GRETNA — State and parish prosecutors pursuing malfeasance charges against a top official in St. James Parish government faced tough, skeptical questioning Wednesday from a three-judge state appellate panel being asked to decide whether to preserve the parish leader’s tossed criminal indictment.
The pending ruling from 5th Louisiana Circuit Court of Appeal could ultimately affect prosecutors' cases not only against parish Director of Operations Blaise Gravois but a similar case against his boss, Parish President Timmy Roussel.
Two of the three appellate judges, Fredericka Wicker and Robert Murphy, aired their discomfort Wednesday on the prosecutorial misconduct in the case against Gravois and peppered prosecutors over whether the charges that Gravois misdirected public resources for private individuals should really amount to criminal acts.
“This is the kind of thing people get fired for, not the kind of thing people go to prison for,” Wicker said near the end of the hour-and-a-half hearing.
The other judge on the appellate panel, Stephen Windhorst, asked no questions during the hearing.
Both the tossed charges against Gravois and the still-pending charges against Roussel arise primarily from the same facts. Roussel is being tried before a different judge and is being prosecuted by the state Attorney General’s Office, but he is seeking to consolidate his case with Gravois'. A hearing on that request and other matters is set for Thursday morning in Convent.
Despite the probing questions from the appellate court judges, the state Attorney General’s Office and St. James prosecutors also raised claims Wednesday of procedural errors by Gravois’ defense team and by the local district court judge that could give the appeals judges a way to send the case back to the trial court without weighing in on the bigger issues.
A St. James Parish grand jury indicted Gravois and Roussel in September 2016 over allegations they illegally directed public resources for work on private property, including having parish workers remove an old shed, secure a private ditch bank with new wooden piles and install a gas line for a new Convent manufacturing company with no firm contract for repayment for the line.
Defense attorneys argued at the trial court level earlier this year that prosecutors were criminalizing what had been standard, legal practice in St. James and other parishes for years.
In a scathing April ruling, 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 now illegal. Prosecutors with District Attorney Ricky Babin’s office appealed the ruling.
Defense attorneys for Gravois have claimed Assistant District Attorney Bruce Mohon, who had been both the St. James Parish Council’s legal adviser and a criminal prosecutor at the time, acted inappropriately when he advised parish officials in the fall of 2016 not to accept payment for the gas line that the parish built for Millennium Galvanizing in 2015.
The failure to get that payment was one of the counts against Gravois and Roussel. The defense attorneys have claimed Mohon’s advice amounted to preventing Gravois from receiving exculpatory evidence.
But Judge Wicker, who maintained there should have been a “wall” separating Mohon from the criminal investigation of the parish, suggested to Assistant District Attorney Donald Candell that Mohon’s advice was even worse than hiding evidence, asking instead why it wasn’t “creating evidence from whole cloth.”
The prosecutors also faced repeated questions from Murphy and Wicker about when Gravois received notice that his actions were illegal. Wicker noted that the gas line job had started and was halfway done when Gravois became the director of operations.
But Candell and Assistant Attorney General Colin Clark maintained that Gravois, as a public official, should have known the law — which prohibits work on private property with no public benefit — and that the work at issue crossed the line.
“There are certain things you just don’t do,” Candell said.
Candell also noted that Mohon was not part of the criminal investigation.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, defense attorney Matthew Chester hammered on the question of notice, arguing that prosecutors used a novel interpretation of Louisiana’s misappropriation statute because Gravois received no personal benefit for the work he oversaw.
“In the history of Louisiana jurisprudence, there has never been a prosecution like this,” Chester said. Candell later disputed that claim.
In papers to the appellate court, prosecutors also argued that LeBlanc, in throwing out the indictment before trial, overstepped by delving into the facts of the case. She made factual determinations, prosecutors said, that were better left as a defense for Gravois at trial than to determine whether the indictment was procedurally valid.
But Murphy asked Candell if those kinds of factual determinations weren’t necessary to weigh the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, which affected the indictment.
Candell responded that such factual inquires were a slippery slope on which LeBlanc had gone too far.