Judge: Rombach can proceed with case against state _lowres

Former Legislative Fiscal Officer John Rombach, who resigned from his post Thursday March 17, 2005. (THE ADVOCATE/ARTHUR D. LAUCK)

Former Legislative Fiscal Officer John Rombach, absolved in 2010 of ethics charges filed against him in 2006, can continue to pursue his malicious prosecution claim against the state, a judge ruled.

Rombach, who resigned in 2005, is seeking damages in a lawsuit he filed in 2011 against former Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot, current Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, the Legislative Auditor’s Office and legislative leaders.

Rombach contends the defendants caused the Louisiana Board of Ethics to wrongfully initiate an ultimately unsuccessful ethics proceeding against him.

“One or more of these defendants trumped up an ethics violation with zero evidence, dragged John’s reputation through the mud for five years, and ensured that he could not find a job anywhere in state government after the Ethics Board agreed that there was no evidence against him,” said Rombach’s attorney, Chris Alexander, on Monday.

“They played politics with somebody’s reputation and life, and they are going to be held fully accountable for it,” he said.

Wade Shows, who represents many of the defendants, painted a different picture.

“Our contention is the legislative auditor did what his statutory duty is,” Shows said. “At no point did the legislative auditor take a position. He was not an advocate.”

A 2004 legislative auditor’s report concluded Rombach didn’t have the right to take a retroactive pay raise or a car allowance without Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget approval.

The report, by then-Legislative Auditor Theriot, said state officials knew about Rombach receiving overtime pay for legislative session work but did nothing about it.

An ethics adjudicatory panel in August 2010 rejected Ethics Board claims that Rombach’s actions, which dated back to 2002, 2003 and 2004, violated state law. The panel said it was common practice to award pay raises retroactive to anniversary dates of employment.

The panel also disagreed with the Ethics Board’s conclusion that Rombach’s overtime pay and car allowance were part of his salary and needed budget committee blessing as required for salary increases.

Rombach’s suit followed in August 2011. In it, he alleged the legislative auditor’s report and subsequent ethics charges were part of a “contrived scheme” to get rid of him and his “ever-watchful eye.”

State District Judge Kay Bates ruled Thursday that Rombach “has met the minimum threshold for pleading a malicious prosecution claim …”

The defendants argue the Ethics Board made a truly independent decision to file charges against Rombach and that the defendants’ actions didn’t cause the board to file charges against him. The defendants asked Bates to dismiss Rombach’s malicious prosecution claim.

“The Court is unable to determine from the pleadings what level of ‘independence’ the Louisiana Board of Ethics used when it decided to bring charges against the Plaintiff,” the judge wrote. “However, the Court has determined that the Defendants are incorrect in their assertion that they cannot be held liable for malicious prosecution as a matter of law.

“The mere fact that the Defendants did not have the authority to initiate Ethics proceedings is not, in itself, fatal to the ‘causation’ prong of a malicious prosecution claim,” she added.

The defendants also maintain they’re entitled to legislative immunity and cannot be sued. They argue that whether Rombach was properly managing the fiscal affairs of his own office is a “legitimate subject of legislative concern that is inextricably intertwined with the legislative process.”

Bates acknowledged that legislative immunity “may protect some, if not all, of the Defendants from liability,” but she said the defendants haven’t identified the specific law that authorized the investigation at issue.

Shows said the defendants intend to do so.

Bates threw out Rombach’s defamation claims last year.