School Board, Cooper meet to outline district goals _lowres

Advocate photo by Lee Celano - Lafayette Parish School Superintendent Pat Cooper (L) speaks with Assistant Sandra Bileaudeau during a retreat with board members.

LAFAYETTE — City prosecutor Gary Haynes has decided not to move forward with battery charges against Superintendent Pat Cooper from board member Tehmi Chassion’s complaint that Cooper grabbed him during a closed-door board meeting on Feb. 5.

“The Lafayette Police Department did not file charges against anyone due to conflicting statements of eyewitnesses, but compiled a report from the investigation. I concur with the investigating police officer’s findings,” Haynes wrote in a email to reporters sent in the early morning hours on Wednesday.

Haynes adds that there isn’t enough evidence to secure a conviction based on the witnesses’ written statements.

“The prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the violator used ‘force or violence’ and the conflicting statements preclude such a finding,” Haynes wrote.

During the Feb. 5 meeting, the board met in executive session with Cooper about an insurance consultant who threatened to file a lawsuit. Chassion alleged that during the meeting Cooper yelled at him and grabbed his arm, so the board member called the police.

Police officers took statements from Cooper, Chassion, and board members Shelton Cobb, Hunter Beasley and Rae Trahan, as well as Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton, who was the board’s acting general counsel at the time. The district’s risk management director, Mona Bernard, also was interviewed by police.

The police report reveals differing opinions of the interaction between Cooper and Chassion over information Chassion requested from Bernard related to the insurance consultant.

Since the Feb. 5 incident, Chassion has declined to comment. That evening, he told police that he requested emails from Bernard during the meeting. In his statement, Chassion wrote that after Cooper told him to request the information from the superintendent instead, he “politely” asked Bernard for the information. Chassion wrote that Cooper yelled in his ear that Bernard is his employee and that, as a board member, “I can’t tell her anything.”

“Dr. Cooper then leans over into my face and grabs my arm and pulls me in his direction causing my chair to spin in his direction away … and (Cooper) continues squeezing my arm as he yells and spits in my face as he states she is his employee and she will get it tomorrow,” Chassion wrote.

Cooper told police that Chassion “raised his voice” at Bernard while requesting the information once Cooper told Chassion he’d receive the information the next day.

“As his voice got louder and more belligerent toward (Bernard), I stood up and touched him on the arm to get his attention while stating to him that she wasn’t his employee, stop talking to her that way,” Cooper wrote.

Cooper said he then told Chassion that he needed to make requests through him since Bernard was Cooper’s employee.

“He screamed he was tired of me putting my hands on him and that something needed to be done,” Cooper wrote. “I simply said I touched him to get his attention so he would stop ordering my employee around and screaming at her.”

Cooper said he then walked out of the room.

Bernard told police that Chassion asked her for information that she said she could give him. When Chassion told her he wanted it immediately, she said, Cooper intervened and told Chassion he’d receive it the next day.

“Dr. Chassion began shouting that I said I could get it for him,” Bernard wrote.

She said Beasley, the board president, told Chassion he could request the information from the superintendent.

“Dr. Chassion started shouting again, and Dr. Cooper started shouting that I worked for Dr. Cooper, and Dr. Chassion was not listening, so Dr. Cooper stood, leaned over, and put his hand on Dr. Chassion’s right arm to get his attention,” Bernard wrote. “Dr. Cooper was leaning in and shouting close to Dr. Chassion. Dr. Chassion was also shouting.”

After Cooper left the room, Bernard wrote, “Dr. Chassion continued to yell, ‘Did you see him put his hands on me?’ He ranted and cursed, then started dialing his phone.”

Lafayette police officer Cynthia Bethel wrote in her report that Bernard told officers “she felt uncomfortable and intimidated by Mr. Chassion.”

Trahan recalled that Cooper became angry and began shouting at Chassion. She told police that Cooper pulled on Chassion’s arm twice during the incident.

“Dr. Chassion asked him politely to let him go and to not lay hands on him again,” Trahan wrote in her witness statement. “Dr. Cooper came around the table, laughed at (Chassion), made a snide comment and walked out of the room.”

Beasley, Cobb and Hamilton’s accounts to police weren’t as detailed.

Beasley wrote: “(Chassion) continued to question staff member. (Cooper) stood up and grabbed Dr. Chassion on the arm. (Chassion) turned slightly. Dr. Cooper left the room. …”

Cobb wrote that Cooper “inadvertently touched (Chassion) while talking to him.”

Hamilton wrote that Cooper “placed a couple of fingers” on Chassion.

Board member Kermit Bouillion told The Advocate the day after the incident that the men did argue in the meeting, but he didn’t think the dispute warranted police intervention. At the time, Bouillion said he believed both men acted unprofessionally.

It’s not the first time Chassion called the police during a meeting. He once lodged a complaint against The IND’s reporter Patrick Flanagan, alleging that Flanagan confronted him in the men’s restroom during the board’s April 2013 meeting. Chassion claimed Flanagan “put his hands” on him and blocked his exit. That offense report was sent to the District Attorney’s Office, but District Attorney Mike Harson chose not to pursue charges.

The Feb. 5 police report states there was no evidence Cooper “had any criminal intentions when touching Mr. Chassion.” The report was sent to Haynes, who said he received the complaint on April 23.

Chassion declined to comment Wednesday about Haynes’ decision.

Relations between Cooper and Chassion were strained before February. In January 2013, Chassion raised questions about the 2012 hiring of Thad Welch, a special assistant to the superintendent who didn’t have the required high school education for the job. The board reprimanded Cooper in April 2013 for not firing Welch when the board eliminated funding for the position.

More questions about Cooper’s personnel decisions followed and the board now has an attorney investigating Cooper.

As for the February complaint, Cooper said Wednesday that the public can now be assured the superintendent doesn’t get into brawls behind closed doors with School Board members.

“It’s all forgiven,” Cooper said. “We’re moving past it and moving on. We’ve got a new school year to get ready for.”

He then added with a laugh, “I’m happy I’m not a criminal.”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.