Ascension’s Home Rule Charter designates the District Attorney as “the parish attorney to the governing authority, parish president and all parish departments, offices and agencies. However, if the governing authority (i.e. the Parish Council) determines that the parish would be better served by a separate full time parish attorney, it may create such a position or department and provide for its organization and functions by ordinance…” For a quarter century the parish operated within these parameters without too much difficulty; then District 4 elected Corey Orgeron.
A licensed attorney (proof positive that the Bar Exam is a minimal competency test), Orgeron possesses just enough ability to embarrass himself and walk his colleagues into one buzz saw after another in combination with that other Prairieville council member with a law license…
When Councilman Aaron Lawler supports any initiative proposed by Orgeron it should give every taxpaying citizen pause. During Thursday’s meeting they lobbied hard for the Council to hire its own legal counsel, a position already budgeted in the amount of $60,000 but never filled. The impromptu pseudo-discussion came after Councilwoman Teri Casso wondered about having access to expertise of local legal titan, Jeff Diez, whose existing $60,000 contract was up for renewal on Thursday’s Consent Agenda.
Casso objected to its inclusion there, but no opposition arose to the agenda item taken up as a General Business item:
Approval of the renewal of contract between Jeff Diez and the Parish, to provide legal advice, advisory opinions, counsel and legal assistance to the Parish President, and the staff and administrators of the Executive Office on an as-needed, on-call continuing basis. This is not a contract concerning or identified by any special or particular matter. The rate at $175 per hour for a total not to exceed amount of $60,000.00 (Jean Paul Robert, Parish Attorney) Finance Committee Recommendation
Even though it was agreed that the language would be changed to reflect Council access, Corey Orgeron was unsatisfied. To hear him tell it:
“Two-and-a-half years I’ve been concerned that we’re putting our attorneys into a position where there’s a conflict. Oftentimes there’s a disagreement between the administration and this council. And we’re using the same attorney to advise both the Council and the administration.”
Which is not precisely true since two Assistant District Attorneys (Kenneth Dupaty for the Council and Jean Paul Robert for the administration) are on the job. Both ultimately answerable to DA Ricky Babin, there have been instances when the DA’s Office bowed out of a controversy.
“There’ve been numerous conflicts; there’ve been numerous conflicting opinions,” Orgeron continued. “It always rises itself up, back to Mr. Babin…He’s the final say but he can’t represent both the Council and the administration when there’s a disagreement. And, yet, we’re putting ourselves in that position every time we ask a legal opinion.
This council needs to make a determination as to seek its own separate counsel…and stop following the guidance of attorneys that are placed in a conflict of interest position.,” Orgeron opined, claiming to have “spoken with the Bar Association regarding this issue.”
Given his past performance in representing his own clients, it would be surprising if that is the only thing Orgeron has spoken to the Bar Association about.
“Goodness knows this council and the administration have gone to blows several times…
We need to back off of that and we need to have separate representation. It can’t be the bifurcation of having Kenneth (Dupaty) and Jean Paul (Robert)…one helping us, another one helping the other because it still pyramids itself back up to Ricky Babin.”
The more lasting solution will come on October 14, 2023 when Orgeron and, we suspect, Lawler are turned out of office by their constituents. Until then, the Charter does afford the Council the ability, “In special matters (to) retain special attorneys to represent the parish or perform certain duties subject to restrictions imposed by the statutes of (Louisiana).” Would the hiring of a lawyer answerable to the Council on an “as-needed” basis comport with that language?
The Charter goes on enumerate “The Parish Attorney’s” duties which includes the provision of “legal advice to the president and the governing authority when requested…”
“I totally agree with Corey,” came the inevitable reply from Aaron Lawler. “In fact, If I remember correctly, we put it into the budget…$60,000 for Council legal fees. So, we have it in the budget this year…All we really have to go out an do is pick some counsel. We may not use that $60,000, we may use it all. But that’s for us to decide. What I would recommend that we do, though is, within the next 30 days we, as a council, draw up a basis as to how we’re going to obtain legal opinions from our counsel.
We can’t all of us, be calling this individual asking questions. We’d run up a bill like that,” he concluded with a finger snap visual demonstration. “My recommendation is that we don’t make it a majority-type thing. It can be a minority of people because you have to protect minority rights…So I would say as few as three or four individuals on the Council could request an opinion.”
Too many to suit the third attorney on the Council, Travis Turner expressed a preference for each individual member having the ability to obtain legal advice; even though he does not “think there’s a problem with the District Attorney’s office providing legal advice for both.” Turner would not resort to outside counsel until the Council and administration come to an impasse, a fairly common occurrence since January 2020.
Unmentioned was Article 2-82 in Ascension’s Code of Ordinances. That ordinance establishes the “professional services selection committee” tasked with recommending contract recipients. Paragraph C reads, in pertinent part:
Qualification for review. Any contract for professional or consultant work, involving any department, agency or commission of the parish which would result in a fee in the amount of fifty thousand dollars ($50,000.00) or more, shall be awarded based on the recommendation of the professional services selection committee.
When seeking to avoid outside input beyond its control and still hire their preferred firm…
Lawler firm’s $49,900 contract removed from Finance agenda
the “Not to Exceed” amount is uniformly a tick below the $50,000 threshold, a time-honored practice in Ascension Parish. Our favorite…
What does it cost to hire Meyer Engineering for a splash pad in AP? $49,900, logarithmically speaking
occurred in the Recreation Department toward the end of the last council’s tenure. A long-awaited splash pad behind Dutchtown Library still has not been built, but we digress.
Assuming the Council gets its own counsel, where does that leave the administration? President Clint Cointment voiced that concern at the end of Thursday’s deliberations.