NEW IBERIA — The relationship between Iberia Parish’s president and its chief prosecutor wasn’t always so rocky.
Iberia Parish President Errol “Romo” Romero and District Attorney Phil Haney worked together amicably when Romero was sheriff from 1980-96, Haney said last week. And both collaborated to write at least one law and order bill when Romero served as state representative from 1996-2008.
But that was then.
“I have no bad blood toward Mr. Romero,” Haney said last week. “… But Mr. Romero believes anybody who does something to his son is a bad person.”
Shane Romero, an attorney and son of the parish president, is at the center of the conflict, which began long before his father took the oath of office as parish president on Jan. 12, 2012.
The younger Romero figures heavily in an investigation — sanctioned and paid for by the Parish Council — that began in the first half of 2012. He also is the defendant in a federal lawsuit filed this month that alleges Shane Romero has illegal carte blanche to roam the halls of Iberia Parish government offices and do work that his 77-year-old father is being paid to perform.
The suit claims that Shane has “essentially usurped the office of the parish president” and alleges that Errol Romero is not in control of parish government.
Romero said last week that he knew questions about his mental and physical faculties would arise, so he sought and received a clean bill of health from doctors. Romero declined to say whether he had released the report to others. Asked for details, Romero said he was through talking. He did not return a message left with his office Friday.
“To say that my father has any type of physical or mental ailments is beyond disgusting,” Shane Romero said last week. “They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
Parish council members, too, have been drawn into the fray.
Maggie Daniels, District 1 representative since 2000, was one of three council members in June to vote against authorizing the District Attorney’s Office to file the federal lawsuit that seeks to ban Shane Romero from non-public areas of the courthouse and to prohibit him from interfering with staff.
She said the allegations against the Romeros have not been proven.
David Ditch has been the District 7 representative since 2012.
“It’s been a political battle since I took office 31/2 years ago,” said Ditch, who also voted no on filing the lawsuit against Shane Romero.
He said he’s never “personally seen” the younger Romero take charge and make decisions for his father in the parish courthouse.
“I’ve read about it. I know employees in the parish courthouse have stated it on numerous occasions,” Ditch said. “I’m willing to bet they’re not making it up.”
Ditch is the lone candidate so far who has announced he’ll seek the office of parish president in the 2015 election. He said he didn’t know if Romero would run.
In February 2012, right after taking office, Errol Romero fired off a 60-page complaint. The complaint, purportedly written by him, was mailed to five top Louisiana officials — the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell among them.
It alleged Haney had engaged in dirty and illegal politics by coercing voters to cast ballots for Romero’s opponent in 2011, and that Haney’s office sought unlawful reimbursements from the parish purse to pay for his prosecutors’ health insurance plans.
The Attorney General’s Office looked into Romero’s allegations, and within months had dismissed them as being without merit, according to an April 16, 2012, letter from Kurt Wall, director of criminal investigations at the Attorney General’s Office.
But Wall’s investigators found evidence that Romero’s complaint contained sworn statements from parish employees who later disputed what was written, or who said they were told the statements would never be made public.
“… It was determined through interviews that much of the language submitted in these affidavits was misleading,” Wall’s letter to Haney stated.
The attorney general’s revelations led to parish officials hiring former U.S. Attorney Donald Washington to conduct an investigation into Errol Romero and the role his son has played in parish government. Washington turned his report over to the Parish Council in early October.
It detailed a number of findings, among them:
- Errol Romero’s complaint against Haney and his office contained statements later proved to be false.
- The parish employees who signed the affidavits in Romero’s complaint “were probably misled by licensed attorneys into signing false or misleading statements.”
- Errol Romero, who signed the complaint, did not write the document that was heavy on legal language.
“The complaint filed by parish President Romero could not have been prepared by Parish President Romero as he does not appear to have the skills or capacity to create such a document,” Washington wrote.
Washington, who was U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana from 2001-11, concluded that Shane Romero and another New Iberia attorney, Michael Moity, composed the complaint.
The main players in the investigation — both Romeros, Moity and Errol Romero’s longtime assistant Kelly Ball — did not sit for an interview with Washington.
But Washington wrote that he was able to learn something about Errol Romero from a videotaped deposition that Romero gave in a case involving parish government.
Viewing the video, Washington concluded, “The parish president appears to have a significant, bona fide memory deficit as he was unable to recall a number of issues that are relevant to this investigation.”
Washington did not return calls left at his office and cell phone Friday seeking comment.
On Oct. 10, Lafayette attorney Gary McGoffin filed a lawsuit against Shane Romero seeking to ban the attorney from non-public areas of the Iberia Parish courthouse and from interacting with parish employees.
McGoffin said last week the District Attorney’s Office was paying the legal expenses for the lawsuit, which the council approved filing in June.
Referencing Washington’s report, the lawsuit contends Errol Romero relies heavily on his son to run the parish.
“Evidence points strongly toward Mr. Shane Romero’s early involvement in assisting the parish president in making decisions about parish government business,” McGoffin wrote in the suit.
The suit also points to an April press conference at the courthouse, which was to address the Parish Council investigating Errol Romero. According to the lawsuit and Washington’s report, Shane Romero had Assistant District Attorney Robert Odinet and Iberia Parish Councilman Troy Comeaux removed from the meeting.
“Shane Romero has essentially usurped the office of the parish president in an effort to impose his will on each of the branches of parish government … through no semblance of lawful democratic process,” the lawsuit states.
Shane Romero questioned whether the timing of the lawsuit and the release of Washington’s report was politically motivated: Both came to light less than 30 days before the Nov. 4 election of New Iberia city judge, for which he is a candidate.
“The Washington investigation began in May 2012 and it’s coming out now?” Romero said.