The Louisiana Supreme Court has appointed a retired judge from New Iberia to decide whether the Fourth Judicial District Court has any legal grounds to bar access to court records sought by The Ouachita Citizen.
No hearing date has been scheduled.
Thus far, the district court has refused to release documents requested in five public records requests submitted by The Ouachita Citizen since February. The records concern Allyson Campbell, a district court law clerk, who was accused in a civil proceeding of withholding and destroying documents filed with the court. The newspaper also has sought records related to the district court’s internal investigation of payroll irregularities.
Campbell clerks for Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Wilson Rambo.
“Information surfaced of Judge Rambo’s law clerk withholding and shredding court documents and causing delays in the present litigation,” wrote plaintiff attorney Joe Ward in a motion to recuse Rambo from a civil lawsuit. “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.”
Ward’s also says complaints have been made against Campbell in another case. Ward did not identify the case.
“(The court’s) judicial administrator confirmed in an in-person meeting...that complaints had been made against Judge Rambo’s law clerk in another case,” Ward’s motion stated.
One of the court records sought by The Ouachita Citizen is a document submitted by Monroe attorney Cody Rials at the request of Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Wendell Manning. The court refused to release the document because, according to the court, it deals with a “personnel matter.”
Last week, Supreme Court Justice Marcus Clark signed off on appointing retired Judge Anne Lennan Simon of New Iberia as an ad hoc judge to entertain the Fourth Judicial District Court’s petition for a declaratory judgment in the dispute between the court and The Ouachita Citizen. At issue is whether the court, serving as records custodian, can block the public’s access to documents that could shed light on whether court records were destroyed and whether payroll fraud occurred in the court. The district court claims it can obstruct access to those records to protect the privacy of public employees.
The district court filed a motion for declaratory judgment last month after The Ouachita Citizen filed a criminal complaint with Fourth Judicial District Attorney Jerry Jones’ office over the court’s refusal to release records sought by The Ouachita Citizen.
Last week, Campbell filed a petition of intervention with the court, asking to intervene in the civil proceeding since it pertains to her rights and interests. Campbell has retained attorneys Steven Oxenhandler, Martha Crenshaw and Joshua Dara Jr., with Gold, Weems, Bruser, Sues & Rundell, an Alexandria law firm.
Campbell writes a social column for The News-Star called “On the Town,” with co-writer Gregory Hudgins. According to Ward's motion, Campbell has commended in some of her columns her “first boss,” Judge Milton Moore, who now serves on the Second Circuit Court of Appeal, as well as attorney Thomas Hayes with Hayes, Harkey, Smith & Cascio, a Monroe law firm. Ward's motion claims Campbell wrote admiringly of both Moore and Hayes during a case involving both men.
“Campbell has also written recently about how she loves to be the ‘direct cause’ of or ‘barreling toward the heart of a juicy, ripe scandal,’” Ward’s motion stated. “In her ‘Modern Guide to Handle Your Scandal,’ she even instructs her readers to send out ‘lies, half-truths, gorilla dust, whatever you’ve got’ when involved in a scandal.’”
Ward's motion also claims photos on Campbell’s Facebook page, viewable by the public, “appear to indicate that she not only does her job outside of the courthouse, but also that she drinks alcohol while doing so.”
“Campbell has also talked in her column about a Young Lawyer’s Society happy hour at a local bar in which she, though not a lawyer, and others ‘soldiered on with cocktails and much talk about our love of the law,’” Ward’s motion stated. “In that same article, she talked about how there was ‘gossip — lots and lots of gossip,’ and how she had the ‘best time catching up with’ Judge Moore, who looked ‘debonair’ that night.”
The Ouachita Citizen, through its attorney, responded to the district court’s petition for declaratory judgment, citing several instances of case law supporting the public’s right to know as grounds for the release of the records sought by the newspaper.
Scott Sternberg, an attorney with the New Orleans law firm of Baldwin, Haspel, Burke & Mayer, is representing the newspaper in its dispute with the court. Baldwin, Haspel, Burke & Mayer also represents the Louisiana Press Association (LPA) on public records issues and First Amendment matters. The Ouachita Citizen is a member of the LPA.
The district court has repeatedly cited court cases Trahan v. Larivee and East Bank Consolidated Special Service Fire Protection District v. Crossen in justifying its refusal to release records sought by The Citizen. However, both cases involve the release of employee evaluation documents among other personnel file documents such as “disciplinary actions, reprimands, apologies” and others.
“Specifically, while a general performance evaluation performed in regular order may be deemed private, documentation on the issue of destruction or mishandling of public records and/or matters filed with the Court are not, as the public interest in such matters is superseding,” Sternberg wrote in his response for The Citizen.
State law, Sternberg noted, requires the “burden of proving that a public record is not subject to inspection, copying, or reproduction shall rest with the custodian.”
“The Louisiana Supreme Court has further held that these laws should be ‘construed liberally in favor of free and unrestricted access to the records, and that access can be denied only when a law, specifically and unequivocally, provides otherwise.... Whenever there is doubt as to whether the public has the right of access to certain records, the doubt must be resolved in favor of the public’s right to see,’” Sternberg wrote.
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.
Campbell’s 2014 time sheets show she did not work and was not paid during the month of May 2014, but the court refuses to release any information or state why she was absent from work that month. 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.
Campbell is the highest paid law clerk among four employed by the district court. Campbell’s annual salary is $50,400. She has been a law clerk for 14 years.