A Ouachita Citizen reporter who answered a summons for jury duty was peppered with questions about his relationship with a Monroe businessman who sued Fourth Judicial District Court officials after the reporter was placed under oath in the jury box.
Staff writer Johnny Gunter appeared in Judge Wilson Rambo's courtroom Monday morning in response to a summons for jury duty in Jeff Mercer LLC vs. State of Louisiana, DOTD and others.
Instead of conducting interviews of potential jury members in a group, attorneys questioned potential jury members individually in Rambo’s presence. At that time, Rambo allowed attorneys with the Monroe law firm Hayes, Harkey, Smith & Cascio to question Gunter about his relationship with Monroe businessman Stanley R. Palowsky III as well as Gunter's relationship with Palowsky's father, Stanley R. Palowsky.
Gunter was questioned whether he worked for Palowsky or Palowsky's father. Gunter told them he did not.
Among other questions, Gunter was asked what he had said following last week's hearing over Palowsky's lawsuit against Fourth Judicial District Court officials or whether he had accompanied either of the Palowskys on a deer hunt in the last year. Gunter told them he could not remember his remarks after last week's hearing and had not hunted with the Palowskys in the last year though he had the year before that.
Gunter answered the summons for jury duty though he had previously written Rambo and told him he had “no objection to serving” but believed the court “might not want me because of my recent reporting” on Palowsky's lawsuit against Rambo as well as four other Fourth Judicial District Court judges and Rambo's law clerk, Allyson Campbell.
Also, Gunter has written news stories since 2014 about another lawsuit Palowsky pursued against his former business partner, Brandon Cork. It was in that lawsuit, Gunter reported, that Rambo's recusal was sought because plaintiff attorneys believed the judge had exhibited bias against them and their client. Palowsky's attorneys also accused Rambo's law clerk of destroying or concealing documents they filed with the court. Gunter later filed a criminal complaint about these matters with the Fourth Judicial District Attorney's office, leading to a lawsuit by the district court against The Ouachita Citizen over the newspaper's public records requests filed with the court.
For these reasons, Gunter suggested the court might not want him to appear for jury duty. The Clerk of Court's office informed Gunter that Rambo wanted him to show up anyway.
Potential jury members were called into Rambo's courtroom one at a time. Gunter was the second to appear individually before Rambo and attorneys. David Doughty, a Rayville attorney, is representing the plaintiff, Jeff Mercer.
Attorneys with Hayes, Harkey, Smith & Cascio, who represent the state, questioned Gunter about how many articles on Palowsky he had written and about the letter he had written Rambo about his summons for jury duty.
In spite of objections from plaintiff's attorneys, Rambo allowed Gunter to be questioned about his relationship with Palowsky. In Stanley R. Palowsky III vs. W. Brandon Cork and others, Hayes, Harkey, Smith & Cascio also represented the defendant, Cork. Palowsky also sued the Hayes, Harkey, Smith & Cascio law firm in a related matter.
The Ouachita Citizen approached Rambo at the West Monroe Convention Center on Tuesday and asked him why he allowed attorneys from Hayes, Harkey, Smith & Cascio to question Gunter about Palowsky.
“I can't talk about a pending case,” Rambo said.
After walking away, Rambo stopped and said, “You can talk to Mr. John Saye and he can explain it to you.”
Saye is a partner at Hayes, Harkey, Smith & Cascio.
The Ouachita Citizen called Saye Tuesday evening. After asking him about Gunter's questioning on Monday, Saye said, “I don't know who you are. I have no comment. You have a good evening, okay?”
Gunter had been questioned by an attorney with Hayes, Harkey, Smith & Cascio in Rambo's courtroom once before Monday's jury selection. It occurred during a hearing last fall for Stanley R. Palowsky III vs. W. Brandon Cork and others. At that time, attorney Tom Hayes questioned Gunter in Rambo's courtroom about why the reporter had attended a hearing on Palowsky's lawsuit. After Hayes' questioning of Gunter, attorneys were called into Rambo's chambers.
“After Hayes was apparently satisfied regarding Mr. Gunter's presence, Judge Rambo re-convened court, and the attorneys made their arguments...,” stated Ward's motion to recuse Rambo.
The Mercer v. State lawsuit is scheduled for trial throughout this week in Fourth Judicial District Court. In Mercer v. State, Jeff Mercer alleges a Department of Transportation and Development inspector demanded a bribe from him while the plaintiff worked on a DOTD road project as a subcontractor. When he did not offer a bribe but reported the inspector, Mercer claims the inspector as well as two other DOTD employees made his work “as difficult and costly as possible” so that he ultimately had to withdraw from the project, according to Mercer's 2007 petition.
Sam Hanna Jr., publisher of The Ouachita Citizen, was issued a summons to appear for jury duty on Monday, Nov. 16.