CONVENT — Attorneys for St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel say they plan to follow the same legal route Roussel's top deputy pursued after he successfully had his year-old malfeasance in office charges thrown out.
Roussel and Director of Operations Blaise Gravois were indicted on malfeasance counts in September 2016 over allegations they illegally directed public resources for work on private property.
The allegations include having parish workers remove an old backyard playhouse, secure a private ditch bank with new wooden piles and install a gas line for the Millennium Galvanizing plant near Convent with no firm contract for repayment of the line.
In April, Judge Jessie LeBlanc of the 23rd Judicial District threw out the charges against Gravois, finding prosecutorial misconduct tainted the entire case and that Gravois couldn’t have known without advance notice that the previously commonplace type of work he was directing was illegal.
But, on Thursday, Judge Jason Verdigets, also of the 23rd Judicial District Court, rejected Roussel’s attempt to consolidate his case with Gravois’ or halt it pending a ruling from an appellate court now reviewing LeBlanc's ruling on Gravois’ case.
Just a day earlier, prosecutors had argued before the 5th Louisiana Circuit Court of Appeal to try to overturn LeBlanc’s ruling throwing out Gravois’ charges, but faced tough questioning from the appellate panel in Gretna.
After Verdigets’ ruling Thursday, Ralph Capitelli, one of Roussel's defense attorneys, said Roussel's defense team was preparing the same kind of motion as Gravois’ — which raised allegations of prosecutorial misconduct — to throw out Roussel's indictment.
In the meantime, Verdigets set Roussel for trial June 19.
Roussel’s attorneys had argued before Verdigets that Gravois’ and Roussel’s cases are so similar it would serve judicial economy to try the men together.
The men were indicted with five malfeasance counts over the same five sets of facts. Roussel also received a sixth malfeasance count that Gravois did not.
Brian Capitelli, another of Roussel’s attorneys, told Verdigets that keeping the trials separate would necessitate bringing the same witnesses to testify on the same matters more than once. But Assistant Attorney General Jeff Traylor said the men could have different defenses as employer and employee.
“They’re forum shopping. That’s what’s going on here,” Traylor said.
In the ruling, Verdigets, a former prosecutor in the 23rd Judicial District, said he didn’t know if the defense attorneys were forum shopping. Capitelli has disputed the claim.
But Verdigets said he was reluctant to step in the middle of prosecutorial decisions and did not see where separate trials would hinder Roussel’s rights as a defendant.
Other defense arguments before Verdigets for more investigative information Thursday revealed new details into the joint Attorney General's Office-District Attorney’s Office investigation last year.
Capitelli pointed out that in the more than 17,000 pages of records turned over by prosecutors, most of them were parish work orders that were supplied by Roussel to the grand jury. The defense attorneys said all they found that was new was one two-page investigative report. Capitelli said there were no other reports, transcripts, recordings or videos in the boxes of records turned over by prosecutors.
Brian Capitelli added that the charges in Roussel's indictment also are not specific enough, especially the sixth count.
That count alleges that over a nearly four-year period between 2012 and 2016, Roussel directed parish employees to do work on private property at a cost of $25,000, without saying when, where or what work occurred.
“As we sit here today, I have no idea what count six alleges,” Capitelli said.
Traylor said the sixth count was an amalgamation of other instances of alleged illegal work in 17,000 pages of parish work orders. He said the charge avoided having to charge Roussel with 180 counts of malfeasance.
Traylor also told the judge there aren’t other reports or documents to turn over because the probe into Roussel and Gravois was a grand jury investigation. Witnesses were called before the body and the testimony is secret.
But Traylor, who said he was present for the testimony, said the witnesses provided no information that would help to prove Roussel's innocence and would have to be turned over to his attorneys.
In court papers, the defense attorneys had claimed investigators conducted interviews with at least four witnesses outside the grand jury who gave favorable information for Roussel.
Traylor said that he was present for one interview with a Millennium Galvanizing company official outside the grand jury with two assistant district attorneys. He said that interview was a fact-finding effort for which no one took notes or made recordings.
That admission prompted Ralph Capitelli later to challenge Traylor, saying that assistant district attorneys in the Gravois case have previously told the court they were transcribing an interview with a Millennium official.
“We need to have everything" the district attorney has, Capitelli said.
Traylor later said the assistant district attorneys must have been referring to a different interview with a different Millennium official for which he was not present.
Verdigets reminded Traylor of his obligation to provide any evidence prosecutors may have that would help prove Roussel's innocence and took under advisement a defense motion seeking more details on Roussel’s charges.