A state appellate court panel this week reinstated a five-count malfeasance in office indictment against a top official in the St. James Parish government administration. 

But the three judges of the 5th Louisiana Circuit Court of Appeal ruled unanimously that an assistant district attorney acted improperly when he gave legal advice to parish government officials in a matter related to the criminal case against Blaise Gravois, the parish director of operations. 

Written by Judge Robert M. Murphy, the opinion issued Wednesday sent the case back to state Judge Jessie LeBlanc for consideration of less severe sanctions for former Parish Attorney Bruce Mohon and also breathed life back into the criminal prosecution of Gravois.

Mohon is an assistant district attorney in District Attorney Ricky Babin's office and was also assigned to serve as legal counsel for the parish government, a common practice for ADAs in the 23rd Judicial District. Babin's office is prosecuting Gravois.

Dane Ciolino, an attorney hired to represent Babin's office over the misconduct claim, said Thursday that Mohon did not participate in any of the criminal proceedings against Gravois. 

The ruling follows a Nov. 8 hearing in Gretna before the 5th Circuit Judges Fredericka Homberg Wicker, Stephen J. Windhorst and Murphy. During the hearing, Murphy and Wicker engaged in tough questioning of prosecutors over Mohon’s actions and the nature of Gravois’ indictment.

Gravois has been accused of directing the use of public resources to do work on private property without any benefit for the public at Parish President Timmy Roussel's behest. Roussel also faces related charges.

The work in 2015 included razing a backyard shed and a playhouse, driving pilings for a bulkhead on private land near a ditch and installing a gas line for the Millennium Galvanizing plant north of Convent without receiving payment.

Attorneys for Gravois and Roussel have claimed the charges amounted to a more expansive view of state malfeasance laws and newly criminalized common public works for which neither man received a personal benefit. They have said this kind of work has been conducted in St. James and other parishes for decades.

The appellate ruling potentially carries some significance beyond Gravois' case because Roussel is facing largely the same charges, though he has one more count on his indictment. Roussel's attorneys have said they were planning to raise a similar challenge to his indictment.

Matt Chester, one of Gravois' defense attorneys, said in a statement that his client is gratified the appellate panel affirmed "every factual finding and nearly every legal holding by the trial court in this case."

Chester added that the ruling "made clear that egregious prosecutorial misconduct occurred" in the case and that Gravois "could never have known that assisting parish residents with property issues that benefit the public at the request of those residents was wrong — let alone illegal."

He added the Gravois looks forward to continue clearing his name but urged the state to drop the case in light of the ruling.

Ciolino, the attorney for prosecutors in St. James, said the office agrees with the decision to reinstate the indictment but "strongly disagrees" with the misconduct finding and said it was based on incomplete information about Mohon's role. 

"We're still evaluating what the next step is going to be, the step for the DA's Office, that is whether we're going to ask for rehearing or writs from the Louisiana Supreme Court. We just don't know yet," he said. 

At issue for Mohon is that, in the months leading up to Gravois’ and Roussel’s indictment on Sept. 28, 2016, Mohon was both the parish attorney and a prosecutor in Babin's office.

Attorneys for Gravois have noted that Mohon advised the Parish Council chairman not to accept payment for a Sept. 1 invoice, dated before the indictment, for the Millennium gas line in an apparent attempt to verify the stated cost.

Mohon also spoke a few months after the indictment with a Millennium attorney about not paying the invoice until the cost could be verified. The Millennium attorney and corporate official testified before LeBlanc it was never their intent not to pay for the gas line nor was such a promise made by the parish, the appellate court found.

Ciolino said, however, that Mohon didn't talk with the council chairman until after the indictment and told the chairman then to hire special counsel to advise the Parish Council on issues related to Millennium and the indictment.

The appellate decision found that Mohon, in his dual position as parish adviser and prosecutor, was in a unique and untenable position even under the most generous view of the circumstances.

If Mohon was advising against accepting payment from Millennium for reasons unrelated to Gravois’ prosecution, Murphy wrote, the advice had the arguable effect of ensuring prosecution against Gravois under the Millennium count continued. On the other hand, Murphy added, if Mohon had advised his client, parish government, to accept payment from Millennium, that advice may have created evidence that would be exculpatory for Gravois in the criminal probe.

“The potential conflict of interest faced by Mr. Mohon is obvious,” Murphy wrote.

But the appellate decision goes on to say that Gravois’ defense attorneys failed to show how this misconduct resulted in a violation of Gravois’ constitutional due process rights to exculpatory evidence or affected his opportunity for a fair trial. The decision noted that Gravois’ attorneys already knew about Mohon’s actions and Millennium’s intent to pay for the line.

“The touchstone of due process analysis in a case of alleged prosecutorial misconduct is the fairness of the trial, not the culpability of the prosecutor,” Murphy wrote. “Consequently, the aim of due process is not punishment of society for the misdeeds of the prosecutor but avoidance of an unfair trial to the accused.”

So, Murphy wrote, a lesser sanction for Mohon would be more appropriate. Possibilities noted in the opinion, quoting other case opinions, included a contempt order, a chastising opinion from the judge, a request for disciplinary proceedings and possibly even criminal charges.

The appellate opinion did not indicate which option the appellate judges felt was most appropriate but left that to LeBlanc to decide.

Ciolino said that prosecutors believe once they can present the "whole chain of events and not simply the defendant's spin on what happened," those facts will support their view of situation — that Mohon did nothing wrong.

The appellate panel also found that the malfeasance charges against Gravois lacked a required notice of a crime — another ground LeBlanc used to throw out the indictment — but ordered instead that LeBlanc direct prosecutors to file papers to better detail the charges.

Attorneys for Roussel did not respond to a call for comment Thursday. 

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.