VACHERIE — District Attorney Ricky Babin appeared before the St. James Parish Council recently to ask for a midyear budget increase of $108,000 in the face of looming state budget cuts.
But, as part of that request, the top prosecutor for St. James, Ascension and Assumption parishes also was indirectly sending the council and parish president a not so subtle message: Don’t mess with my guy.
The 23rd Judicial District attorney visited the parish officials after a monthslong, behind-the-scenes spat between his office and Parish President Timmy Roussel over the future of Bruce Mohon as parish attorney.
Mohon, in addition to serving as a criminal prosecutor in St. James, is the assistant district attorney whom Babin has assigned as parish government’s in-house lawyer.
But since late last year, Roussel has been asking Babin to remove Mohon, St. James’ legal advisor since 1997.
Getting no traction after several months of waiting, Roussel reportedly told Mohon on April 25 that he planned a $36,000 cut to Mohon’s salary, expected to take effect Thursday.
Babin responded in an April 28 letter to the council charging the planned cut was political payback for last fall’s election.
“This is a vendetta, politically motivated, not based on any objective criteria concerning ADA Mohon’s legal or ethical competency or abilities,” Babin wrote.
He alleged Roussel admitted the cut was happening because he believed Mohon supported Pete Dufresne, Roussel’s chief rival in the fall election.
After narrowing leading Dufresne in a four-person primary Oct. 24, Roussel beat Dufresne by 4 percentage points in the runoff Nov. 21 for a second term as parish president.
Roussel denied his race with Dufresne has anything to do with why he cut Mohon’s salary or why had been asking Babin to replace Mohon “with any one of his other ADAs.”
Roussel said he can no longer trust Mohon, claiming the attorney has met with him only once in 41/2 years in office and has continued to send him email attachments his computer is unable to open, even while the parish was in high-profile litigation with the Petroplex tank farm and other matters.
“What matters is trust,” Roussel said. “If we got all these important issues out there, can I really trust him, because this is big money stakes sometimes for the parish, and I need to do what is best to protect the parish.”
Mohon and Dufresne have been friends since childhood, but they both disputed that Mohon supported Dufresne’s campaign.
“He and I talked about it beforehand,” Dufresne said of Mohon. “I knew that the best thing for him to do was to remain neutral, which is exactly what he did.”
Mohon said Babin directed him to stay out the election and he did.
Mohon also disputed Roussel’s claims about not being available. Mohon noted the federal judge overseeing the parish’s legal fight with the Petroplex tank farm, which the parish recently won, requested his presence last year in talks because she trusted him. Mohon said Roussel agreed with the judge’s assessment then.
“His (Roussel’s) feelings toward me did not change until after the election,” Mohon said.
Babin has declined to comment on the source of the Mohon dispute, only saying, “politics.”
Before the council last week, neither Babin nor Roussel — who says he never got Babin’s April 28 letter outlining the vendetta allegations — raised Babin’s written claims.
During a chilly, if professional, discussion, they instead talked around the issue as they discussed the significance of the cut to Mohon and debated how much the parish provides overall to the District Attorney’s Office.
With Mohon by his side, Babin opened by detailing his costs to maintain the District Attorney’s Office, reminded the council of its legal obligation to fund his office and warned members about his “serious concerns” that the planned cut to Mohon was done without required council approval.
Roussel pointed out the parish has boosted the district attorney’s funding from $175,000 in 2012 to $315,000 this year.
In addition to restoring Mohon’s funding, Babin asked for another $108,000 on top of the $159,000 his office already receives.
Roussel also said he had called the District Attorney’s Office three times to try to meet about the funding issues without success.
“But I am going to work with you,” Roussel added.
“Mr. Roussel,” Babin said, “out of respect for you and this council, I’m not going to respond to that.”
Parish observers say all eyes are now on Thursday to see whether the cut to Mohon appears in his check.
Meanwhile, council Chairman Alvin “Shark” St. Pierre has asked for funding figures to reconcile the discrepancy between what Roussel says the parish gives and what Babin says he gets.
St. Pierre said he doesn’t want to comment until those numbers come in.