A state district judge threw out all five malfeasance in office counts Tuesday against Blaise Gravois, the St. James Parish director of operations who had been accused last fall along with the parish president of illegally directing public resources for work on private property.
In a blistering ruling in Gravois' favor, Judge Jessie LeBlanc of the 23rd Judicial District accepted defense attorneys' arguments that prosecutors committed misconduct. She faulted the parish attorney's advice to the St. James Parish Council chairman around the time of the Sept. 28 indictment that he should not accept payment for the new gas line that was the subject of the one of Gravois' criminal counts.
The judge found this advice amounted to withholding exculpatory evidence that could have been favorable to Gravois at trial. Had it not been for that legal advice, she noted, there would not have been a criminal count because the work would have been paid for.
Having a judge throw out an indictment is an unusual step. But LeBlanc said the misconduct was so egregious it required all five counts to be thrown out, not just the single count involving the stalled payment for the new gas line to the Millennium Galvanizing plant north of Convent.
She said the District Attorney's Office, through parish attorney Bruce Mohon, breached its duty to stand as a representative of the people and to uphold the integrity of the criminal justice system.
"This court can see no basis for refusing to accept payment other than to influence the Grand Jury proceedings and violate the fundamental principles of due process and fairness," LeBlanc wrote in a 12-page order. "As an agent of the state, Mr. Mohon's actions thwarted fairness in the search for truth in the entire proceeding."
LeBlanc noted Mohon, as an assistant district attorney, is also a felony prosecutor in St. James and "had to have known the precarious position his client was placed in by not accepting payment."
In testimony earlier this month, Parish Council Chairman Alvin "Shark" St. Pierre testified that Mohon had told him not to accept payment — after getting consent from the council — so he could investigate the origins of a $26,000 parish utility invoice for the gas line built to Millennium plant. Another council member disputed this claim on the stand, however.
Prosecutors charged that the invoice, which they claimed was back-dated to Sept. 1, 2016, was an attempted cover-up of the gas line deal after parish and company officials learned of the grand jury probe in May 2016.
But Leblanc noted the prosecutors provided no proof the invoice was back-dated. She also noted testimony that Millennium never intended not to pay for the line after a gas supply contract fell through that would have paid the parish for the line.
While LeBlanc found the prosecutorial misconduct required throwing out all the counts, she also found Gravois did not have fair warning that the kind work he was doing at Roussel’s behest violated the law because that kind of work had been done in St. James for decades.
She wrote that Gravois received no illegal benefit and, absent that benefit, the theory prosecutors were using to bring the malfeasance charge was a novel one that needed to be settled in Gravois' favor.
“For this court to find otherwise would open the doors for the State to pick and choose what work on public property will be allowed and what will be prohibited, placing future employees and property owners in peril of being prosecuted,” she wrote.
The office of District Attorney Ricky Babin offered a sharp response Tuesday evening, saying LeBlanc's reasoning would open the door to all sorts of political favoritism.
"Elected officials and their employees would be able to do political favors for friends and constituency without fear," the statement says. "They will be able to use the parish back hoe to dig their neighbor’s pool, or use public employees to trim their constituents' oak trees, or repair their family member’s vehicles in the parish motor pool and then claim 'Sorry, no one told me I could not do it.'”
The statement also defended Mohon, who prosecutors said was "well within his professional duties and ethical obligations to advise the council."
"ADA Mohon did nothing wrong, and we intend to appeal all rulings of this court," the statement says.
Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University legal ethics professor who is representing the District Attorney's Office due to the misconduct allegations, said an appeal will be headed immediately to the Louisiana 5th Circuit Court of Appeal.
He called the ruling "extraordinary" and said it is "erroneous" for a whole host of reasons. He pointed out that motions to quash, the type of motion Gravois' attorneys used to throw out his indictment, are focused usually on major jurisdictional or other flaws and don't rely on fact-intensive analyses as this ruling did.
"The state vehemently denies any allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and is confident that the appellate court is going to address the erroneous grant of this motion to quash," Ciolino said.
Attorneys for Gravois and St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel, who was indicted on malfeasance charges over largely the same allegations, including the Millennium deal, had a decidedly different take Tuesday afternoon.
Gravois' attorney Matthew Chester said in a statement that Gravois and his attorneys believe the ruling represents "the correct, fair and just outcome for this case."
"Mr. Gravois is gratified for all the support he received from members of the community and looks forward to continuing to serve the best interests of the people of St. James Parish," Chester said.
Roussel's attorneys said Tuesday evening that they and he liked what they saw, as well.
“Timmy Roussel is very pleased with the judge’s decision and thinks it has direct applicability to his own case,” defense attorney Brian Capitelli said.
Roussel's counts still stand, however, because LeBlanc's ruling was only directed toward Gravois' charges. Roussel has been assigned another judge and is waiting on an order to recuse the entire judiciary in the 23rd Judicial District, including LeBlanc. The district court encompasses St. James, Ascension and Assumption parishes.