It started at a West Bank bar. It should end in the Louisiana Legislature.
In 2014, New Orleans WVUE television reporter Lee Zurik acted on a tip to follow then-Second Justice Court of Jefferson Constable Tony Thomassie. Zurik filmed Thomassie camping out at the constable’s favorite watering hole (in too-good-to-be-true fashion named after a rough-and-tumble dive in the 1989 cult flick "Roadhouse"), even though paperwork relative to his job — an elected position — indicated he had performed duties at that date and time.
At that point it went all downhill for Thomassie, who during several years on the job drew around six figures annually. He lost re-election that fall after nearly three decades in the post and afterwards admitted ethics violations while in office with possibly more associated legal troubles ahead.
But his excesses represented the symptom of a larger problem that state leaders then chose to ignore. Louisiana’s small claims court system strangely permits part-time jobs to yield lucrative full-time income, on top of any additional salary a parish decides to pay. Essentially, these courts perform the same duties of district, city, and parish courts, but with cases where potential claims fall below $5,000.
How much business these courts do depends upon how much other local courts want to farm out in low-dollar civil cases and how busy a justice of the peace and constable want to be. This discretion leads to wildly varying income for court officials even among districts next to each other in urban areas. For example, in Jefferson Parish, in recent years after expenses, some justices of the peace made more than $100,000 a year, while others earned a sixth or less of that.
It takes two to tango in this dance of dollars at the public trough, and Thomassie’s partner in feeding him business executing his court’s orders was Justice of the Peace Patrick DeJean. The local judiciary and parish government thought so highly of the arrangement that in 2011, parish officials put taxpayer dollars toward refurbishing new quarters for the court; last year, parish government added $10,000 more for office equipment. Consequently, DeJean could direct a lot of money his and Thomassie’s way.
Too much, it seems, for DeJean’s own good. Last week, DeJean, who won reelection in 2014, faced indictment for fraud, fueled apparently by a gambling habit that led last year to his suspension by the Louisiana Supreme Court. Operation of his office figured prominently in the charges.
For these offices, the state makes minimal reporting demands, but even the paperwork required of DeJean revealed inconsistencies. In an investigation last year undertaken by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, the red flags multiplied when comparing the required disclosures to other documents DeJean provided to banks and the Supreme Court.
This freewheeling system begged for reform long before the checkered aspects of Thomassie’s and DeJean’s careers came to light. That these positions could generate so much discretionary income with so little oversight was just one reason; in another instance of ill-advised aggrandizement, Caddo Parish Constable Eric Hatfield basically built the parish’s third-largest law enforcement agency, accountable only to him, using the legal powers of the office until a change in state law prohibited it.
At the very least, the Legislature should look at boosting constable and JP reporting requirements considerably to shine more light on these offices’ activities. Better, lawmakers should review the entire small claims judiciary system, looking to limit its ability to generate income for its officeholders — thus reducing the temptation for malfeasance. Reforms should also wring out wasteful duplication.
The governor and Legislature shouldn't need another reporter's exposé to nudge them into action.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.