigate the “possibility of public payroll fraud mentioned in the report released by the Legislative Auditor and if any criminal activity occurred like the destruction of public records or withholding court documents intentionally.”