DENHAM SPRINGS — The recent investigation of the Denham Springs police chief and a captain had to be dismissed due to an unknown technical error with recording equipment, the city’s Civil Service Board reaffirmed Tuesday when it issued its official written decision on the matter.
The three-page document does not discuss the cause of the problems with their recordings but says they violate the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights and would nullify any disciplinary action the board might have meted out.
The investigation concerned allegations that Police Chief Scott Jones and Captain Steve Kistler covered up drug use by the then-head of the department’s narcotics unit. The head of the unit resigned in November while the case was pending. The investigation was abandoned in January because interviews of the chief and captain were not properly recorded, in violation of state law.
The adoption of the written order explaining the reason for the dismissal of the case came during a board meeting on Mardi Gras, when the rest of the city’s offices were closed. A representative of The Advocate was the sole member of the public in attendance.
The typically five-member board voted to accept the order 4-0. Former board member Eric Meyers resigned Feb. 9. Chairman Clay Gillespie said he had planned to step down at the end of 2014 but stayed on later to participate in the investigation.
The board also voted 4-0 to adopt a resolution to pay all legal fees associated with the case.
The City Council is drafting a letter to send to the state Attorney General asking his office to review their handling of the case. Specifically, the council has questioned whether the board followed the law by hiring an attorney without the prior approval of either the city — which paid his bills — or the Attorney General’s Office.
Tuesday, the Civil Service Board stood by its decision to hire Henry Olinde to represent the board during the investigation.
“The Board found a real need existed to engage special legal counsel to provide advice on, and handle, complex matters and possible judicial enforcement issues that were confronting it,” a resolution passed by the board states.
The resolution says Olinde was hired because he has experience in civil service matters and his $175 hourly fee was reasonable.
Board member Lamar Davis said the city should plan for board expenses rather than complain there is no money in the budget to pay legal fees during the board’s performance of its duties.
Olinde was hired initially to represent the board during a police officer’s appeal of his termination, which ultimately led to the investigation of the department’s top two people.
In August, the city fired police officer Jared Kreamer, who appealed his termination the next day in a 13-page letter. He included an additional 15 pages of evidence including texts and letters as well as recordings Kreamer took of a witness and of a conversation with Kistler. His appeal was copied to his attorney.
Because Kreamer brought so many exhibits, as well as a lawyer of his own, the board decided to hire legal counsel, Olinde said in a phone interview on Monday.
Ultimately, both sides agreed to narrow their focus for the termination appeal and disregard some of Kreamer’s complaints about the department. In October, the board voted 4-1 to uphold the termination, with Gillespie dissenting.
Following the decision, Kreamer’s attorney asked the board to review the rest of the matters raised in his complaint, beginning the investigation of Jones and Kistler.
Olinde said the appeal bled into the investigation, and he stayed on for both.
“It all came out of the same document. … It was all one representation,” he said.
Olinde noted that the city council did not object to his hiring when the board ruled in favor of the police department.
“I find it unusual that it’s raising its head now. … Nobody complained after the board affirmed the police chief’s firing of Kreamer,” he said.
“I’m not sure of the motivations (for requesting an Attorney General opinion now), but that’s just the facts.”
Councilman Chris Davis, who requested the city seek the opinion, has pointed to state law that requires government bodies to go to the Attorney General’s Office for approval before hiring outside counsel.
Olinde countered by saying the law is to ensure parish governments can show they have good reason to seek a private attorney rather than using the district attorney, who would typically represent them.
The law Davis indicated does not make specific mention of civil service boards though it does extend to state commissions, school boards and “other local board(s).”
“It was my understanding that the Attorney General didn’t have to approve the hiring of an attorney by a municipal civil service board,” Olinde said.
The resolution passed Tuesday quotes from a state law that reads, in part that “… the board may call upon the attorney general, or the chief legal officer of the municipality, parish or fire protection district under which the fire and police service functions or may employ independent counsel …”
Olinde, who has represented other civil service boards, said he’s never had to request permission.
The city has its own attorney, but she would have been exposed to a conflict of interest by representing the civil service board, as she represented the city when Kreamer was fired and appeared as a witness for Kistler before his case was dismissed.