In the wake of an aborted investigation of Denham Springs Police leadership, the City Council reached out to the state Attorney General’s Office in an apparent effort to curtail the power of the city’s Civil Service Board but didn’t get the answer it wanted.
In an opinion released last week, the Attorney General’s Office generally supported the board’s actions and pointed out that it was actually the council that stepped out of line.
Much of the council’s questions centered on whether it was on the hook for the board’s legal fees. The council sought a loophole that would allow it to demand the board’s attorney reimburse the city for his work, while at the same time asking if it could take on the cost of their officers’ defense.
Now it appears that the city could have to pay for the three lawyers on both sides of the case.
Last August, a fired city police officer appealed his termination to the board. The board upheld the firing, but in the course of the proceedings, the officer alleged that the police chief and captain covered up drug use by the department’s head narcotics officer.
The board began an investigation of the claims but had to abandon the case when the lawyers for the chief and captain determined that the board had improperly recorded the officers’ testimony, in violation of state law.
The city was on the hook for more than $20,000 in attorney’s fees owed to the Civil Service Board’s counsel.
With the board’s legal fees mounting as the case wound down, the City Council met in an executive session in January and placed a $5,000 cap on the amount the board could pay their lawyer from that point on in that investigation.
Council members also fired off a letter to the Attorney General’s Office asking if the board even had the authority to conduct their investigation or hire a lawyer, whether the board should have received approval from the council before hiring an attorney and if the city could demand the lawyer reimburse the city for his legal fees.
In the opinion, Assistant Attorney General Ethel Solache Graham sided with the board on nearly every issue.
The board has both a right and an obligation to investigate complaints of police misconduct and may employ legal counsel to assist in the effort, she opined, citing Louisiana law. The board is not required to seek the council’s approval before hiring a lawyer, and the city must pay for “reasonable and necessary” legal representation, she continued. The council’s spending limit, therefore, was inappropriate.
The board is required to seek approval from the Attorney General’s Office before hiring a lawyer, but they may seek approval retroactively “where the failure to comply with this Section (of law) was inadvertent and was in good faith,” she wrote.
Board attorney Henry Olinde said Monday the board sought such approval once the council sent its letter. He has not heard back, but expects retroactive approval will be granted now that the opinion has been issued.
“It essentially says everything I thought it would say,” he said. “The opinion says that’s the way (the board’s business is) supposed to work.”
The city paid Olinde $22,320 for his work on the case, said City Attorney Stephanie Hulett, who described the rate as fair.
Meanwhile, the city also asked if it could pay the legal fees for the police chief and captain. Graham wrote that the city may shoulder those costs “at its discretion” if they are “necessary and reasonable” because the officers were never prosecuted.
Hulett said those final costs had not been determined, but the former city attorney said in February the two men’s combined legal fees amounted to $34,350. Hulett said she would encourage the City Council to pay those fees at a future meeting.
Aside from the nagging matter of receiving the attorney general’s retroactive blessing to conduct the investigation, Hulett and Olinde said the nearly yearlong case now appears to finally be over.
“I think this is the end of the road,” Olinde said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.