The Ouachita Citizen sued the state Division of Administration Tuesday in light of its refusal to disclose public records showing how much the state has spent to defend a Monroe law clerk in an ongoing civil lawsuit.
The newspaper filed its petition for writ of mandamus in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge. Judge Trudy White is expected to preside over the lawsuit. A court date had not been set as of Tuesday evening.
A writ of mandamus is a court order compelling a governmental entity to fulfill its lawful duties.
In this case, The Ouachita Citizen sought bills and invoices for legal services provided by the state for Allyson Campbell, a law clerk at Fourth Judicial District Court in Monroe. Campbell and five judges at the district court were sued in 2015 by Monroe businessman Stanley Palowsky III. In his lawsuit, Palowsky accused Campbell of destroying or concealing court records. He also accused the judges of conspiring to cover up Campbell’s activities.
“The Petitioner avers that his reporting on this matter is of public interest in expenditure of public funds in defense of a public employee accused of malfeasance or negligence in office,” stated The Ouachita Citizen’s lawsuit.
The Ouachita Citizen has published numerous news reports about Stanley R. Palowsky III and others v. Allyson Campbell and others. Lawrence “Larry” Pettiette, of Shreveport, was appointed as a special assistant attorney general to represent Campbell in Palowsky v. Campbell, in spite of questions on whether state law authorized a district court’s law clerk to receive state-sponsored legal representation.
Palowsky v. Campbell and the lawsuits and probes it spawned have enveloped the Fourth Judicial District Court in controversy for years. For example, the lawsuit sparked a criminal investigation of Campbell by the state Office of the Inspector General and Louisiana State Police in 2015. Campbell was investigated for misconduct, related to the allegations in Palowsky v. Campbell as well as allegations she committed public payroll fraud and hid more than 50 writs for post-conviction relief in her office. Inspector General Stephen Street and state Attorney General Jeff Landry each claimed the investigation did not yield enough evidence to secure a lasting conviction of Campbell.
In June, the state Supreme Court ruled that Palowsky had the legal standing to pursue his lawsuit against Campbell and the judges. The high court’s ruling overturned a ruling by retired Judge Jerome “Jerry” Barbera, of Thibodeaux, who dismissed Palowsky’s lawsuit in late 2015.
Nearly four years after the state picked up the bill for Campbell’s defense, The Ouachita Citizen submitted a public records request to the Attorney General’s office, seeking information about how much Campbell’s legal representation cost taxpayers. The Attorney General’s office declined to provide any information concerning the money spent on Campbell’s defense and referred the newspaper to another state department.
The Ouachita Citizen submitted its public records request to the Division of Administration’s Office of Risk Management last month. In the records request, the newspaper sought the hours, rate, dates of service and money spent on legal services rendered for Campbell as well as the invoices or bills for legal services.
Under Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the Division of Administration refused to disclose the public records sought, referring to a state law exemption pertaining to pending legal claims. The exemption cited does not forbid the disclosure of the state’s expenditure of public funds.
The newspaper’s attorney, Scott Sternberg, with the Sternberg, Naccari & White law firm in New Orleans, offered to accept the public records with redactions of any attorney-client privileged information. The Division of Administration again refused.
Besides The Ouachita Citizen, Sternberg, Naccari & White also represents the Louisiana Press Association (LPA) on public records matters. The Ouachita Citizen and its sister newspapers, The Franklin Sun and the Concordia Sentinel, are members of the LPA.
Other newspapers and media outlets have obtained bills and invoices for legal services from state agencies without any apparent obstacle. For example, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate published a news report in July about public records it obtained showing how much the state paid several private attorneys to handle the state’s lawsuits against opioid companies. The Advocate’s news report noted the connection between the attorneys hired to represent the state with those who contributed to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ and Landry’s political campaigns.
Though The Ouachita Citizen was seeking similar information to what The Advocate obtained, the newspaper was unable to secure any information about the state’s expenditures on Campbell’s behalf.
State campaign finance records show that individuals related to Campbell have contributed thousands of dollars to Edwards’, Dardenne’s, Landry’s, and former Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell’s political campaigns. It was under Caldwell’s tenure as Attorney General that the state took up legal representation of Campbell in Palowsky v. Campbell in September 2015.
Campbell’s aunt, Janet Boles, is an attorney and lobbyist in Baton Rouge. When Palowsky v. Campbell hearings took place in southern Louisiana, Boles attended the hearings with her niece. Campaign finance records extending to the early 2000s show Boles donated money to Dardenne and Edwards ($2,500 in March).
Others closer to Campbell have also donated large sums of money to these state officials, namely Campbell’s sister and brother-in-law, Catherine and Christian Creed. Catherine and Christian Creed are attorneys and run the Monroe law firm Creed & Creed.
Campaign finance records show that Christian Creed donated $500 to then-Attorney General Caldwell. In November 2015, Christian Creed donated $1,000 to Caldwell’s re-election campaign. At that time, Christian Creed also donated $10,000 to Edwards’ campaign for governor and $10,000 to Landry, who defeated Caldwell in the November 2015 election.
Since 2015, Christian Creed has donated some $20,000 to Edwards as well as $10,000 to Gumbo PAC, a political action committee supporting Edwards’ campaign for governor. Campaign finance records show Catherine Creed has donated nearly $15,000 to Edwards since 2015.
Since 2011, Christian Creed also has donated $3,000 to Dardenne, who was previously lieutenant governor and a candidate for governor in 2015.